Roaming By way of Lanzarote’s Otherworldly Vineyards

Roaming Through Lanzarote’s Otherworldly Vineyards

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic with worldwide travel restrictions, we started a series – The world through a lens – in which photojournalists virtually transport you to some of the most beautiful and fascinating places on our planet. This week Mónica R. Goya shares a collection of images from the Spanish island of Lanzarote.

Lanzarote is about 80 miles off the southwest coast of Morocco and, with its breathtaking coastline, desert-like climate and abundance of volcanoes, is the easternmost of the Canary Islands in Spain. Great volcanic activity between 1730 and 1736 and again in 1824 indelibly changed the island's landscape, paving the way for an unlikely sight: a vast expanse of otherworldly vineyards.

In recent years, Spain has reserved more land for grapevines than any other country in the world. And while the Canary Islands have a long wine tradition in the broader sense – the wines of the archipelago, for example, were mentioned in several plays by Shakespeare – nothing could prepare me for the uniqueness of Lanzarote's vines.

The island's most notable wine region is La Geria, a 13,000 hectare protected landscape at the foot of the Timanfaya National Park, one of Lanzarote's main tourist attractions. Here in Timanfaya, volcanic eruptions around a quarter of the island (including La Geria) have been buried under a thick layer of lava and ash, creating a breathtakingly barren scene – and ultimately a new way of growing viticulture.

Many of the vines in Lanzarote are planted in inverted conical holes known as hoyos, which are hand dug to various depths, each made in search of fertile soil under ash and lapilli. In a counterintuitive phrase, ash plays an essential role in the success of the vineyard: it protects the soil from erosion, helps retain moisture, and regulates soil temperature.

Low semicircular rock walls protect the vines from the merciless winds. Together with the Hoyos, they contribute to an inventive cultivation method that can easily be mistaken for a network of sculptural art.

La Geria is a great example of how people work hand in hand with nature. In a way, the immense – albeit desolate – beauty of this area is evidence of man's resilience in the face of adversity: for hundreds of years, residents here have managed to make life out of volcanic ash on an island often plagued by drought.

However, changing weather conditions (including less-than-usual rainfall) and harsh economic realities are persistent threats. The traditional Hoyos system can produce around 1,200 pounds of grapes per acre. Other less traditional (and less time consuming) farming systems on the island can yield up to £ 6,000 an acre – using higher density farming techniques and some forms of mechanization.

The winemaker Ascensión Robayna is an economist and environmentalist by profession. He has a strong connection to Lanzarote and a serious commitment to nature conservation. For years she has been cultivating low-maintenance and low-yield organic vineyards and relentlessly claims that this unique landscape and the traditions embedded in it must be kept alive.

"Growing grapevines in Hoyos means that farmers have adapted to the particular circumstances of the soil and climate, creating the most unique agro-ecosystem," she said.

There is an obvious twinkle in Ms. Robayna's eyes as she descends into the lava cracks called chabocos, where trees and vines – especially nutmeg grapes, which are among the oldest varieties – are grown. (Puro Rofe, a winery founded on the island in 2018, recently released a wine made entirely from their chaboco grapes.)

In the late 19th century, a plague aphid, phylloxera, decimated vines across mainland Europe. (The wine industry there was saved by grafting European vines onto American rhizomes, which were immune to phylloxera.) In contrast, phylloxera never reached the Canary Islands. As a result, vines can be planted on their own roots here – a relative rarity in the wine world.

Hundred year old vines and unique grape varieties are widespread on the islands. Malvasia Volcánica is probably the most famous grape variety on the island. others are Listán Negro, Diego and Listán Blanco.

Once while visiting a number of vineyards near Uga, a small village in southern Lanzarote, I followed the winemaker Vicente Torres as he walked barefoot – the traditional way of working here – up the hillside to inspect his vines. While the lapilli tickled my feet and sank slightly with every step, I found the climb more difficult than expected. I've learned that growing anything on this soil is hard work.

According to regulatory data, this year's harvest is expected to be less than half of last year's harvest, with a forecast of around 2.6 million pounds of grapes.

"The oldest men here say they don't remember a year as bad as this for vineyards," said Pablo Matallana, an oenologist who grew up in neighboring Tenerife but has family roots in Lanzarote. “We have experienced two years of extreme drought. Some plots have weakened considerably and the vines have lost vitality, ”he said.

Rayco Fernández, founding member of the Puro Rofe winery and dealer, who was praised as one of the first to present high quality Canarian wines, agreed. "The drought is ruining the vineyards," he said, adding that the ash, where there is a thick enough layer, was a lifeline.

But Lanzarote faces other threats as well. Tourism accounts for a significant part of the island's gross domestic product. And despite a relatively small number of confirmed coronavirus infections, this economic sector has largely evaporated.

According to a Covid-19 economic impact study conducted at La Laguna University, Lanzarote's G.D.P. is expected to drop 21 percent.

With the decline in the number of winemakers and devastating climate change, the future of winemaking in Lanzarote appears more challenging than ever.

However, there is no doubt that the island has some sort of mythical influence on its visitors. It has been almost a year since my last trip to Lanzarote, but I keep thinking about certain images: of grapevines emerging from the majestic Hoyos at the foot of Timanfaya – a splendor that can be appreciated there, at least for the time being.


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