June 1st, 2017

Envínate Part II: Canarias Libre...

2016 Envinate Canary Islands 2-Pack - Viticole

Where do I even begin… The highest elevation vineyards in Europe reside on a small island. On the perimeter, beach towns at sea level. In the middle, A 12,200 foot volcano. It takes an hour to drive from one end to the other, but from village to village you’d think you’d gone to the moon and back. Jungles, deserts, tropical beaches and mountains…it’s like every ecosystem became an expat and moved here. By rule, Spanish. By influence, Portuguese. By geography, a stone’s throw from Africa.

This is a place where passengers break into applause when your plane hits the runway…a place where shopkeepers walk you to a competitor’s store if you can’t find what you’re looking for… And back in the vineyards, 300 year-old braided vines are tied together with dried banana peels…while others are propped up by a kickstand, on cliffsides accessible only by horseback. All this, and Peruvian potatoes. This is Tenerife.

Volcanoes and kickstands... #vidatenerife

2016 Envinate Canary Islands 2-Pack - Viticole
2016 Envinate Canary Islands 2-Pack - Viticole

April 3rd, 2017 – Mill Valley & José Pastor
When I reached out to importer José Pastor about Envínate, I had no idea he lived in the Bay Area. It would make a meeting of the minds all too easy. On a park bench in downtown Mill Valley, José ran me through the Envínate range, while Marin moms in Patagonia gear whizzed past us pushing strollers.

The first wine we tasted was a field blend from a place on the northeast part of Tenerife called Táganan. About field blends: Field blends are like a witch’s brew. You basically throw a bunch of different grape varieties in a bubbling caldron and watch them co-ferment together. I had to ask…

Me: "A field blend huh? Which grapes?"

José: "Listan Negro, Listan Prieto (aka the Mission grape), Baboso, Negramoll, etc…"

The list of grapes got progressively more obscure and finished with…

Jose: "Oh and there’s some other things in there as well."

Me: "Ok, this is insanely delicious but why field blends? Why not vinify the varieties separately to see what they are capable of on their own?"

José: "In Táganan, not possible…"

Roberto Santana finds steady ground on the cliffs of Táganan

2016 Envinate Canary Islands 2-Pack - Viticole

May 26th, 2017 - T-Rex and Táganan
The view ain’t bad. It’s easy to see why tourists flock to take photographs, prompting Envínate’s Roberto Santana to put up poison signs in the vineyards to keep the rubberneckers from eating the grapes.

Roberto is a Tenerife native who was warned to stay away from Táganan. The other vigneron advised him, “Don’t complicate.” Wrong guy to say that to…

Roberto: ”Welcome to Jurassic Park.”

Staring down a 70-degree pitch with no footholds…

Me: ”How on earth do you work these vineyards?”

Roberto: ”This one’s easy. It’s close to the road.”

Táganan is a world trapped in amber. Ancient vines sprawl every which way like wild shrubs - each a different species. I felt like I was going foraging, or better yet, digging up fossils. Photographer Jimmy Hayes couldn’t stop clicking. José was right – there would be no single-variety bottlings here.

In the middle of the madness was a shallow tub, carved out of red volcanic rock (tosca roja), where centuries ago, colonists would stomp the grapes and corral the flowing juice into animal skins. Villagers would carry the skins to a shanty 50 meters down the cliff for aging. Once in barrel, the wine would be carted straight down to the ocean, where ships would swoop them up on their trade routes. Old school gravity-fed…

Envínate’s flagship Táganan wine is Parcela Margalagua “mother of the water” – a cooler exposure in the area with vines at least 100 years old. I remember tasting 1 of 600 bottles produced with José, following its arc over 3 days. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine such a serene, seductive red wine, born in such a violently rugged place.

As good as Margalagua was, I knew I wanted to see the strength of a specific grape for Viticole. Heading west to the Orotava Valley, we would strike gold…

Laura Ramos and 4-month old Íria, strolling through Orotava...

2016 Envinate Canary Islands 2-Pack - Viticole

Zooming out
Tenerife is 1 of 7 islands off the coast of Morocco, and the largest producer of the chain with roughly 7200 hectares under vine (1 hectare = 2.5 acres). Only a few places in the world possess ancient, own-rooted vines that never fell prey to the devastating root louse – a little insect we like to call phylloxera. Phylloxera destroyed over 90% of the world’s grape vines, so it’s nice to know that a global pandemic can be cured by isolation. Props, Atlantic Ocean.

There are enough grape varieties in the Canaries to keep the Darwins of the world occupied. Among them, the 3 Listans: Listan Negro, Listan Blanco (Palomino to Sherry fans), and Listan Prieto (The Mission grape). For red wine lovers, the indigenous Listan Negro is the golden child – proliferating in Canaria at large, but only exceeding expectations in very special plots.

Zooming in
Tenerife is split into five D.O.’s (denominated regions). The Orotava Valley is one of them - a lush garden, comprising about 9% of the island’s vine acreage. From the surf, Orotava starts in the middle of the North shore and winds its way up in elevation into the mountains. At every 100 meters, the temperatures cool and the top soil gets a little more shallow, exposing black volcanic earth.

Between 500 – 650 meters we’re still only a mile and half (as the crow flies) from the ocean, in a wild slice of heaven called ‘La Habanera’…

Oh yeah. They do a little seafood down here too.

2016 Envinate Canary Islands 2-Pack - Viticole
2016 Envinate Canary Islands 2-Pack - Viticole

Memento Sequence
I saw ‘La Habanera’ before I tasted it, but let’s back up. Bodega Envínate is holed up in Santiago de Teide, a place more akin to a Spaghetti Western than a tropical paradise (the main greenery is cacti and aloe plants). In the cellar, we ran the gauntlet of ’16’s out of barrel. Across all the reds, a note of pepper was apparent. That same smell seemed to linger in the air everywhere I went, although Roberto gives credit to the volcanic soil. Regardless of origin, spicy notes reared their head across grape variety. But when we came to a barrel of Listan Negro marked ‘La Habanera’, time stopped.

I’ve been jolted by wine plenty of times. There’s good jolt and there’s bad jolt. Bad jolt happens more often than I’d like (synonymous with bitter beer face). Good jolt is rare. At 12.6% alcohol, ‘La Habanera’ jolted me. It jolted all of us. It is hard to put into words because I can’t compare Listan Negro to anything other than a very distinctive island wine with electric energy. Enough electricity to…well…jolt you.

June's Viticole Wine Club offer biding its time...

2016 Envinate Canary Islands 2-Pack - Viticole

Call it light socket wine. Not that sticking your finger in a light socket is fun, but in this case, the current rolls from your finger to your toes with all kinds of liquid joy. ‘La Habanera’ is in the upper reaches of Orotava for Listan Negro. Any lower and the electricity starts to short. Any higher and it’s too cold for anything but white grapes. Envínate has found the sweet spot with 95 year-old vines, braided together in the traditional ‘cordon trenzado’ (braided cord) method. Some of these braids extend for 10 meters contiguous. You have to see it to believe it, but picture corn rows with grape bunches growing off of them. Eat your heart out, 2001 Justin Timberlake…

Braided vines in 'La Habanera' and the man responsible for bringing Envínate to America - importer José Pastor AKA 'El Padrino'

2016 Envinate Canary Islands 2-Pack - Viticole
2016 Envinate Canary Islands 2-Pack - Viticole

May 26th 2017 – The Farewell Dinner
I am prone to superlatives, and it certainly would be presumptuous to call a wine the Messiah when it hasn’t even become flesh (my faith is strong). 2016 Envínate ‘La Habanera’ Listan Negro is the first of many vintages to come - a very special barrel selection, bottled exclusively for Viticole and shipped in the fall. In their 4th year in operation, Envínate is going from strength to strength, redefining what can be possible for them and the plots they work.

Our last dinner together was fittingly at Roberto’s father’s restaurant, the fantastic Méson Castellano. Our night ended customarily at 5am. But not before each person went around the table to say a few words. Isn’t it amazing how in the right company, a group of individuals can bond almost overnight? Alfonso said it best, “What is good wine without good company?”

A Reservoir Dogs ending in Valle Orotava

2016 Envinate Canary Islands 2-Pack - Viticole

Canarias Libre...
And so I'm left to summarize a place that defies articulation. Tenerife is a lovable hot mess - full of magic...enchantment...head-scratching wonderment...and yes, really fricking good potatoes...especially dipped in Mojo sauce.

Yet for all its rugged, breathtaking terrain, perhaps the most staggering aspect of Tenerife is its humanity. Island culture tends to exist in extremes. People can be as isolated as the place, or they can drip with the Aloha spirit.

Here, there is a palpable sense of community, far from the dollar-driven society I swim in. From viticulturist Jose Angel Alonso, who farms Táganan organically alongside Envínate, to the host of families who have owned many of these vineyards for generations, and know them like the back of their hand...all pitch in...all help...without a thought.

This is my first trip to Spain but certainly not the last. I will spend many days in Galicia and Tenerife each year, continuing to be touched by these people and this place…that is if I can survive the long Spanish nights.

Cheat Sheet

Tasting Notes: dark red fruits take a back seat to wild herbs and cracked black pepper. Ultra-concentrated mid palate - huge finish (jolt!)

Seasonal Pairing: Thai meat dishes and Indian food; vinegar heavy dishes (Hello Puerto Rico)

When to Drink: best from 2018 - 2036+

Geeky Things: 'La Habanera' is a custom collaboration with Viticole and Envínate. Our special cuvee is a blend of 70% neutral puncheon and 30% 228L old Taransaud barrel. The puncheon safeguards freshness and purity and the Taransaud barrel adds a touch of complexity. Ultimately with any barrel selection, the barrels just have to like each other. This combination was the unanimous favorite.

Area Eats: El Rincon de Juan Carlos (Los Gigantes), Méson Castellano (Santa Cruz)

Vintage Report: 2016 is a lower yielding vintage with great aging potential. It's a cooler vintage more reminiscent of '14 than '15.

Bigger Than Wine: One of our own, a winemaker and dear friend lost his young child this month very unexpectedly. The family asked that if anyone would care to send memorial donations that they would consider the Cottage Hospital's Pediatrics ICU Program or Capital/Research Fund of the Cottage Children's Medical Center. You can check them out online.

The Viticole Podcast: Envínate Part II: Canary Islands Check it out.

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