Lanzarote Island Wines – Handcrafted with the Help of Volcanic Eruptions

The biosphere of Lanzarote is like none other. Fed by trade winds that blow in from Western Sahara on the African mainland, this volcanic paradise in the Canary archipelago is home to one of the most remote and pristine grape-growing regions on the earth. 

A territorial possession of Spain, many of the grapes grown on this island have never been grafted. Yes, Lanzarote is one of those rare places where you can still find wines made from grapes that were neither plagued nor modified to resist phyllexora the notorious grapevine infestation from North America dating back to the 1800s. 

Grapes that were decimated and never fully re-planted in Europe still grow on the Canaries. Rare grapes that include the whites: Gual and Marmajuelo and the reds: Vijariego Negro and Listán Negro


Handcrafted on Lanzarote also means stomping feet!

Making wine from Listán Negro grapes in Lanzarote the old fashion way

This Canary Island has had more than its share of catastrophic eruptions.

The eruption of Timanfaya Lanzarote created this lunar-type landscape

Thanks to its volcanic history, where one might expect to see lush tropical plants you will find a treeless moonscape, filled with array of eye-popping earth-tones, endless varieties of cactus and lichen, strange rock outcroppings and gently sloping mountain peaks.

A small sample of the Indigenous and imported cactus found on Lanzarote

In the early 18th century, Lanzarote was a tropical oasis with a thriving agriculture. But that would be turned on its head. Disaster struck the island beginning in the 1730s when the Timanfaya volcano exploded in a series of six violent eruptions. 

The eruptions covered the landscape in molten lava and heaps of volcanic ash – in what the locals call ‘picón’. It wiped out farms, villages and by anyone’s measure was an epic disaster for farming and human habitation. Or, so they thought. 

Learning to Grow Grapes in Volcanic Ash


It took years to understand how volcanic ash would play a critical role in the second coming of Lanzarote vineyards. Overtime, local farmers witnessed how plants covered in the husky grey sand grew better than those that were not. 


Uncovering how volcanic ash and pebbles absorbed water like sponges, trapping humidity inside the nutrient-rich soil beneath –– for almost the entire year! With the help of volcanic eruptions, Lanzarote farmers were able to rely on rain-fed crops despite the island’s arid weather conditions. 


The trade winds that Columbus sailed from the Canary Islands to the New World continue to bring both blessings and curses. 

The Spanish conquest of the Canaries began in 1402 with Jean de Béthencourt on the island of Lanzarote. Armed with only stones and spears, the native people known as the Guanches – descendants of the Berbers of North Africa –fought gallantly against the Castilians but were ultimately defeated in the year 1496. 


The Guanches that survived converted to Christianity and intermarried with the Spanish. Today, some families on the Canaries still claim to carry the defiant Guanches blood.

The Gaunches are known to history as the first native tribe wiped out by European expansion.

Over the centuries, the Canary Islands have been the go-to route to the New World. European invaders would eventually lay claim to the Canaries, proclaiming it Spain’s westernmost territory in the 15th century –– what is now a footnote to European expansion during the Age of Sail. 

The Canary Islands boast some of the best kite and wind surfing in the word.

A dream destination for kite and windsurfers, these stiff west African breezes are a menace to growing vines. 

Stiff breezes from the Western Sahara wreak havoc on young vines if not protected, pushing them over or uprooting them completely.

Despite having only 150MM of rain a year – comparable to the nearby Sahara Desert just 60 miles away – Lanzarote has nearly 2,000 hectares of active vineyards and produces an average 2 million liters of wine per year. 

As far as the eye can see, fields full of holes have been dug in the areas covered by volcanic ash. The height of the makeshift walls and the depth of the holes are important. One hole per plant, dug in up to three feet deep to reach the fertile soil. 

The holes surrounded by semi-circular volcanic stone walls known locally as ‘chabocos’ or ‘socos’ to protect the vines from the trade winds that blew in from the northeast.



‘Chabocos’ or 'socos' to protect the vines from the trade winds

As we made our way down the one solitary road through La Geria, a giant rusty metal dragon appeared in the distance. This must be the place!  

The Lanzarote artist Cesar Manrique, a close friend of the family collaborated with the El Grifo winery to create his 1990 interpretation of a “Griffin Bird” in charge of guarding the vineyards.

Established in 1775, the oldest wine cellar on Lanzarote called El Grifo is set in the centre of the island in the main wine growing region. El Grifo is one of the ten oldest in Spain. It is a family run vineyard tended by hand across 61,5 Hectares. The vineyard produce between 400,000 to 600,000 bottles per year and offers a amazing selection of un-grafted wines: 

Dry white Malvasía white, Medium sweet white, Sweet white, Moscatel reserve, Rosé, Red and Dry sparkling Cava and more are handcrafted at El Grifo. 




We arrived too late for a vineyard tour and too early for the next tasting. We told them about our dream of visiting the vineyard and our long journey from New York City –– and out came five bottles of wine and an El Grifo sommelier.




“Most of the wine grapes here have never been grafted,” she said  “Phylloxera vastatrix, known to modern science as Daktulosphaira vitifoliae, was brought to Europe on the roots of native American grapevines. But it never made it here…” 

The ears began to drift. My attention stolen away by my first sip ever of un-grafted wine.

She noticed. “So how do you two feel about toe cheese?!” She asked, reeling me back in to her instruction. “The grapes for this vintage are stomped the traditional way, with bare feet.” 

, no problema.” I said, holding my glass to the light. None as far as I could see. “Harvesting grapes must be dirty business. Nothing a little alcohol and acidity won’t fix. We’ll likely take two.” 


“Okay, very good,” she continued. “The grapes thrive in the ashy soil and the island’s relatively high slopes offer ideal elevation for the vines. The cool breezes from the Atlantic and the warm temperatures from the African mainland give the vineyards the kind of warm-to-cool variation that grapes thrive on.


The days are warm and almost always sunny; nights are very cool. The difference in temperature, known in the viticulture world as the diurnal temperature variation. This is how grapes gain the right amount of acidity from cool nights and sweetness from warm sunny days.




No sooner than the first sommelier made an abrupt, awkward exit, sommelier #2 appeared right on cue. A not-so-subtle reminder that we were there between time. But still willing to entertain this tardy duo.


“Canary island wines were so popular back in the day that the Founding Father’s of America drank it in celebration at the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.”  


“Well yes, we do think so!

At El Grifo Winery, the focus is on the care of the vine­yard and the harvest.  We still carry out most of the work here by hand, especially because of the difficulty in using machinery on this rugged terrain.”


 “What about feet? I hear you’re still using bare feet?”  


“Yes,” he said, “sometimes even clean ones. Enjoy!”




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