Tenerife + its Terroir – in conversation with Jonatan Garçia Lima of Suertes del Marqués

For many of us, Tenerife has more to do with holidays in the sun than fine wine, but there has in fact been a long history of winemaking on the mountain slopes of the northern part of the island, which is much cooler than the tourist hub in the south. The grapes are grown on some of the world’s most extraordinary vines trellised using the historic cordon trenzado method. The varietals are all native and produce beautifully pure terroir driven wines that are distinct to the island. We caught up with winemaker Jonatan Garcia Lima on what makes this island so special. Read more here.

 

  • What is the history of winemaking in Tenerife and what got you started in the project?

There’s a long history of making wines in Tenerife. The first vineyards were planted at the end of the 15th century and from the middle of 16th to beginning of 19th century it was the real motor behind the economy of the island.

My father started to buy vineyards in 1986. Prior to this there were no opportunities to buy land on the island unless you came from a rich family in the Valley. So after the 1970s, as the economy improved on the island, more families started to have money to buy land and this was the case with my father. His first idea was to have a place to escape to for the weekend after his work in the factory. A place to get away and make some wine just for him and his friends. He then continued buying more vineyards but lacking the capacity and knowledge to make such high quantity of wine he started to sell the grapes to other cellars. The last vintage that we sold grapes to other wineries was in 2005 and following that, we decided to start to make wines ourselves.

 

  • What is particular about the climate/ soils that produces such high quality wines?

We don’t have harsh weather on the island. We don’t have a cold winter but also we don’t have a strong summer either and that helps in my cellar to harvest with lower alcohol, due to the grapes being ripe enough without reaching high alcohol levels. The growth cycle is long, the vines bud early but ripen slowly, like a slow cook allowing a high complexity of aromas and flavours to develop. Soils are volcanic and very rich.

 

  • How do you cope with the relative heat?

Our area is not warm. We are in the north of the island. The alyssius winds blow from the north and due to the high elevation of the island, the clouds crash to the mountains and the rainfall is not low. The area is fresh. Also in the possible warmer months (summer) the clouds normally cover the valley and protect from the heat. In the south side of the island, this is the opposite. Less rain, warmer, more or less with 5-7 degress of temperature higher than here. I also keep a cover crop growing alongside the vineyards and that helps to retain the rain and freshness in the environment.

 

  • One of the most unique elements to your vineyards is the cordon trenzado trellising – what is the history of this method? What are the benefits of this system? How does it affect the flavours of the grapes?

It’s a unique training system that is very difficult to see outside this appellation. The other Tenerife’s appellation works with other training systems. There’s nothing written about the exact origin of it, but it has been with us for at least the last four centuries. We believe it was used at the beginning for the Candia Malvasia varietal that needs a longer pruning. This was then continued with other grapes as it is a system that can give you a high yield and that could be the reason why the growers extended its use for other grapes. It also allows the combination of other products to be grown alongside, such as potatoes. But we don’t know who introduced it to the island, did it started here? Was it in Portugal and disappeared after phylloxera? It’s a mystery! The system doesn’t affect the quality of the grapes, if you compare with other systems, it is difficult to work, all by hand…but it is the heritage that we received and we must continue with it in order not to lose something that is important to the history of viticulture.

 

  • Your vineyards vary a lot in altitude, how does this affect the grapes (different varietals, different expressions of the same varietal?)

We have a difference of elevation of 400 meters. That means that I spend two months doing the harvest due the time differences between the low altitude fruit ripening before the higher altitude. The soils also change depending on the elevation and this mean the grapes behave differently. When we are in lower vineyards the composition of the soil has more clay that gives more fruit to those wines and when we go higher you start to see more sand in that composition that gives more minerality and complexity to these wines. I try to not replant long ripening cycle grapes at the higher altitude as I could have problems with ripeness and if I extend too much the moment of harvest I could lose the production due to the start of the rainy season.

 

  • You only use native varietals. Can you explain the flavour profile of the main varietals?

The Listán Negro is a grape that gives a lot of peppery notes (black pepper, white pepper…) Also it keeps more character of the volcanic soils that other grapes such as the Baboso Negro or Vijariego Negro that are more impacted by floral notes.

The Listán Blanco is a grape that is very plain on the nose but allows to show better the terroir too. It has a very good acidity and for me is the great white grape of the north of Tenerife. In my opinion there’s more than ten different clones of Listán Blanco on the islands. Different mutations that also you can see in the same valley, for example in the shape of the leaves.

 

  • Are the grapes genetically related to any international varietals?

Some of them yes and some not. Listán negro is an indigenous grape created by a cross of Tinta Negramoll and Listán Blanco. You only find it on these islands. Listán Blanco is related with Palomino Fino but over centuries and grown on other soils made the grape become very different even if the DNA is considered the same.

Castellana Negra (before called wrongly by all of us Tintilla) is Tinta Cao (used in Port production). Vijariego Negro is Sumoll. Baboso Negro is Alfocheiro Preto. Other unknown origins are Marmajuelo, Forastera Gomera and then other crosses as Malvasia Volcanica (Aromatic Malvasia with Marmajuelo) or Albillo Criollo (Listán Blanco and Verdello)

 

  • The wines are ungrafted, how are they able to survive? Is this typical of Tenerife?

We never have phylloxera so all our vineyards are ungrafted. These vines are very old. We have some of them from 200 to 250 years old. All the islands are ungrafted.

 

  • What do you think of the latest vintage? What is distinct about it?

2018 could be the great vintage. The ripeness/acidity was great, I have never seen these levels. But now the wines are still ageing and needs more time but for the moment it is looking like a great vintage for us.

 

  • Do you get much vintage variation?

Not really. Except 2017 that was a very early vintage, with a shorter growing cycle. In the other vintages there’s not a big contrast and when it is a little bit warmer I adapt harvesting earlier.

In our cellar you can see biggest changes in style after 2015 due to changes in the winemaking and the decision to harvest sooner.

 

  • You use a lot of traditional techniques but I remember you also employ the modern technology in the vineyard too. Can you outline things you have incorporated that have made a real difference?

Really I work very traditionally. Machines are not able to work the vineyards due to the lack of space between rows. In the vineyards we stopped using herbicides in 2010. Now many growers around us have followed suit and working in the same way. We invest a lot of money cutting the cover crop but the vines are healthier. Then for treatments we avoid the use of chemical ones, only using products accepted for organic viticulture.

 

  • What are your future plans / improvements you are working on in the vineyard and winery?

Now I just finished the extension of the cellar so I can develop more my plans the vineyards, buying up old vines, but also planting in new regions where previously there have been no vines. I have also started a new project together with some other growers in the Taganana area which we will launch the first vintage (2018) in the next few months. This is a project with a grower partner in that area where I do the winemaking and is under other brand called Sortevera.

Watch out for the new releases of Suetes del Marques in the next few weeks.