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 our wines The most beautiful and fascinating places on the 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 – with its breathtaking coastline, desert-like climate and abundance of volcanoes – is the easternmost of the Spanish Canary Islands. Great volcanic activity between 1730 and 1736 and again in 1824 indelibly changed the island's landscape and paved the way for an unlikely sight: a vast expanse of otherworldly vineyards.
In recent years, Spain has devoted more land to vines 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 most notable wine region on the island is La Geria, a 5,255 hectare protected landscape that lies 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 leading to a new way of growing grapes.
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 cliffs protect the vines from 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 an excellent 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 from volcanic ash on an island that is often drought-stricken.
But changing weather patterns (including rarer than usual rainfall) and harsh economic realities are persistent threats. The traditional Hoyos system can produce around 3,000 pounds of grapes per hectare. Other less traditional (and less time consuming) farming systems on the island can yield up to £ 15,000 per acre – using higher density farming techniques and some forms of mechanization.
An economist and environmentalist at heart The winemaker Ascensión Robayna 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.
"Viticulture in Hoyos means that farmers adapt to the particular circumstances of the soil and climate that create the most unique agro-ecosystem," she said.
Ms. Robayna's eyes are obviously sparkling as she descends into the lava fissures 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 Chaboco grapes.)
In the late 19th century, a plague aphid, phylloxera, decimated grapevines the whole of 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.
Hundreds of years 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.
When I was visiting a number of vineyards near Uga, a small village in southern Lanzarote, I followed the winemaker Vicente Torres as he climbed barefoot – the traditional way of working here – up the slope to around to inspect his vines. While the lapilli tickled my feet and sank slightly with every step I took, I found the climb more difficult than expected. I've learned that growing anything on this soil is hard work.
According to official information, this year's harvest is expected to be less than half of the previous year, with a forecast of around 2.6 million pounds of grapes.
"The oldest men here say they don't remember such a bad year for vineyards as this one," 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 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 is also exposed to other threats. 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 the University of La Laguna, Lanzarote's G.D.P. is expected to decrease by 21 percent.
In view of the declining number of winemakers and devastating climate change, the future of winemaking in Lanzarote appears more difficult than ever.
The island still holds some kind of mythical influence on its visitors. It has been almost a year since my last trip to Lanzarote, but I keep making a habit of rethinking certain images in my head of vines emerging from the majestic hoyos at the foot of Timanfaya – a splendor that is there is still to be estimated, at least for the time being.