IN 2019 I MADE WINE IN LA PALMA, A VOLCANIC ROCK A COUPLE OF HUNDRED KMS OFF THE NORTH AFRICAN COAST, WITH SUPER VICTORIA TORRES. HERE ARE A FEW WORDS ABOUT VIKI, LA PALMA AND THE WINES OF THIS ENCHANTING - AND EXCEEDINGLY STEEP - ISLAND...
From the ocean floor to the summits of Roque de los Muchachos where all the big observatories are, La Palma rises to about 7km in height. It is one of the steepest islands in the world. This steepness renders most walks very sweaty, and most drives vertiginous. It also opens to view as vast an expanse of ocean as I've ever seen.
The caldera, remnant of a two million-year-old collapsed shield volcano, is 10km-wide and funnels into the mother of all ravines, the aptly named Barranco de los Angostinos (Ravine of the Anguishes). There is no bridge across it, so every time you travel north to south, or south to north, you have to snake almost vertically up and down the barranco's colossal, stratified mass.
The scale is stupefying. But then, a lot of La Palma is stupefying: the scorched volcano craters and acrobatic rock formations, the clouds which creep over the hills in ghostly cascades and settle in murmuring seas, the daily grandstand performances of the rising and setting sun, the crystal-clear night skies which make the Milky Way is spectacularly visible to the naked eye…
La vía láctea
I first visited La Palma in 2018 after becoming obsessed by wines from volcanic regions. I’d written articles about ‘volcanic wines’, attended geeky volcanic wine forums... I’d been to Etna, Santorini and Tenerife and loved the wines of these regions - the nerello mascaleses, the assyrtikos, the listán negros (of this world)... all of which seemed to have in common a certain saltiness, and an elusive mineral core. That's why I came to La Palma.
What makes this volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic such a special place for wine? Partly the fact that it is volcanic and in the middle of the ocean - in other words, the terroir; partly its heritage: viticulture in La Palma goes back many centuries, to the days when moneyed Elizabethans were getting loose on Canary Sack and Malmsey; partly it's the grape varieties: soft-souled negramoll with its hints of chocolate-box cherry, strawberry and orange; listán blanco with its salty terroir transparency; regal malvasía (the Malmsey of yore) with its gorgeous sweet citrus aromatics; albillo criollo with its weird yet wonderful chamomile and wet hay vibrations…
Partly, too, it's La Palma's wealth of gnarly phylloxera-free vines, growing on their own roots in nutrient-poor volcanic ash and gravel, scorched by the sub-tropical sun, harried by the Trade Winds, bearing sweet fruits in conditions where little else can survive...
Viki and the picón volcanic slopes of Volcán de San Antonio
The first time I became aware of Victoria Torres Pecis – Viki – was in a photo: a young woman with long black hair, alone, surrounded by sprawling old grapevines on a sweeping hillside of lunar volcanic gravel. The photo gave the impression of a recluse working on the fringe of the universe... But though it may be true that Viki is a singular winemaking force working more or less alone on a remote island... she is never really alone, because the work she does and the wines she makes draw people from across the world into her orbit.
The Torres bodega, made from lava rocks and containing two tea wood lagares
Viki is a fifth-generation winemaker from Fuencaliente in the south of La Palma. She took over from her dad, Juan Matías, in 2015, following Juan Matías's untimely death. The Torres family bodega is a wonderful, museum-like place. Built from lava rocks in 1885 by her great-granddad, it contains two century-old wooden lagare wine presses made from tea wood of the native Canary Pine tree. You'll find these lagares in most traditional La Palma wine cellars. Or those that remain. The huge main beam of the press is made from a single tree trunk. The one pictured above is at least as old as the winery itself and has been in continuous use since its founding.
Viki with Volcán de Teneguía in the background
In La Palma, in quality terms, Viki stands alone. Where other producers use chemical fertilisers and pesticides, off-the-shelf yeasts and high doses of sulphur dioxide, and filter their wines to buggery, Viki is dedicated to farming organically and working with as little interference as possible in the winery. She keeps sulphur additions very low and doesn't filter her wines. She gives her wines the time to do what they need to do, without interference.
The difference between Viki's wines and those of the majority of wine producers on La Palma is the difference between, say, a one-year cave-aged goats cheese (I ate a lot of that when I was on the island) and a triangle of Dairylea. Viki’s wines are alive, they express their grape variety and ocean-influenced volcanic terroir in a way that lingers on the palate. They have an openness and a mercurial character that lingers in the mind. And the salt - the salt.
Viki's malvasía naturalmente dulce and malvasía seco
Viki describes her wines as ‘kind’, inviting, open, but with depth. This is a description that makes sense to me. They are instantly charming on the nose and expand on the palate. With Viki’s wines, you stick your nose in the glass and you’re instantly brought under their spell of guileless loveliness.
There’s something marvellous about this – the contrast between the brutal, hot, dry, windswept volcano landscape of La Palma and the ambrosial charm of the wines… You need to give these wines time. Give them air. Open them hours before your drink them. Come back to them and see how they’ve changed. I have tasted Viki’s wines from bottles that have been open for two, three, even four weeks, and are still drinkable.
As I write this, from La Palma, my second harvest here and my third year in a row of visiting the island, I feel as if I’d like come back every year - to help Viki, to make wine, just to be on the island again. Spending time in a vineyard area like Las Machuqueras or Los Llanos Negros is properly breath-taking, no matter how many times you go there. It has the feeling of an empty cathedral: so serene – no people, no noise, nothing except the volcano, the vines, the ocean, and the surge and sway of the Alisian wind. Or in El Tión, where you stride into the clouds to reach century-old vineyard parcels growing at 1,200m elevation alongside triffid-like tajinaste plants. It's places like this which make La Palma one of the most haunting vinegrowing landscapes in the world. It still amazes me that I've had the chance to make wine here.
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