"We believe that wines get their personality from the soil, their character from the vintage, and their soul from the people working in the vineyard."
Going to school and university is about a lot more than education; they give birth to friendships and business ideas. In the case of Envínate, it was at the University of Miguel Hernández in Alicante that Laura Ramos, José Martínez, Roberto Santana and Alfonso Torrente met while studying oenology. This quartet of bright minds did not have family-owned wineries behind them, but they did have a joint love for organic viticulture and low intervention winemaking.
In the Beaujolais region, there is a group of winemakers nicknamed the Gang of Four who revived organic viticulture and quality winemaking in the region in the 80s. Well, this is the Spanish Gang of Four. Thanks to them and to Suertes del Marques, they have put Tenerife – a island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, across from Morocco – on the map of fine wine.
We interviewed Roberto for this piece.
All photographs by Estanis Nuñez.
You might think that out of four budding winemakers attending wine school in Spain, there’d be one whose family has a vineyard or whose mother or father is a winemaker. Wrong. Not one member of this gang has family wine history, so there was no family pressure here – their studies were born from a pure passion and intrigue for wine. Roberto says,
“We all started studying at the same time and have the same philosophies. We believe that wines must have personality given to them by the soil, character given to them by the vintage, and soul given to them by the people working in the vineyard. We interpret this with sensibility and precision in the cellar.”
He explains that this makes it very easy for them to work together; these are four people who are bonded by their love for nature and for wine. Their love for vineyards has no bounds; if they discover a vineyard and a region they love, they try to work there. It’s as simple as that, and it explains how they came to make wine in Tenerife, Castilla-La Mancha and Ribeira Sacra.
The first vineyard that they managed to buy between them is a parcel in Spain's Ribeira Sacra; where Alfonso grew up. A friend of Alfonso’s father was becoming more elderly and couldn’t work the vineyard anymore. Laura, José and Roberto hadn’t been to the region before, so they went together with Alfonso to visit. Roberto says,
“We just fell in love when we got there. When we see vineyards that have potential and when we love the area, we try to go and work there.”
Soon, they began to grow and take over other parcels in the region. These are mainly planted to the fresh and vibrant Mencía grape. Next, they would find themselves falling head-over-heels for the volcanic island of Tenerife – one of the Canary Islands. A lawyer friend of theirs who studied history had learnt about the viticultural history of the island, so they decided to go and investigate. Roberto explains,
“History is so important. By studying the history of a place we can try to better understand and interpret the vineyards and wines with sensibility. We had heard there were old lagares in the vineyards from the 16th and 17th centuries, so we went to look at them. When we did, we saw these unbelievable vines and fell in love with this area.”
It’s a blessing for the vineyards that they did, for many of the vineyards were in danger of being abandoned altogether. Historically, families had tended vineyards to make some wine for themselves, but with the modern cosmopolitan world knocking at the door, many of the younger generation have other jobs and don’t want to work in the vineyards. Many of the vineyards of the south of the island are no longer there, as the island has become a tourist destination, so land has been converted for tourism. However, thankfully, the Taganana area – in the north of the island - is protected by UNESCO. In addition, high elevation vineyards on steep hillsides - such as where the vineyards for their Benje cuvées are located, in Ycoden-Daute-Isora - also remain untouched. Amazingly, these sit at 1000m elevation above the cloud line, meaning there is very little disease pressure and the vines only require one sulphur treatment per year.
“We try to recover vineyards to prevent them from becoming abandoned.”
Tenerife was the last of the Canary Islands to fall to the Spanish, after which many of the native Guanche people died from new infectious diseases, were enslaved or intermarried with the colonists. Sadly, today they are considered a lost culture.
There is also strong Portuguese influence on the island, and both Portuguese and Spanish influence can be seen in the wines and vineyards. In the south, there are more examples of Listán Blanco (Palomino) and Listán Prieto.
Listán Prieto holds a particularly fascinating history; it was almost wiped out in Spain post-phylloxera (the root-eating killer louse that almost wiped out Europe’s vineyards in the 19th century), but several centuries earlier it had been brought to the Americas on ships from Spain and Tenerife, together with the horrific element of this part of history: the slaves from Africa (Tenerife lies not far from Morocco). This means that while it was almost lost in Spain, it survived in the “New World” – in Chile and Argentina where it is known as País, and in North America, where it is often known as Mission, as it was predominantly introduced by the Spanish missionaries. The vines here are planted as bush vines; the historical way of planting vines in Spain.
Meanwhile, in the north of the island where there is more Portuguese influence, you also find more Portuguese varieties, such as Gual, Malvasia, Verdejo and Negramoll. Initially, many of these varieties had been introduced to boost the alcohol levels of Listán Blanco for exporting the wines on boat to the UK. However, when harvested earlier, they can produce fresh and very exciting wines with lower alcohol levels.
Bush Vines - Santiago del Teide
Tenerife is often overlooked when it comes to its enormous wealth of genetic vine history. Its lack of phylloxera means it is home to hugely diverse and original vine material, whereas mainland Spain is home to a lot of modern clones. Old vine Listán Negro is found throughout the island, and the Listán Blanco in Taganana, for example, is completely different to the vines found in the Benje parcel and in the Valle de la Orotava – home to the Palo Blanco vines. In Taganana, there is also the curious and extremely rare pink mutation of Palomino, named Listán Gacho or Listán Rosada.
“If I plant a vine, I don’t buy grapes from a nursery, I just plant from my other old vines or from a neighbour’s old vines. So for five centuries, the vines have come from the same area and have adapted to that little climate.”
Many of these vineyards are extremely old. Roberto explains that this means they have more innate balance, whereas younger vineyards require more work in the vineyard until they begin to find their own balance.
As stunning as the vineyards of Tenerife and Ribeira Sacra might be to look at, they aren’t easy to work. Everything is done by hand and on foot, as they are simply too steep to work by tractor, meaning this can be costly and labour-intensive. Thankfully, they discovered another region which is much easier to work – Castilla la Mancha. This is where the Albahra cuvée was born. Roberto says,
“It’s a great area for great value wines. Of course you still have to work, but it’s much easier. It’s drier and so it’s much simpler to work organically here.”
Here, they also discovered the Moravia Agria grape, of which only 40 hectares remain. It produces wines with lower alcohol and high acidity, with a pale colour. Historically this was useful as a blending variety, but once people began to sell their grapes in the 70s and 80s, higher prices were given for fruit that could create higher alcohol and darker wines. This was bad business for poor Moravia Agria, so most of it was ripped out to be planted to other varieties. Roberto says,
“It is hard to find but we love it. We can keep the Mediterranean character of the wine and not have a wine that’s too heavy. It’s the total opposite of Garnacha Tintorera – it’s very vibrant, with tension.”
All vineyards are treated organically. The cultivation is adapted according to the vintage; when it rains a lot they leave more grass, whereas if there’s less rain they do some manual weeding to ensure less competition for the vines. When they take on a new vineyard, sometimes unfortunately these have histories of herbicides, and Roberto explains to us that it can take five to six years for balance and health to return to the soils. He says,
“It is very important that your soil is alive. This means no herbicide. The soil brings personality to the wine. The vintage brings its character, and the people create its soul. We must be in the vineyard. If not, it’s very difficult to adapt your work in the cellar. It’s like painting a picture – it’s important for the painter to be in the place they’re painting to be able to interpret it.”
Cordon Trenzado - Migan
A key element of the Envínate philosophy is to bring the interpretation of the vineyard into the cellar. This means that Garnacha Tintorera – a slightly richer and denser wine – is fermented and aged in concrete, to help to bring freshness and keep it in more of a reductive state. Moravia Agria, meanwhile, is put into old oak barrels to allow it to breathe a little more. To amplify the saline and mineral characteristic of Taganana and the Palo Blanco vineyards, these are aged on the lees also in concrete and old barrels, and some portions are given a little skin contact. Benje Blanco used to be treated in the same way, but after a lot of contemplation, they decided to modify the winemaking. As the vineyard sits above the cloud line at 1000m, this means the grapes get more sun, and thus more glycerol. To help the wine become more fresh, they began experimenting with some flor (surface yeast) in 2017. This contributes a certain lift and freshness to the wine. Roberto says,
“As the grapes have more glycerol, the wine is bigger – more voluminous. The flor eats the glycerol and gives the sensation that the wine is more fresh and sharp. Flor is a great natural tool to work with in the cellar.”
Thus, some of the wine for Benje is left untopped in the concrete tanks and barrels, so that the oxygen will allow the flor to develop, while the other wines remain topped up so that no flor can grow in them.
He believes that the vineyards of Valle de la Orotava are perhaps the most exciting for Listán Blanco (these create the Palo Blanco cuvée) as the soils are black basalt and the microclimate is very cool and fresh. This means that the grapes are always the last to be harvested here; sometimes in the last week of October. Thus, the flavours are able to develop over a very slow ripening period. Roberto explains,
“The Palo Blanco is always fresh and mineral – and we believe this makes a wine for ageing. Tàganan, a blend of Palo Blanco and other varieties, is always more salty. It’s close to the sea and we think this brings sapidity to the wine.”
The latest project is from a vineyard called Táganan Campanario, and has not yet been released. This is a vineyard planted to the “other” varieties; mainly Verdejo, Gual and Forestera.
“These varieties were used to raise the alcohol levels of wines sent to England by boat. Sulphur wasn’t used in the same way it is now, so they had to protect the wines and they said these varieties made the wine stronger. But if you harvest them at 12/12.5% with high acidity, it is very interesting and the flavours are totally different.”
Unfortunately, weather wreaked havoc and so there’s extremely little of this wine bottled; such a small harvest meant that most went into the white Táganan wine, but they created just 100 bottles for friends and family.
We are anxious to taste it one day, and this reminds us: when it comes to wine, patience is a virtue. We cannot rush Mother Nature.