The Canary Islands, comprising 10 DO regions, are located far closer to Africa than they are to mainland Spain. Most wine lovers are probably unaware of its wines unless they have visited the archipelago, as very little of the wine made is exported due to strong local demand.

However, there have been interesting changes over the last two decades and modern, fruity wines across a range of white, rosé and red styles, which are ideal for enjoying in this sub-tropical climate, are now widely available as well as oak-aged Crianzas. Meanwhile the rich and colourful heritage of vinos de licor, traditional sweet wines of great character, lives on. Indeed the way that these wines are made has hardly changed for centuries.

The DOs of the Canary Islands feature climatic conditions, soils and landscapes that often have little in common with their cousins on the mainland. The vineyards typically lie over a volcanic bedrock and altitude plays a major role: the vineyards are often situated at 500-1,000 metres above sea level or even higher and this allows for greater freshness and acidity in an otherwise humid sub-tropical climate.

One of the most fascinating aspects of winemaking here is the array of grape varieties. Forget well-known international varieties or even the best known Spanish grapes. The main grapes here are Listán Negro and Listán Blanco while other reds include Negramoll, Tintilla, Moscatel Negro, Prieto and Malvasía Rosada and other whites are Gual, Malvasía, Marmajuelo, Albillo, Moscatel and Sabro and there are many more.

Another interesting point to note is that most vines are ungrafted – the vine louse phylloxera has never been a problem here as it has in most of the wine world – and this means that vines can be up to 100 years old. This is another intriguing aspect of the Canaries which makes it well worth a detour to explore the vineyards if you’re visiting one of the islands.

The 10 DOs of the Canaries by island:

2,423 hectares, approximately 1,730 hectares in production; altitude 200-800 metres

The DO of Tacoronte-Acentejo, named after the towns which make up its name and located in the north of Tenerife, is the largest of the Canaries and it was the first to gain DO status in 1992. In many respects it has also proved to be an act to follow for the other DOs; the 42 bodegas here are generally take a contemporary approach, winemaking equipment is thoroughly modern and quality standards are high.

The wines produced are red for the main part and the Listán Negro and Negramoll grapes are generally favoured.

Valle de La Orotava
974 hectares; altitude 200-800 metres
Situated to the north west of the island, the vineyards of Valle de La Oratava surround the town of the same name as well as Los Realejos and Puerto de la Cruz. Vines can be easily spotted growing up the hillsides and, characteristically, on pergolas. Listán Negro and Listán Blanco are the dominant grapes and the wines are generally light, fruity young wines but don’t overlook sweeter wines from the higher vineyards which can be enriched by botrytised grapes (grapes deliberately left to shrivel on the vine).

Ycoden Daute Isora
1,350 hectares, altitude 50-1,400 metres
Occupying the western section tip of the island, Ycoden Daute Isora is one of the most dynamic DOs of the island. The focus is on fresh, young white wines and modern technology helps winemakers to get the best out of Listán Blanco grape. The rosés and reds here are equally good.

1,567 hectares; altitude 400-1,700 metres
Need to cool down? The vineyards of Abona, to the south of the island, are incredibly steep and high by Spanish standards and cooler temperatures in the high-lying areas even make frost a peril. There is virtually no other threat to vines making organic cultivation possible. Whites, rosés and reds are produced with whites dominating from Listán Blanco and Bastardo. Reds are made from Listán Negro, Malvasía Rosada and Tintilla.

Valle de Güímar
913 hectares; altitude 200-1,400 metres
Situated on the eastern side of Tenerife, winemaking in the DO of Valle de Güímar is generally small scale but producers have adopted modern methods and quality is on a par with the other DOs of the island. The staple local grapes can be found – Listán Negro, Negamoll and Tintillo for reds and Listán Blanco, Malvasía and Gual for whites.

Other islands :

La Palma
885 hectares; altitude 200-1,200 metres
La Palma has three sub-zones: Fuencaliente-Las Manchas in the south, Hoya de Mazo in the west and Norte de Palma in the north. Whites, rosés and reds are generally available as young wines; the best reds come from Hoyo de Mazo and the best whites from Fuencaliente. There are also dry and fortified vino de licor wines from the Malvasía grape in Fuencaliente and the ancient Spanish varieties of Gual, Bujariego and Sabro can be found on the island.

El Hierro
200 hectares; altitude 125-700 metres
The island of Hierro, to the west of the archipelago, is one of the smallest of the DOs and young, fresh white wines are most commonly found here. Listán Negro, Negramoll, Verijadiego and Bremajuelo are grown and classic Moscatel and PX wines are still made as they were in the 17th century.

Gran Canaria
The Gran Canaria DO was established in 2000 and is the youngest of the DOs of the Canaries. Vines must be trained on modern-style trellises and there is a range of permitted grapes including Listán Negro, Marmajuelo and Moscatel. The altitude of the vineyards is 50-1,300 metres and the soil types vary from sandy near the coast to volcanic in the higher mountain areas.

La Gomera
La Gomera is a very mountainous island which makes vine growing especially difficult and labour intensive. Vines are trained along trellises en espaldera. There is a range of permitted grape varieties such as red: Listán Negro, Negramoll, Tintilla and for white: Malvasía, Gual, Marmajuelo and Albillo. La Gomera achieved official status in 2003.

2,209 hectares; altitude 100-500 metres
Vineyards on the Moon? The landscape of Lanzarote’s vineyards looks like no other. The black ash soils lie over black bedrock and the vine is virtually the only kind of plant that can be cultivated here. A humid local wind is the biggest problem; each vine is protected by a locating it in a hollow surrounded by a cairn. This means that the vines are spread out and although the hectarage indicated above looks high, production is in fact very low. Malvasía is widely planted as well as the usual local grapes the white varieties Burrablanca, Breval and Diego. Wines are produced in all three colours as young styles and the tradition of sweet wines is strong.