Interview: Alejandro Besay, Oenologist at Bodega La Geria
The Fiesta at La Geria on August 15th is one of Lanzarote’s most charming celebrations, and a link to a past that has made the island prosperous in the present. Shaun Addison spent a morning among the volcanoes, meeting camels and the Bodega’s chief wine expert.
This is the birthplace of modern agriculture on Lanzarote.”
“There were at least four villages here:” says Alejandro Besay, casting his hand towards the window of the café at Bodega La Geria where an impressive landscape of volcanoes and horseshoe-shaped stone walls stretches away to the horizon.“They were called Santa Catalina, Chimanfaya, La Geria and El Chupadero, and all of them disappeared under ash and lava during the volcanic eruptions of the 1730s.”
Alejandro is the chief oenologist (wine expert) at La Geria, and I’m here to chat to him on the most important day in La Geria’s calendar, the Fiesta de La Virgen de Caridad on August 15th.
“The settlements here grew cereals, such as wheat and barley, and supplied the islands with bread and flour – this area was known as “the granary of the Canaries,” he continues.
“They did not grow vines – there wasn’t enough water here for that. The locals used to take their camels all the way to the cliffs of Famara to fetch water from the natural springs there, and bring it back in containers sealed with candlewax so it didn’t spill.”
All that disappeared under an immense outpouring of volcanic ash and lava that lasted from 1730 to 1736. Although no one died in the eruptions, many livelihoods were wiped out, and it took many years for the locals to return to the zone.
But when they did, something remarkable happened. “The local priest, who owned the land, started selling plots to islanders, and they began digging pits of up to 2 or 3 metres in depth, to reach the fertile soil. Soon they realised that the volcanic ash conserved moisture for far longer than the soil that was under it. And that this allowed them to grow vines.”
Soon, the islanders added distinctive dry stone walls, called zocos, that protect every pit from the wind and gather more moisture, and a wine-growing technique that is unique in the world was developed. “The vines provided a good living, and everything was used. The leaves fed livestock, the wood was burned, the grapes produced vinegar as well as wine, and most farms also had a still for spirits.”
The volcanic ash that proved to be so useful was also taken to the towns and villages in Arrecife, where locals used it to grow onions, tomatoes and pumpkins. “This was really the birth of modern agriculture on Lanzarote,” says Alejandro. Indeed, the ash was so in demand that it is now protected by law.
Nowadays, Lanzarote’s wine industry is an increasingly high-profile international industry, supplying Lanzarote and the Canaries, as well as an increasing number of wine merchants overseas.
Alejandro, from Tenerife, has been at La Geria for ten years, and is responsible for the quality of the bodega’s wines. It’s a process that starts in the fields and continues until the wines are bottled and shipped for sale. “I do a lot of tasting, “he smiles, “It’s the only way to check how each vintage is evolving, and it’s the quickest way to detect any problems.”
The main grape grown on Lanzarote is the malvasía volcanica that is unique to the island, but La Geria, like other bodegas, also grows syrah, tintilla and listán negro grapes for the increasingly popular red and rosé wines that are produced.
Lanzarote’s southerly position and climate means that it has the earliest wine harvest in Europe. This year, the muscatel table grapes were in shops at the beginning of July and the malvasia harvest started later that month “This year has been a very good harvest,” says Alejandro, “There were good rains and the alisio winds arrived late,as the grapes ripened, These are good news for the vines, while easterly winds from Africa can scorch and burn the crops.”
Alejandro estimates that this year’s first young wines will be on sale by October, although this can vary from year to years. When asked what wine he, as an expert, prefers, he says “I like them all,” before plumping for a Dry White from La Geria’s Manto range.
The tiny, simple Ermita de la Caridad, just in front of the Bodega La Geria, is the only church in the area that survived the volcanic eruptions. Built in 1706, it was completely buried in ash, but untouched by lava, and was eventually uncovered once again.
It opens on only one day a year – to celebrate the Fiesta of its patron on August 15th,, and this has become a popular annual event.
The day starts at 10 am, as two camels from Uga are fitted with wooden containers. They are slowly followed down to the vineyard, and the containers are filled with ripe malvasia grapes.
On returning to the bodega, these are weighed on an antique scale before being dumped into the large stone vat just inside the bodega’s shop. Then children are invited to clamber into the vat barefoot and tread the grapes, just as generations of La Geria wine growers have done.
Nowadays, this is simply a symbolic celebration, and the juice is not used for wine. The real process of wine production can be seen in the installations behind the bodega, where carefully controlled vats and presses ensure that the harvest reaches the shops in the best possible condition.
Tastings are frequently held, and this year Alejandro Besay donned traditional Canarian costume before inviting guests to sample the mosto (grape juice) from this year’s harvest, Sweet, full of flavour and fizzing slightly as it starts to ferment, it is an unforgettable taste of Lanzarote.