To me, it’s one of the sweetest sounds in the world; that pop when the cork leaves a bottle and the moment the wine has been waiting for, the one it has been grown, tended, picked, pressed, fermented and matured for, arrives.
Victoria pours the wine from the chilled bottle and it rushes to coat the bottom of the glass with its maize coloured body. The first scent is of hot meadow with an underlying hint of mineral rich soil. The clean, sharp dryness of the impact on my tongue gives way to fruity undertones of strawberries.
“It’s really strange,” says Victoria. “Last year the underlying flavour was peaches. Every year it’s a different flavour that comes through. That’s the incredible thing about producing wines, you never really know what flavours are going to appear until you taste the finished product.”
We’re tasting the Albillo Listan Blanco 2011 dry white wine of the Matías i Torres bodega in Fuencaliente on La Palma’s southern slopes, and Victoria Torres, fifth generation of the Torres family and partner in the family business with her father Juan Matías Torres, is sharing her love of her work with us.
“The vines represent a connection to everything about our home and our history,” she says. “Through them we are connected to the soil, the sea, the volcanic slopes and to our ancestors. The wine is a living embodiment of that bond.”
The connection of the vines to history isn’t just rhetoric on Victoria’s part. The virulent and deadly phylloxera virus which wiped out much of Europe’s grape strains in the 19th century never made it to the Canary Islands. Vines here are still un-grafted, with strains dating back more than 40 years and some malvasias as far as 100 years or more.
All smiles, soft, brown eyes and a passion for wine growing that borders on the sensual, Victoria is picking up the mantel of responsibility for the future preservation of the family business which has been brewing wine in La Palma since 1885, making it one of the oldest bodegas in the Canary Islands. Making tiny ripples in the male dominated world of bodega owners, Victoria is bringing a fresh outlook, an artistic eye and, poco a poco, modernisation to an industry that has flourished on this idyllic Canary Island for almost 600 years, changing little in that time.
La Palma’s rugged topography, steep slopes and abundant volcanoes make the land almost impossible to cultivate with machinery, leaving no option but to plant, tend and harvest the vines by hand in smallholdings. As a result, quality is high but yields are low and many winegrowers produce just enough for their own consumption and for local restaurants.
We’ve just missed part of the vendimia, or grape harvesting, which took place at weekend. A snapshot on her Facebook page of Victoria’s bare, purple stained legs inside one of the vats is testament to the grapes still being trodden the way they have been for centuries. In the fermentation shed, beyond the vats, lies a traditional lagar or wooden wine press, the largest on the island and typical of those still in use by winegrowers across the Canary Islands. Earlier that day we had seen a much smaller one in operation at La Casa Del Volcan, two men winding the screw mechanism that lowers the arm to press the grapes.
For Victoria, the bodega is a delicate balance between the old and the new, one which she feels needs to swing a little further towards the 21st century if they are to continue to produce excellent wines and remain competitive. Stepping into the dim and dank cellar, we’re surrounded by 40 year old, oak barrels and I remark how nice is it to see the old barrels still in use, having toured so many bodegas with their shiny, new fermentation tanks. Victoria laughs.
“This is my father’s room,” she says. “He still likes the old ways. My room is all shiny and new!”
There’s no way back from my foot in mouth blunder as we move next door to the brightly lit tasting room where Victoria’s fermentation tanks are indeed shiny, new and clean as the proverbial whistle. Little by little, Victoria is trying to bring small improvements to the processes but without losing any of the traditions whose ghosts are present in the flavours of every wine produced by the family run business.
Recognizing the value in the boutique label that high quality, low yield wines from La Palma attract, Victoria has singled out some bottles of Aromatic Naturally Sweet Malvasía for what she calls her ‘Miniscule Collection’, each bottle receiving a unique, hand painted label. The bottles will retail at €38 each. Rumour has it friendships were broken and black market practices rife in the rush to acquire last year’s 550 ‘specials’ so it’s knitted brows and consternation that greet the news that this year only 144 bottles will get the artist’s label.
Already sold on the quality and unique personality of the Matías i Torres wines, I’ve purchased my prizes and am preparing to leave when Victoria reaches for the slender, elegant bottle of Aromatic Malvasía, winner of a gold medal at the Las Alhóndigas Canarian wine awards earlier this year.
The dark amber wine appears to be lit from within as it pours, as smooth and velvety soft as honey on a glass spoon and sits languidly, waiting to reveal its secrets. As the sweet, cold liquid runs across my tongue I understand what Victoria was trying to convey. I can taste every day of its life, from its roots dug deep into the black, volcanic ash to reach the mineral-rich soil; the moisture sucked from the passing clouds that clung to its hillside and the sunshine on its skin, to the patient wait in barrel and bottle until it was just the right day to remove the cork and let the wine live.
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+