A couple of years ago a friend visited La Palma, the most northerly and one of the smaller Canary Islands. At the time I had no idea any significant wines were made on the rather barren looking volcano of La Palma, but I was very much excited by the prospect after a few years previously gaining something more than a mere interest in the stunning wines being produced on the largest island in the archipelago, Tenerife. That friend knows his wine, and when he came back praising the wines of “Vicky Torres”, I knew I’d go out of my way to taste them one day.
That’s exactly what I did on Tuesday this week. Hearing only on Monday evening that her UK importer, Modal Wines, was going to open each one of the new releases he brings in, I hastily changed my plans and headed up to Covent Garden’s 10 Cases. Last year, Nick Rizzi managed to get minuscule quantities of these wines out of La Palma. This year he has a little more (not a lot more), despite 2017 being a vintage of very low yields (mainly hail, the same old story). There’s still very little to go around, but I warn you…the wines are quite astonishing.
The saintly glow of a man who imports Victoria Torres Pecis
First, an introduction to the Canary Islands. Most Europeans will probably be aware that this is an island chain (seven islands, to be precise) in the Atlantic Ocean, approximately sixty miles off the coast of Morocco, and ruled by Spain. Producers such as Envinate and Suertes del Marqués have made the islands famous in the past decade or so, but they make their Canary Island wine on Tenerife.
La Palma is at the far west of the chain, more recently formed than those islands in the east (Lanzarote and Fuertaventura). It is perhaps even more obviously volcanic than some of the other islands, much of it being covered in black ash. From the air it looks like one large volcano, but in fact a ridge runs along the island’s spine which is pock-marked with craters, and it is, like the whole archipelago, still classified as “active”. The last major eruption was in 1971, and actually took place during the harvest. The island has somewhere close to just 600 hectares of vines in production.
Victoria Torres Pecis took over from her father (Juan Matías Torres) when he passed away in 2014, so 2015 was her first solo vintage. Reassuringly, she had been working with her father for some time before. The estate used to be called Matías i Torres, but I understand that discussions took place with the Catalan producer, Torres, whose lawyers approached everyone using that name in their estate. As a consequence, the wines formerly labelled Matías i Torres now bear no estate name on the front label, although the back label does state “Produced and Bottled by Victoria E Torres Pecis”. The older sweet wines available will still bear the older domaine name on their original labels.
The “Torres” bodega is at Fuencalliente, at the very southern tip of La Palma, on that pure black volcanic ash. However, Victoria farms vines all over the island, all ungrafted (phylloxera never reached The Canaries) and consequently very old (the oldest being more that 130 years of age). The vines are also at greatly varying altitudes, with the highest at 1,500 metres above sea level.
I was stunned to be told that the harvest takes up to three months because of the varying altitudes and micro-climates. I was equally surprised to hear that there are eighteen people producing wine on the island, but Victoria Torres Pecis is the only one being exported outside Spain. She farms a little under five hectares of vines herself, around two-fifths owned and the remainder, rented. There are also some bought in grapes, from farmers with whom she works very closely.
What about the grape varieties? Winemaking on the Canary Islands began with the discovery, by Europeans, of South America (the islands made an ideal victualling station) and really took off in the nineteenth century. However, the islands were originally famous as a source of Sack, a name derived possibly from the Spanish “saca”, meaning to draw out, now used to describe bottlings from a Sherry solera.
The white grapes in use at the Torres Pecis domaine are familiar both from the Canary Islands as a whole, and indeed from southern Spain. These are Listán Blanco (aka Palomino in Jerez) and Malvasia. The main red variety is Negramoll (aka Tinta Negra Mole in Madeira). There is also, unsurprisingly, some Listán Prieto, perhaps better known as a variety which has recently been revived in South America, where it is called Païs (Chile), or Criolla (Argentina), having been loaded on the ships of the first conquistadores.
Victoria possesses one of only three working pine wood lagares on the island, dating from 1885, about which more later. That does suggest that she follows a traditional winemaking methodology. Indeed, her sweet wines taste quite traditional, and she does follow pretty much a natural winemaking philosophy as well (she does use sulphur, but sparingly, the maximum in any wine being under 40 mg, and usually far less). However, her dry wines do combine tradition and modernity. With one (perhaps deliberate) exception, they don’t appear remotely rustic.
Eight cuvées were opened by Nick Rizzi, three dry whites, three dry reds and two sweet wines. This tasting was well worth changing my plans for. The wines are quite amazing, and I think special. I’m doing myself no favours in saying this because I’m yet to get hold of a few bottles for myself, but I just can’t help sharing my excitement. These wines are one-offs, unique in so many ways. Victoria appears to know exactly what she is doing, but at the same time she hasn’t really been exposed to a breadth of international winemaking. That has certainly helped allow her wines to retain a personality of their own.
And so, the wines…
Las Migas 2017
This is made from Listán Blanco. The name means “the crumbs” and the grapes derive from fifteen plots, all on black volcanic ash at a range of altitudes. The grapes take three months to harvest at optimum ripeness, and they are added to the concrete fermenting vat as they come in. The result is a pale wine, intense and linear, but it has a lovely long mineral finish, and a texture born out of nine months on lees. Just 2,600 bottles were made and few of them have made it to the UK. 12% abv. Circa £30 retail (all retail prices quoted here are my own very rough estimates).
There’s a plot Victoria usually bottles as a single site wine, called Las Manchuqueras, but in 2017 it yielded too few grapes, so she decided to promote “Monte” to single vineyard status. This is a vineyard pretty much on the southern tip of La Palma, immediately below the winery, comprised of more Listán Blanco. Again, we are on black ash, and a hot site (I’m told pineapples grow here). Just one barrel was produced, but the vines here are 120 years old, naturally all ungrafted, and it shows. It has greater depth than “Las Migas”, and astonishing energy. It’s a beautiful wine. Maybe around £38-£40 retail.
Malvasia Aromatica 2017
This is the top wine. It’s made in a restrained style from Malvasia vines up to 130 years old, again in the south of the island. The key bit of winemaking information you need here is 48 hours skin contact. It doesn’t really colour the wine, which is pale and glinting brightly, but it does add weight and some texture. The bouquet begins quietly, although these wines do need a little time to allow them to open out. The palate, however, is explosive. What you get is even more minerality than the Listán whites, and salinity too. A saline note pretty much runs through all these wines, but here it is quite pronounced. Stunning! 13.5% abv. Should be on the shelf, albeit briefly, at around £45.
This isn’t quite a single varietal wine because 15% Listán Prieto (Criolla/Païs) is added here. The grapes are sourced from sites all over the island, at altitudes ranging from 300 metres to almost 1,500 metres. The wine is aged in forty-year-old American oak and comes out pale, fruity and very fragrant. It has that lovely haunting quality, but that really isn’t to discount the fruit in there as well. It has a lovely lightness. 13.5% alcohol and approximately £34-£35-ish retail.
Sin Titulo 2017
This is the cuvée which comes with the red jeep on the label which perhaps makes it more recognisable than some of this producer’s more restrained labelling efforts. Victoria makes a “Sin Titulo” bottling every vintage, but the wine is always a one-off. In 2016, Sin Titulo was an oxidative white, but in 2017 it is a red made from Negramoll. The idea is to blend grapes from the first plot harvested (August in 2017) and then from the last plot picked (October/November). The first goes into oak barrel and the second into stainless steel. Both see nine months on lees, where they pick up some colour and texture. The fruit is high-toned cherry, raspberry and a touch of cranberry bite, all with what I’d describe more as “mouthfeel” than tannin. A super-gorgeous wine which weighs in at 13% abv. There were a mere 300 bottles of this, and to own one will take, in addition to real haste, a mere £36 or so.
Vino de Mesa 2017
When Modal’s Nick Rizzi helped with the harvest in 2018 he noticed a 600-litre barrel at the back of the winery which restaurant owners appeared to come and take wine from. He asked whether he could have it bottled. It’s not usually part of the Victoria Torres Pecis range, but she gave him what she had as an exclusivity. I think he managed 250 bottles, which is a massive amount compared with his other allocations.
It’s another Negramoll, a table wine outside the La Palma DO. It’s basically fairly simple, fruity, and showing a bit of volatility, yet it is very tasty, has the advantage of greater availability, and should cost around £28 or less. I would not say it’s wholly representative of Victoria’s wines, stylistically, but it is a nice glugger. Everyone around the tasting table when I was there said they liked it, despite its difference to the other dry wines.
Malvasia Naturalmente Dulce 2013
The two older sweet wines here are labelled from when Victoria’s father was still alive (Matías i Torres). This first bottle is what I suppose would be called the traditional wine of the island, or at least certainly in the style of centuries past. Malvasia grapes raisin on the vine, usually with just a touch of botrytis. The grapes are destemmed and then foot trodden. Here it is in a traditional pine lagare called a Tea. Traditionally, Vino de Tea was sold straight from the barrel on the island, but there are now only three of these troughs in use. The problem is that if they are not used every year they dry out. Luckily the one at Victoria Torres Pecis has been in constant use since 1885. Traditional, or what?
The grapes only receive a few days maceration before they are pressed. Foot treading actually helps to rehydrate the grapes, which in turn assists the slow fermentation. Where the wine departs from tradition is in the next stage, where the must goes into stainless steel. Fermentation stops naturally, when it feels like it. What you get is richly sweet, but also salty, with quite a thick texture. 14.5% abv, bottled as 50cl, and if it really costs what my maths tell me, you’d be looking at £80. I say “you”! It’s out of my league, but needless to say, I didn’t spit. A privilege to taste.
Negramoll Naturalmente Dulce 2013
The sweet Malvasia is made every possible vintage. This red sweet wine is a one-off. A heatwave in 2013 left a parcel of Negramoll a bit over ripe to make a dry red table wine from, a hazard of having such a wide spread of plots at different altitudes. The decision was made to allow the grapes to ripen further, and one barrel of sweet red was the eventual result. It is made just like the Malvasia, except for that change of vessel. What it lacks in complexity it makes up for in richness and depth. For a sweet wine it has bags of character. Just 470 half-litre bottles were made. It might not be quite as sensational as the sweet Malvasia, but it is very good indeed, and can be had for a more affordable £44-£45, or thereabouts. 15% abv for those who are interested.