THESE otherworldly hollows make up an improbable vineyard, nestled within a volcanic crater on Lanzarote, the easternmost of the Canary Islands.
An archipelago 100 kilometres to the west of Morocco, the Canary Islands have produced wine for more than 500 years — “marvellous searching wine”, as Shakespeare noted in his play Henry IV.
But vineyards on Lanzarote date from the mid-18th century, following six years of volcanic eruptions that blanketed the island in black ash.
Seven Canary Islands, part of Spain, sit in the Atlantic ocean at 28 degrees latitude (similar to, say, the location between Corpus Christi and Houston, Texas, or New Delhi in India) a scant 80 miles—at the closest point—west of the Sahara Desert. The climate of these islands is generally temperate; daily temperatures roam between 56 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit (13 and 29 degrees Celsius) throughout the year. The topography soars from sea level to the summit of Mount Teide (highest peak in Spain) at 12,198 feet (3,718 meters) above sea level.
Lanzarote is the easternmost Canary Island. Located dozens of miles offshore from the blistering heat of the Sahara, this island lacked a steady supply of freshwater until newly constructed desalination plants turned on their pumps a few decades ago. The hilly and often mist coated topography includes the same brown and khaki colors of an Irish bogland. The landscape was transformed by a volcanic explosion that began on September 1st, 1730, and which lasted six years. This fiery brew wiped out 20 villages, coated a third of the island in molten lava and dusted the remaining terrain in a hefty layer of picón, or ash.
No residents died from the slow moving magma flow. Instead they packed up scant belongings (likely on camels and goats) and moseyed away from this spewing cauldron to fresh regions such as Haría Valley—‘the valley of a thousand palms’—where they continued to farm. Today, stone houses on Lanzarote are painted white, but include brilliant green trim around doors and windows (there is now a bright paint color named ‘Lanzarote green’).
It took years before farmers realized that ash was a blessing for vineyards on arid Lanzarote. Its coating over earth retains moisture, protects buried soils from erosion, inhibits evaporation, and traps solar input before re-radiating it as heat to adjacent vegetation.
Locals dug through this picón a few yards to find the original soil. They then planted vines and built semicircular walls (constructed from plentiful basalt rock) to protect saplings from prevalent winds. They dug these holes over centuries, establishing the bizarrely black and beautiful vineyards of Lanzarote. Partially ringed by almond shaped stone walls on tar dark soils, these vine arrays appear hauntingly gorgeous.