Wine is rarely shipped from the Canary Islands. You just have to raise your glass on the islands to get a taste. Our guest expert, Linda Wainwright, has lived in the Canary Islands for over 25 years. A tough part of her work is drinking wine and writing about it. Wine festivals on Tenerife Island have evolved into grand celebrations of tray sliding, and of course drinking lots of wine. Want to sample the Canary Islands wines? Come and visit.
By Linda Wainwright
As much of Europe awaits the arrival of the French Beaujolais Nouveau in November, a different presentation of the new season’s wine is eagerly awaited on the Canary island of Tenerife – in some places more than in others.
It’s a fact largely forgotten outside the Canary Islands that wines from here accounted for a huge proportion of the island’s economy in the 17th century. Shakespeare’s works are littered with references to “a cup of good Canary.” Around two hundred years later, Keats was moved to pen;
“Have ye tippled drink more fine
Than mine host’s Canary wine?”
Speaking of wine and of Shakespeare, we speak of two of my favorite things in life. I began to take an interest in Tinerfeñian wine, when I arrived on the island in 1987. Back then, I was disappointed to find only basic table wines in small, family restaurants. The wine industry had slid into near oblivion for various complications.
It’s been a thrill to watch it make a comeback over the last 25 years, to the point where today it produces prize-winning wines. The island is divided into five denominación de orgien (Designation of Origin: Spanish confimation of authenticity). Most producers buy from small, local vineyards. They are now expert at combining the sun-kissed grapes of the lower slopes with those from the mineral-rich volcanic slopes higher up. Neat rows of vines occupy abandoned terraces and slopes all over the island. It’s good to see the land being put to use again.
The rule of thumb is that the best reds are from the north, and the best whites from the south. Canarian wines are best drunk young, and thus far little of the increased yield is exported, simply because almost all wine produced in the Canary Islands is drunk in the Canary Islands. This, according to the very well-informed guide who showed us around Bodega Brumas de Ayosa (denominación Güimar). Small quantities are snapped up by specialist restaurants in Spain and the U.S., but so far in this century Tenerife wines are a well-kept secret.
Some locals will tell you that the reds should be chilled, in the same way as white wine, because of the warm temperatures here, but this doesn’t work for me. Not so long ago I took a room-temperature bottle of Tajinaste to a dinner party. As we all tasted it, the sigh of delight was audible. My friends hadn’t really tried Tinerfeñian wine until then, but all agreed that it was superb, and converted on the spot.
Most decent-sized towns or villages host a wine festival during the summer. Even a plaza in the former fishing village turned resort of Los Cristianos has a tapas and wine evening in July, to which visitors and locals alike flock enthusiastically. In some villages in the foothills celebrations for the arrival of the new wine are being re-discovered, but there is one town in the island’s north where the traditions were revived years ago. Dates of festivals vary each year. Best to check out dates about one month in advance.
Icod de los Vinos owes its very name to the vines which once surrounded the town, and although today its wines are perhaps lesser known than other areas, the festival which also marks the feast day of San Andres on November 29th has a long history.
In days of yore, when barrels were needed for the new season’s wine, the men of the village would take themselves to the woods to cut down suitable specimens, and rather than cut them up and cart them back piece by piece, they would ride them down the hillsides, like snowless sledges. Of course that can’t happen in 2013, but what does happen to honor that tradition is scarcely less perilless.
On the Feast of San Andres and sometimes the following day, certain roads around the town are closed to traffic. I should explain that Icod de los Vinos, like many island towns, has steep thoroughfares, some seem to be almost vertical. If you visit early in the morning of November 25h you might be surprised to find hundreds of old tires being hauled into place at the bottom of several of these steep, cobbled streets.
Gradually, groups of children will arrive, clutching what appear to be brightly decorated tea trays. They are overdressed for the climate, with thick pants and sweaters, some with kneepads and gardening gloves. They climb laboriously up the closed street, and then sit on their trays at the top, excitedly chattering and jostling for position.
Eventually, one brave soul will put his gloved hands to the stone, and, with a mighty shove, will propel himself down the hill. Then, not to be outdone, every child will slither down, as the first clamber back up for more. It’s a scary thing to watch, what with the lack of protection, and those cobble stones. They crash mightily into the cache of tires at the end of the street. I am just thankful that we didn’t live in this neighborhood when my kids were small!
Those trays turn out to be little more than slabs of wood or plastic, some fitted with handrails, which the kids grab once they have traction. Some are wonderfully decorated, and all are carried with pride. For kids in public school this is a holiday, and they never seem to tire of the adventure, let alone hurt themselves.
After watching, heart in mouth, for a while, I wander along the main street, onto which many of these “speedways” abut. You will find that chestnut sellers have set up. Chestnuts are a big part of this fiesta, and bars are already thronging with people, as kiosks selling cotton candy, drinks and the usual fairground goodies.
As dusk falls, carnival lights garland the narrow streets, and the small children fade away in the face of competition from the big boys and girls. But mainly it’s the town’s young Turks whose trays who rule the streets. Called tablas, they are more fiercely adorned than the smaller ones, , and huge crowds gather to watch their daring feats. Every now and then a whistle blows, action stops, and the Red Cross steps in to collect an injured participant. The whistle blows again and off they go.
Las Tablas de San Andres, as the festival is known, has to rival the running of the bulls for sheer, stupid daring. Long before the lads tire of egging each other on, though, the older folk have turned away to the Plaza Pila, where amid much speechifying the ceremony to present the new wine begins. Unless your Spanish is perfect the speeches drone on a bit, but the free wine and tidbits are welcome.
Afterwards, wend your way along the town’s streets and do the traditional bar crawl. Many bars clear away furnishings to make room for more punters, and some erect extra bars outside to cater for the quantities of sausages, potatoes and local dishes, which will be consumed before daybreak.
San Andres in Icod de los Vinos is a festival quite unlike any other. No tally seems to be kept of injuries, nor bottles consumed, nor sausages eaten, it’s a very local celebration, which welcomes outsiders, and that’s regardless of how good or bad the new season’s wine has turned out to be.
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