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An Unlikely Wine Life in the Canary Islands
By Rebecca Murphy
Feb 15, 2022
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Ollie Horton has fond memories of family holidays on Lanzarote, the fourth largest island in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.  His parents bought an apartment on the island in 1986 that became a home away from their Guernsey home.  He and his brother became avid surfers.  When family holidays stopped, he continued going there with friends.  When he reached the age of 30, the company where he worked as an investment manager was sold.  Lanzarote had long been in the back of his mind as the place where the weather and the surf is good.  A place where he might like to live.  He decided to go for it.  After all, if he went and it didn’t work out, he could always go back home.  He arrived with no plan, a bag, and a couple of surfboards.  

He is still there today, and has created a wine business, Wine Tours Lanzarote and Wine Shop Lanzarote.  That’s how my husband and I met him.  We visited several wineries with Ollie when we traveled to Lanzarote last September.  He and I chatted by Zoom this past week.  

That he is in the wine business is a bit of a surprise to him.  His memories of wine from this island were not positive.  He recalled when he was very young that a van with a barrel of wine in the back would drive along the road stopping to sell vegetables and wine poured out of the barrel into plastic bottles.  So, at a lunch with a friend on the island of Fuerteventura when the waiter suggested they have a Lanzarote wine, he was leery, expecting something rustic.  The waiter assured him that the wines were better now.  “He brought a bottle of Bermejo in a beautiful green bottle to us, and wow, it was so different from what I expected.  It was the best wine I had ever tried,” he said.  

After lunch, the surf wasn’t good so they headed back to Lanazrote and spent the rest of the day looking for that wine and trying to find out more about it.  “The vineyards are so different looking that you might think the wines will be different.”  The vineyards look different because the surface is covered black lava sand from the series of volcanic eruptions in 1730 to 1736.  To get the vine roots into soil, it is necessary to dig a funnel-shaped pit (hoyo) down through the ash to plant the vines.  In areas where the volcanic ash is not so deep the vines can be planted in rows, which makes it possible to use equipment.  Growers also must contend with the trade winds that blow across the island.  To protect the plants from wind damage, they stack volcanic rocks to create a low wall.  They leave small spaces in the wall to provide air flow to prevent diseases.
 
They wanted to learn more about the wines, but it was impossible at that time.  There were no tours then.  “When you went into a winery there was no story, no one there to explain what’s happening.  That was my first light bulb moment about the need for tours, and for years was in the back of my mind.”

He travelled a bit and worked in real estate for a few months, but that began winding down.  So, he decided to create a wine tour based upon what he would like to do.  “Something fun, educational, informal, not too long.  Spending most of the time outdoors focusing on viticulture and the wines.  For the selection of wineries, a range of big producers and artisanal producers to give a flavor of the traditions of the island and the passions of the winemaker to bring stories together.”  The tours took off quickly.  

As they were planning their wine tours, they also developed craft beer tours.  This island has no natural water supply, no rivers, no creeks, no lakes.  Many houses have large cisterns to collect the average 4.9 to 5.9 inches of rainfall per year. The first desalinization facility in Spain was installed on Lanzarote.   Since the water is desalinated sea water, the process is not typical brewing.  Breweries must filter the desalinated water, then apply osmosis with a three-stage filtering process before the water can be used to make beer.  Brewers work with chemists to create the style of water they want for the beer with things like different levels of salt or pH.  There are three craft breweries on the island, the first having started in 2014 and the latest one in 2016.  

He and his team have worked hard to market the tours to hotels and agencies.  Because of Covid, they had to work even harder to adjust to the pandemic.  A big portion of the business is now live from their website, https://www.winetourslanzarote.com/.

In addition to booking and conducting wine and beer tours, Ollie and three of his five team members have achieved the WSET, Wine Spirit and Education Trust, level 2.  WSET is a registered charity with the mission of development and delivery of qualifications and courses in wines and spirits.  It was established in 1969 for the UK wine trade, and their certification programs are available worldwide.  The highest level is Master of Wine.  

They are seeing more Americans on their tours, and they are working to get wines shipped to US for virtual tours.  “We’re so passionate about the Island but it’s not always easy here, so you have to find a balance.  The weather is fantastic.  We’re all surfers, swimmers, outdoor trekkers, and to have this work to go along with it is very special.”

“These days I don’t do so many tours what I do is office based.  I do enjoy it.  I’m a thinker.  I like to be thinking of new things, improvements, doing different things.  We’ve added the wine shop and we’re going to come out with some new private tours for small groups.”

Since Covid Horton says that they’ve been seeing younger people, more diverse nationalities.  Better restaurants are opening and there are great places to stay.  “People are demanding more and better things.  With the wine tour we will have the opportunity to offer tours that are tailored to the party’s needs.”

“In the newspapers and magazines in the U.K., pictures of Lanzarote show beaches, so in people’s minds, the island is a tourist place.  But there is so much more to the island.  I think people are just beginning to understand that.  There’s a new concept on the island given by the tourism board called Lanza Premium, showcasing the food and gastronomy and wine, even a sporting destination.  We have a wine run every year that attracts 2,000 people. Members of his crew sometimes run when they have the time.  There are opportunities for the participants to visit six wineries on the route.”

“Educating people about the wines from the island is quite difficult.”  While studying for the WSET exams, he discovered that there isn’t much information about winemaking and grape varieties from Lanzarote.  “We’ve learned by reading the materials here and spending time with winemakers, developing relationships with people at wineries.  It’s been a challenge, but an enjoyable challenge.  Without Covid we would not have the wine shop.  It’s taken a huge amount of effort.  It’s all done through a Spanish company registered in the UK.  A lot of details to work out to send wine from the Canaries to Belfast including documentation, temperature controls, logistical work and finding people we trusted.  We had been running the wine shop for ten months without having visited the people om the other end. It was all emails and Zoom calls.  It was a test of technology.”

“I’m an outdoor person.  I’m a surfer. Everyone on the team is a surfer.  I got my first surfboard that my mother tracked down for me.  The board was shaped in Hawaii between 1983 and 1986.  When I was 12, I bought it second-hand from a girl in Guernsey who had been to Hawaii.  After that my life changed.  When I was older, all my holidays were about surfing.  If the surf was good, I was in the water.  The reason I am in Lanzarote now is because of the surf.  Everybody on the team works hard, but every day they find the opportunity to get into the water.   For me, balance is the goal.  It’s not about being super successful at making numbers with a lot of zeros at the end.  It’s about creating a life you’re happy with.”  


Photos courtesy of Wine Tours Lanzarote
WineToursLanzarote.com/more-info/gallery




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