Souls of poets dead and gone,
What Elysium have ye known,
Happy field or mossy cavern,
Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?
Have ye tippled drink more fine
Than mine host’s Canary wine?
John Keats (1795–1821) Lines on the Mermaid Tavern
In its heyday, Canarian wine was widely accepted to be the best in the world and its fame spread through the writings of such literary bigwigs as Shakespeare (whose annual stipend included a barrel of Canarian Malmsey wine), Sir Walter Scott and John Keats.
When, in 1797, the British Fleet under the command of Admiral Nelson attempted to sack the port of Santa Cruz and deplete Spain’s haul of wealth from the Americas, Tenerife won her proudest victory, roundly thrashing the British and taking Nelson’s arm in the skirmish. The ensuing, very gentlemanly terms of surrender and return of British troops to their ships was accompanied by a barrel of Malmsey by way of a gift from the victorious General Gutierrez to Nelson. Nelson reciprocated with a barrel of ale, thus setting a trend of cultural imbalance between the Spanish and the English still widely enjoyed today.
It was the conquistadores who first introduced vines to the Canary Islands in the 14th and 15th centuries. Largely made up of mercenaries from across Europe, the conquerors were given land in exchange for their fighting services and on it, they set about planting crops, including vines, for sustenance farming. Keen to see which root stock would grow best, varieties of vines were planted from Andalucia, Castilla, Navarra, Galicia and Catalonia as well as from Portugal, France and Genoa. Thus the Canary Islands found themselves with a greater variety of vines than most other places in Europe. In the late 19th century when pylloxera swept through the vineyards of France and much of Europe, the vines of the Canary Islands escaped and many varieties lost to Europe survived. Even today, some of the vines in the islands can trace their root stock back hundreds of years.
Planting continued throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries with the vines flourishing in their fertile new surroundings and the resultant wine being exported across Europe and the Americas. Two factors, more than anything else, contributed to the success of wines from the Canary Islands. Firstly, introduced in the second half of the 15th century, the Malvasía grape grew particularly well in the islands and produced a sweet, rich wine which not only suited the palates of 16th century Elizabethan England and her colonies very nicely, but it also travelled very well. Secondly, the Canary Islands, and Tenerife in particular, were perfectly placed at the crossroads between the old world and the new, a focal point on all shipping routes which passed through the ports of Garachico, La Orotava (now Puerto de la Cruz) and Santa Cruz to make repairs and take supplies on board en route to and from Europe.
The wine monopoly
Merchants grew fat and wealthy on the earnings from wine and many of Tenerife’s most noble families who settled in La Orotava, La Laguna and Garachico made their fortunes and built their fine mansions with its fruits. But by the mid 17th century, Canary wine’s fortunes were about to change.
It was through the English that Tenerife’s wines had flourished, their shipping channels distributing it across the globe to their colonies but in 1661, in an attempt to control the profits from the trade, the Canary Company was formed in London which was given exclusive rights to the Canary Islands wine trade. The Canary Company began to misuse its power, manipulating prices and exploiting the producers. This stranglehold on the trade led to the Garachico Wine Rebellion of 1666 in which bodega owners broke into warehouses and smashed all the barrels waiting for export, causing the streets of the wealthy town to ‘run with wine’ according to one local historian.
With London prices for Malvasía spiralling out of control, the English monarch, Charles II, inadvertently supplied a second nail for the wine’s coffin by marrying the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza. Queen Catherine expressed a preference for the wines of her homeland, specifically those of Madeira. Since Portugal had long since freed herself from the clutches of Spanish control, her merchants were easily able to undercut the now exorbitant Canary wine and to flood the English market where the nobility were quick to curry favour with their new Queen by emulating her tippling practices.
Sadly depleted, by the mid 19th century when first locusts and then mildew hit the crops, the trade all but disappeared.
Tenerife wine revival
‘Canary’ wine has enjoyed something of a renaissance over the last 15 years and today has found its way onto the prize winners’ platforms of international awards and onto the tables of wine connoisseurs worldwide.
More than 10% of the total surface area of the Canarian Archipelago is given over to the commercial production of wine covering every island except Fuerteventura. Taking pole position in both quality and quantity of wine production are the islands of Tenerife, Lanzarote and La Palma with Tenerife being the largest producer.
There are five DOs (Denominación de Origen – recognised and accredited wine growing regions) on Tenerife, three of them in the north (Valle de la Orotava, Tacoronte Acentejo and Ycoden Dauté Isora) and two in the south (Abona and Valle de Guimar) and more than 100 bodegas (vineyards). In most restaurants across the island now you can expect to see at least one locally produced white and one red on every wine menu while top restaurants in hotels and outside the resorts will offer a more comprehensive selection.
As yields are low, prices are generally higher than Spanish mainland brands but by ordering a bottle, you’re helping to re-establish what was once the darling of three continents while enjoying a taste of fine olde worlde wine into the bargain.
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+