One of the pleasanter aspects of living here over the last 20 years or so has been watching the rebirth of the Canarian wine industry, and whilst, yes, before you say it, I do drink my full share :=) I can’t really claim more than the tiniest smidgen of credit for this revival……as in most things – I do my best :=)
Back in Shakespeare’s time Canarian wines were world-famous. Did it ever occur to you, by the way, that things could have been “world-famous” before the internet, even before tv or radio? Well, let’s not take the phrase too literally, they were famous all over the world which western man had “discovered”, how’s that?………and …….back on topic ……..
Who remembers in what kind of wine the Duke of Clarence was drowned in Shakespeare’s “Richard lll”? Right anyone who muttered , “Malmsey, of course”. I have seen it claimed that that, particular vat of Malmsey was Canarian, but, of course, it probably was an early urban myth that the duke was executed thus in any event, so that claim is highly unlikely to be true. Malmsey is more readily associated with the Atlantic island of Madeira, to the North of the Canary Islands, and belonging to Portugal, but the Malvasia grapes were grown then on these “Fortunate Islands” too. The opinions about whether Malmsey and Malvasia are the same thing abound on the web, but for sure the Bard did mention Canarian wine specifically. Note this exchange between the flamboyant Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek early in “Twelfth Night”:
Sir Toby: ” O knight! thou lackest a cup of canary: when did I see thee so put down?”
Sir Andrew: “Never in your life, I think; unless you see canary put me down. Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has; but I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit.”
Oh, we have to let slide that reference to beef, not to mention the rich source for a religious debate, because this post is about Canarian wines! Someone or other (who probably really needs to get a life) has counted, if memory serves me, 134 references to “canary” or “canaries” in Shakespeare’s works. The Canary refered to is probably not Malmsey, which was like sherry, but a sweet, wine table wine, made from the Malvasia grapes, which still grow on the islands.
Remember, these are volcanic islands, the soil is rich in nutrients, and the climate is unbelievably kind. It’s almost a Garden of Eden.
Ask why the industry declined and you get contradictory results on the web, some say that the grape blight of 1853 wiped out crops, other sites will tell you that unlike Madeira or the Spanish mainland, the Canary Islands were spared the blight, and just sank under the weight of competition and trade agreements over the centuries which favored other locations, and even the destruction of Garachico in the volcanic eruption of 1706 gets mentioned. It was the island’s main port at the time, so obviously trade was affected.
Whatever the reasons for the decline, the rise has been nothing short of spectacular. When I first arrived here local wine was the stuff you drank in the inland bars, usually from a small, dirty tumbler, when you feasted on gigantic pork chops or roast suckling pig. It was white and on the rough side, but left a pleasant hum on the tongue after quaffing. That was in the mid Eighties, and little did I know it but it was about then that the revival of the industry was beginning.
The first time I remember being really impressed with Canarian wine was on a visit to Lanzarote. It was one of those delightful, hazy, lazy afternoons, a little inland bar, a bottle of Malvasia, and I was a convert. I will never desert my beloved, but very-unfashionable-now Chardonnay, but it’s a fine balance with the Malvasia these days. Sweet enough and cold as ice so on a hot Summer’s day it’s heaven in a glass!
Tenerife now has no less than five denominacion de Origen on this small island – Abona, Tacaronte-Acentejo, Valle de Güimar, Valle de la Oratava and Ycoden-Daute-Isora, and as well as the famed, sweet whites, smooth and fruity reds are produced. As the 20th century faded out the quality and fame of wines from Tenerife soared, and they began to win prizes at international level, putting the islands back on the map after more than a couple of centuries in the doldrums.
That’s the short version of the story, and now you are wondering why I am rambling on about them. Well, apart from the fact that I obviously have a fondeness for them! Last Friday there was a wine tasting promotion in Los Cristianos, which sorely tested my drink-drive resolve. I think I might have been somewhat over the limit, but it was early when I cruised home, windows down, soft breeze….you know the kind of thing, so I was ok.
The event was held down by the harbor, and attracted a nice mix of locals and tourists. I was, actually, surprised at the numbers. I’d see the information online, but nowhere else around, but it was smack-bang in the middle of the tourist track, as they wander the seafront in search of somewhere to eat. All five regions were represented, and the choice was huge, far too many, and also far too many elbows in the ribs to make a really informed choice or opinion, but I did discover a couple of new wines which I can’t wait to be able to afford and stock up on.
Since Viña Norte began to be marketed in a sensible way some years ago it’s easily been my favorite red. It’s varied from year to year, of course, and some years has been quite outstanding, but I found one from Valle de la Orotava, Tajinaste Tinto 4 M Barrica, according to the catalogue, which was rich with lots more body than Canarian reds usually have, and at €8 per bottle it was well worth it. That’s one I shall be keeping an eye out for from now on.
My favorite whites are Brumas from Tenerife, and wines from the El Grifo winery on neighboring Lanzarote, but a friend introduced me Friday night to a sensational, sweet Malvasia from Abona, Testamento Malvasia Dulce 2009, which I shall positively go in search of (should I thank the lord that the ATM wouldn’t process my card that night???). It is very sweet, but for a dessert wine for a special occasion there really won’t be many to compare. At €12 it was expensive for a wine from this neck of the woods. Lastly, a sweet young man recommended a rosé, a Marba Rosado 2009 from Tacoronte-Acentejo. Now, I am not a huge fan of rosé, though I associate it with happy memories of Summer nights in the South of France on vacation, it absolutely has to be chilled to death and the weather has to match, so it is a measure of how much I liked it that although the weather was as ordered, the amount of chilling, given the open air setting, was lacking.
I didn’t intend to chose one red, one white and one rosé, that’s just the way it turned out, but I can’t begin to tell you how good this island’s wines are these days. On the night the only disappointment was the food, which has been advertised as samples of typical Canarian cuisine. The only thing on offer when we approached the food tent was some sorry-looking gofio and chunks of stale bread. Meat had been flung onto barbeques, but it was clearly going to be ages and ages before it was ready. This would have been because they had flung on a whole side of, presumably, pork, instead of cutting into more easily cookable chunks. Obviously the event had been more successful than anticipated, which is good, and they had woefully under-catered, but hey, we weren’t there for the food, we were there for the wine, and it did not disappoint.
I leave you with a couple more quotes attesting to the former glories of the stuff:
“But that which most doth take my muse and me,
Is a pure cup of rich Canary wine,
Which is the mermaid’s now, but shall be mine.”
Ben Jonson, English playwright, (1573-1637)……and no, he wasn’t so drunk he was seeing mermaids, the Mermaid was a famous tavern where Johnson used to sharpen his wits against that of Will Shakespeare. Around two hundred years later Keats was moved to celebrate the tavern further, and again mention my favorite tipple thus:
“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?”
What more can one add to that?