Bards & Vineyards
Wine has been produced on Lanzarote for over 500 years. But there is still debate about how vines were first introduced to the island.
The Rise & Fall Of Malvasia Wine
But I faith, you have drunk too much canaries and that’s a marvelous searching wine — Henry IV
Some historians claim that vine stocks of the sweet Malvasía grape from Greece arrived with the Romans 1,000 years ago. Others support the theory that the Portuguese prince, Henry the Navigator, transported vines here in the 15th century.
Either way for a couple of hundred years during the 16th and 17th centuries Canarian wines ruled the roost worldwide.
Geography is partly to thank. As well as providing conducive climactic conditions for producing wine the seven islands were also well located for exporting it. The Canaries perch on what was then the key trade triangle between the Americas, Africa and Europe.
Nectar of the Gods
Canarian Malvasía wine was a prestigious drink. Bottles graced the top tables of kings and queens across Europe. It was widely regarded by the cognoscenti as ‘the nectar of the gods’.
This was partly because medieval palettes favoured sweet tasting drinks with a strong bouquet, not least because sugar was a luxury item. In addition they needed something to counter the taste of salt, the prevalent preservative of the time.
Malvasía fitted the bill perfectly and this sweet, aromatic wine was to prove especially popular in England, the major market for exports.
Perhaps this was partly attributable to the power of PR. William Shakespeare no less was fulsome in his praise of ‘malmsey’ or ‘sack’ (as Malvasía was often called then). So much so that references crop up in thirty of his works.
He certainly had a vested interest in promoting the stuff. As poet laureate he enjoyed an annual allowance of 268 gallons from the Crown, free of charge. Maybe he was simply swayed by the high alcohol content. Malvasía then had more in common with sherry or port than the table wines of today.
For farmers in Lanzarote the arrival of Malvasía vines was extremely timely. Previously the primary crop had been sugar cane. But exports had been decimated by competition from the New World colonies.
As a result, wine production provided sweet relief. It became the foundation for a period of prolonged prosperity on Lanzarote.
Wine in Decline
Tastes change however. As do tastemakers. In 1649 Charles II came to the throne in that all important export market, England.
Sadly for Lanzarote’s farmers the new King was a sherry man. His courtiers and countrymen soon followed suit and the popularity of Malvasía began to drain away.
Britain’s growing enmity with Spain finally burst the bubble. The British began to boycott Spanish wines in the late 17th century, both to better support their ally Portugal and to undermine their enemy.
Madeira became the drink of choice. Malvasía a memory.
The Malvasía grape is still cultivated on Lanzarote today, albeit in smaller quantities. It accounts for around 75% of all wine production on the island.