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Canary Connections :: William Shakespeare

Monday April 21, 2008

Canary Connections :: William Shakespeare

Some of the most famous figures in English history have a close connection with the Canary Islands. Such as Sir Francis Drake, Admiral Nelson, Winston Churchill and William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare and Canary Wine

During Shakespeare´s time wine from the Canary Islands ruled the roost in the courts and inns of Europe. And was regarded as one of the top tipples available by the cognoscenti. As a result, the popularist playwright made many references to Canary Wine - name checking canary or malmsey in key works such as Twelfth Night, the Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV;

 But I faith, you have drunk too much canaries and that's a marvelous searching wine Henry IV

There is still some confusion about the different wines that were available in Shakespeare's day. As names such as sack, malmsey and canaries crop up frequently.

Sack is now widely recognised as a sherry and would have been a sweet fortified wine in Elizabethan times. The provenance of canaries is clear, but some sources suggest that malmsey was in fact produced in Madeira.

However, according to Felix Garcia, the director of Proexca, the company that exports products from the Canary Islands around the world, malmsey was another of the wines made from the malvasia grape grown in the Canaries.

Top Tipple

Whether malvasia wine will ever again reach the levels of consumption of the past is unlikely however, as records show that by 1570, 20 million litres of this sweet fortified wine was being imported into English ports.

Given the fact that at this time wine was much more expensive than beer or ale it is remarkable that such a large quantity was consumed on an annual basis. The expense arose mainly through import costs because by the mid sixteenth century grape cultivation in the UK had more or less ground to halt.

Wine in Decline

The reason for this decline in English vineyards can be attributed to a number of factors such as the onset of a mini ace age and the closure of many monasteries and their adjoining vineyards by Henry VIII during the Reformation.

As a result, by the sixteenth century the majority of the population quenched their thirst with ale, which was considerably cheaper than wine. During Elizabeth's reign, for example, it was perfectly normal to have a miniature brewery in the home, to ferment ones own beer.

Even Shakespeare's father was an 'ale-taster', a highly respected profession at the time, which ensured the quality of the brew and also that the officially regulated prices were adhered to.  Alcohol consumption during this period in general was reasonably high, partly thanks to the salt used in large quantities as a preservative for meat and fish, which could create a raging thirst at mealtimes.

Vine Time

However, those who could afford it would drink their health with the more expensive, imported wine of the Canaries, which often cost twelve times the price of ale and beer.

Perhaps this was partly attributable to the power of PR. As Shakespeare was so fulsome in his praise of malmsey and canaries that references crop up in no less than 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. Or maybe he was simply swayed by the high alcohol content. As malvasia then had more in common with sherry or port than the table wines of today.

For farmers in Lanzarote the arrival of malvasia 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 and became the foundation for a period of prolonged prosperity on Lanzarote.

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 Malvaisa 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. malvasia just a memory.


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