Yes, this is autoplagio.

At its very best, this site will serve as a digital bulletin board on which I pin my experiences, musings, pictorial demonstrations, and (not so) creative writings. As such, I’d be remiss if I didn’t allow myself to comb back through time to poach some of my previously published words on one platform or another. An indulgent form of nostalgia? I accept that charge, but I plow forward unblushingly.

What follows was penned (quite literally, in fact. Pen on paper before trudging to the local internet cafe to transcribe it onto a wordpress blog) just over a decade ago during a stint laboring in picturesque, though maddeningly rainy, Canary vineyards.

A brief history of Canary wine tradition

Although perhaps better know internationally for world class beaches and surf breaks, the Canary Islands have a rich heritage of viticulture and winemaking that spans six centuries.  In fact, the long-held esteem of Canary wines can be noted in such literary works as Sir Walter Scott´s Ivanhoe and William Shakespeare´s Twelfth Night–in which Sir Toby Balch calls for “a cup of canary”.  As such, the latest surge in quality and prestige of Canary wines should be perceived not as the emergence of a world-class wine region, but rather as the reconfirmation of a long-held title.

Grape vines were first brought to the Canary Islands in the second half of the 15th century by the Spanish conquistadors.  The vines immediately took to the sub-tropical island climate and rich, slightly acidic volcanic soil.  The industry began to make a name for itself in Europe, which combined with the declining sugar can cultivation on the islands in the 16th century let to an eruption in plantings of vitis vinifera.  During the epoch, the viticulture was dominated by the Malvasia grape (indigenous to the island of Crete), which had made its way to the Canaries via the island of Madeira, where it was also cultivated widely.  1553 marked the founding of the first English export company on the Islands, its sole product barrels of the sweet, alcoholic white Malvasia–then known generically as Canary, much as the wines of Madeira, Porto, and Jerez are recognized today.

The industry continued to flourish until the latter part of the 17th century, when it experienced a precipitous downturn.  Portugal´s independence from the Spanish Monarchy in 1640 meant the end of commerce with the Portuguese colonial market.  Worse yet, the marriage between Carlos II of England and the Portuguese Catalina de Branganza heralded the closure of the Carribean and North American markets to Canary wines, as the English adopted a policy favoring commerce with Portugal.  The most devastating blow came in 1666 however, with the creation of the Canary Company, an English firm designed to completely monopolize the Canary wine industry.  Canary farmers vehemently opposed the monopoly; on the night of July 3, 1666 in the port of Garachico, some three or four hundred masked men stormed the doors of the wineries, destroyed the barrels, and bathed in the rivers of wine that flowed through the streets.  In response the English government levied huge taxes on the import of Canary wines, decimating the islands´ability to compete in the marketplace.

The Canary wine industry limped through the 18th century by selling false-Madeiras and low quality bulk wines.  this production of imitation Madeiras is directly responsible for bringing red-wine grapes to the islands, which until this point had only cultivated white varietals. By the beginning of the 19th century the Canaries were producing some extremely high quality reds, but still struggled to compete for market share against the better established wines of Porto, Madeira, and peninsular Spain.

The latter half of the 19th century brought more poor fortune to the islands´struggling wine industry.  Attacks of powdery mildew (oidium tuckeri/uncinula necator) in 1852 and 1878 again brought the industry to its knees.  The culture of grape growing remained, but the region demonstrated a total abandonment of progress in the pursuit of improving wine quality as the majority of wine was produced for domestic (personal) consumption, and at best, the wine was sold to a local tavern.  While most families maintained their family vineyard, many of the larger commercial plots were converted into banana plantations.  As such, today´s Canary wines differ greatly from the alcoholic behemoths historically produced here.  The majority of wine cultivation is now located in cooler areas of the islands, while the banana plantations occupy the hottest zones.

In the years since the mid-1980´s, the Canary wine industry has experienced a renaissance of sorts, exhibiting surging quality and dramatic growth.  In the years just prior to switching to the Euro as form of currency (2002) the number of new winery facilities boomed as many home vintners saw the construction as the perfect way to white wash (launder) black market pesetas before they lost their value. The wine sector, which is heavily subsidized by the regional government, has placed an emphasis on modernization, which has resulted in the use of less inorganic fertilizers, new canopy management strategies, vineyard irrigation systems, and the latest winery equipment.  Furthermore, instead of identifying generically as ¨canary¨wine, or even as a wine typical of a specific island, the various regions are splintering into distinct appellations.  The island of Tenerife has no less than 5 denominated zones:  Abona, Tacoronte-Acentejo, Valle de Güimar, Valle de la Orotava, and Ycoden-Dante-Isora.  What this means for wineries in Tacoronte-Acentejo, for example, is that it is not permitted to have more than 3,400 plants per hectare (2.47 acres), nor to harvest more than 10,000 kilograms of grapes per hectare.  In addition, the maximum juice extraction permitted per 100 kilograms of grapes is 70 liters.

Today, Malvasia is still produced in the Canary Islands, mainly on the islands of La Palma and Lanzarote.  The island of Tenerife, perhaps the most promising wine region, is better suited for medium to full bodied reds from the Negramoll and Listán Negro grapes.  Whites on Tenerife are typically of Listán Blanco, what is more commonly known as Palomino, the great sherry grape of Jerez.

Works Consulted:

  • Oxford Companion to Wine 2nd Edition Ed. Jancis Robinson 1999
  • Vinaletras: Cuaderno Bianual de Cultura y vino Tacoronte Acentejo 2007
  • Tenerife: Beber, Comer, Viajar Patronato de turismo de Tenerife 1992
  • Vinos de Canarias Gobierno de Canarias, Arias, Benitez, Ortega. 1993
  • Noticias de la Historia General de las Islas Canarias Tomos 1 y 2. Viera
  • y Clavijo. 1967, 1971
  • Wikipedia

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