Canary Malmsey set for return after 300 years

For decades, the words "Lanzarote" and "alcohol" have conjured up images little more glamorous than British tourists enjoying copious quantities of lager.

Now the government of the Canary Islands is hoping to project a different image of the sun-kissed Spanish outpost by resurrecting the fortunes of a wine whose qualities were once lauded by Shakespeare and reputedly drowned the brother of a medieval English king.

Malmsey (known as "Canary" in Elizabethan England), a sweet fortified wine made on the islands since the 15th century, was the drink of choice on the British Isles for aristocrats, writers and merchants for more than 150 years, until the trade suddenly ended in the 1680s.

The name Malmsey is now associated by most people with Madeira, where it is produced using the same grapes. But a small group of Canary Islands producers are determined to reverse that trend, and gathered this week in London to try to persuade retailers and restaurateurs to once more stock the wine that inspired Shakespeare to write in Henry IV: "You have drunk too much Canaries, and that's a Marvellous searching wine."

Felix Garcia, international director of Proexca, the state-owned Canary Islands' export agency, said: "We have more than five million tourists a year who come here but few leave the islands knowing about Malmsey.

"We have concentrated for a long time as an island on tourism. Now it is time to expand on some of our other strengths. Britain is one of the oldest markets for this wine and we want to restore that link.

"The UK is probably the most sophisticated wine market in the world. Consumers here have a choice of almost every wine and it is very competitive. But we believe we have a very special product that should again be available here and prosper."

Malmsey, which is made from the malvasia grape grown on the slopes surrounding resorts on Lanzarote, La Palma and Tenerife, is thought to have originated in Ancient Greece. It accounts for just 15 per cent of the 14 million litres of wine currently produced on the islands. Its production remains largely artisanal, with small co-operatives and family-owned farms producing 2.7 million bottles a year. By comparison, the annual production of sherry is 120 million bottles.

The Canaries, which are off north-west Africa, managed to carry on producing Malmsey because the islands' isolated position protected vineyards from phylloxera, the lethal fungus which devastated most of mainland Europe's vines in the 19th century.

The wine is thought to have reached British shores in the late 15th century. By legend, George of Clarence, brother of Edward IV, was drowned in a barrel of Malmsey in 1478 after plotting to overthrow the king.

An accident of geography gave towns on Tenerife such as Lanzarote the perfect micro-climate to produce the wine and then export it via trade routes to the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries. By 1570, London was importing 20 million litres of Malmsey each year, making the rich dark liquor a favourite in drinking houses and the royal court.

The flourishing Anglo-Spanish trade was brought to an abrupt end in 1666 when islanders rebelled against the dominance of the London-based Canary Island Company, which had a monopoly on exports. When producers expressed their discontent by smashing barrels so that Malmsey flowed in the streets, Britain retaliated by banning the wine and swapped to the Portuguese rival, Madeira.

Clearly the nine Malmsey co-operatives taking part in the scheme are aiming for a discerning clientele. The average price for a bottle of the dessert wine is expected to be about £20.

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