Home > History of Wine > A Brief History of Wine from the Canary Islands

A Brief History of Wine from the Canary Islands

Wines have been exported from the Canary Islands since the late 16th century.  Even a quick look into the history of wine will reveal widespread and common reference to Canary wine.  As popular as it was it eventually experienced a decline in exports such that many readers of this blog may not have tasted an example.  Indeed as broad as I drink I did not taste my first sip of Canary wine until this month.  From what I gather the resurgence of Canary Island wine in the United States is owed to the importer Jose Pastor.  The Canary Islands represent the largest regional share in his portfolio with 14 out of 45 producers listed on the website.  Jose imported his first Canary Island wine back in 2007.  Since then this part of his portfolio appears to have gained traction in San Francisco and New York City.  During my recent trip to New York City one of the first questions I was asked at both Despana Vinos y Mas and Chambers Street Wines was whether I had tried one of the island wines.  I had not so I walked away with three different wines.  My knowledge of the Canary Island wines was spotted at best so for my next several posts I will focus on the turbulent and fascinating history of Canary wine and my actual tasting notes.

The Origins of Canary Wine

CanaryIslands, BT Welch and Co, FLucas Jr, Baltimore, 1823, Image from David Rumsey Map Collection

Canary Islands, BT Welch and Co, FLucas Jr, Baltimore, 1823, Image from David Rumsey Map Collection

The Canary Islands along with Madeira were discovered by the Portuguese and Castilians in the 15th century.  By the end of the 15th century it was agreed that the Castillians would control the Canary Islands and the Portuguese would control Madeira.  The Canary Islands are located off of the coast of Africa and were an important port of call before ships left for the Americas.  Land was cheap so plantations were quickly created to grow and mill sugar for export.  The rise of Brazilian and Caribbean sugar exports to Europe eventually undermined the Canary and Madeiran sugar exports.    Vineyard were also planted on the islands with exports of sweet white Malvasia from Tenerife gaining popularity in Europe throughout the 16th century.  By the mid 17th century West Indian sugar was half the cost of Canarian.  With the decline of sugar production and the rise in price of wine, vineyards were greatly expanded.  The main varietal was Malvasia brought over from Cyprus.    Its popularity resulted in a vineyard expansion to such extent that grain needed to be imported to the islands.

There were three main markets for Canary wine: Spanish and Portuguese provinces in America, Portuguese  Cape Verde, and European markets in France, the Netherlands, and England.  To these markets three types of wine were exported the highly popular Malmsey produced from Malvasia, a greenish dry wine, and a purplish sweet wine produced from late harvested grapes.  Though the vineyards were located in Teneriffe, Gran Canaria, and Las Palmas that vast majority were located in Tenerife.  In 1600 Tenerife account for 62% of the total taxes on trade in the Canary Islands and by 1688 it account for 90%.

War with Spain ended in 1604 and the Canary wine trade developed.  By the mid seventeenth century Portuguese independence from Spain meant the majority of Canary wine was exported to England.  The price of Canary wine in the early 1660s had reached twice that as in 1640.  Meetings were held to fix the price of Canary wine at 29 Pounds per Butt in 1662 and 32 Pounds per Butt in 1664.  With such high prices a group of merchants received a royal patent from Charles II in 1665 to form the Governour and Company of Merchants trading to the Canary Island.  Also known as The Canary Company the goal was to restrict the Canary Island wine import business to the Company so that they could negotiate for lower wine prices.  This was not received well at the Canary Islands where the Company’s agents were expelled from Teneriffe in 1666.  In an attempt to overthrow the Company, English ships were no longer allowed to land and no English merchants were allowed to live on the Islands until the Company’s charter was recalled.  In response the importation of Canary wine to England was banned.

During these very same years London experienced the great fire of 1666 and the Dutch Navy were wearing on British ships.  With the great losses due to the fire and difficulties in transportation within London and over the seas, there were extensive challenges to importation and sales.  In London, members of the Company sought to petition alterations to the patent which ultimately lead to the cancellation of the patent in 1667 and the renewal of free trade with the Canary Islands.  Just one year later Charlie II married Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess.  He subsequently banned the importation of Canary wines to the benefit of Portuguese wines.  Trade eventually resumed, in 1681 4.5 millon quart bottles or 4,464 pipes of Canary wine were taxed in London.  By the 1690s two-thirds of the Malvasia from Tenerife was imported into London alone.  Rising import duties began to reduce the profitability of the Canary wine trade.  The War of the Spanish Succession broke out in 1701 forcing English merchants to once again leave Tenerife.

Canary Wines and Medicine

Dr. Thomas Sydenham, Mary Beale, National Portrait Gallery, London, Image from Wikimedia

Dr. Thomas Sydenham, Mary Beale, National Portrait Gallery, London, Image from Wikimedia

Canary Wine was not just consumed but prescribed in medicine.  Dr. Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689) revived the Hippocratic methods of observation and was a founder of epidemiology.  He considered the foundation of medicine to be rooted in beside experiences.  As such he actively studied epidemics in London beginning in the 1650s.  He is famous for the introduction of Cinchona bark and his use of laudanum which reintroduced it to the medical community.  In 1676 he published Medical Observations Concerning the History and Cure of Acute Diseases.  In it we find his recipe for Laudanum.

Strained opium (2oz), saffron (1oz), cinnamon & cloves (1 drachm each), & Canary wine (1 pint)

As to his use of Canary wine we may find reason in his remedy to the symptoms of the Gout.

I have tried many things for the Fits of the last Tears to lessen this Symptom but nothing did so much good as a small draught of Canary Wine taken now and then when the Sickness and Faintness afflict the Sick Nor is Red French Wine or Venice Treacle or any other Cordial thing which I have yet known so effectual But we must imagine that neither this Wine or any other Cordial if Exercise be not used can wholly preserve the Patient.

Canary Wine is used throughout his Medical Observations including a method to invigorate and strengthen the blood in the case of diabetes.

Take of the Roots of Elecampane Masterwort, Angelica, and Gentian each half an Ounce; of the Leaves of Roman Wormwood; white Horehound; of the lesser Centaury and of Calaminth, each one Handful of Juniper-berries one Ounce : Let them be cut small and infused in five Pints of Canary, let them stand together in a cold Infusion, and strain it as you use it.

Canary Wines in Bristol

Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol

Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol

I spent my formative year of wine-drinking in Bristol, England.  It was a fantastic city to buy wine in, with both new and long-established wine merchants.  I often shopped at Averys founded in 1793 and John Harvey & sons founded in 1796.  Starting in the 15th century Bristol was the second most important port after London.  If we look at the 1620s and 1630s we see that this extended to wine imports with London importing an average of 19,650 tuns seconded by Bristol at 2,341 tuns.

There are a large variety of records related to the importation of wine into Britain.  They frequently refer to wine in terms of tuns, pipes, and hogsheads.  A tun is an English unit of liquid volume originally set at 256 gallons then reduced to 252 wine gallons by the 15th century and eventually 210 Imperial gallons in 1826.  A pipe or butt is half the volume of a tun and a hogshead is a quarter the volume of a tun.

Import statistics rely on various customs books.  They reflect the variation in harvest date and yield, alignment with the bookkeeping calendar, and also greater political events.  In looking at 17th century importation volume of Canary wine to some degree they reflect the War with Spain in 1625-1630 and the war with France in 1627 which made 1620 into very early 1630s a difficult time.   This was followed by extra taxes on wine in the 1630s and a privileges granted to London wine merchants.  The decline in wine imports continued with the Civil War 1640-1641 and took until the 1680s to recover.  By then higher duties were being imposed.  With higher wine prices and the availability of alternative beverages wine imports declined again in the late 17th century.

Canary Wine Imports at Bristol

Sept 1600 – Sept 1601 1 – Canary wine 108 tuns (5.8%) out of 1871.5 tuns.
Dec 1612 – Dec 1613 2 – Canary wine 196 pipes (98 tuns, 5.0%) out of 1942 tuns.
Dec 1624 – Dec 1625 3 – Canary wine 171 pipes (85.5 tuns, 4.8% ) out of 1790 tuns.
Sept 1654-  Sept 1655 6 – Canary wine 33 pipes and 10 quarter casks (19 tuns, 2.6%) out of 726 tuns.
Sept 1682 – Sept 1683 11 – Canary wine 15.5 pipes(7.25 tuns, 0.6%) out of 1206 tuns.
Sept 1685 – Sept 1686 12 – Canary wine 78 pipes (39 tuns, 4.8%) out of 813 tuns.

Based on Port Books and Society of Merchant Venturers Wharfage Books

In the 17th century Canary wine imports by volume peaked in 1600-1601 at 108 tuns.  Wine was typically consumed in one quart bottle units so this volume represents some 108,864 bottles worth of Canary wine.  The population of Bristol was approximately 10,000-11,000 during the first decade of the 17th century.  Certainly not all of the wine was consumed within Bristol but if it was this represents 10 bottles for every man, woman, and child for one year alone.

Canary Wines in the County of Suffolk

At a more individual scale we can look at the consumption of Canary wine by John Hervey, 1st Earl of Bristol.  John Hervey (1665-1751) became a member of Parliament in 1694 then became the 1st Baron Hervey of Ickworth in the County of Suffolk in 1703 and finally the 1st Earl of Bristol in 1714.  While his diary is sparse with entries his Expensive Book are particularly detailed with expenditures on wine.  The first recorded year of wine expenditures is 1689 when he bought Clarrett and Duncomb wine.  In 1690 he began to drink Hermitage and in 1697 he purchased his first pipe of Canary wine.  John Hervey drank diversely and well.  In 1702 he purchased 4 hogshead of “obrian” (Chateau Haut-Brion) and in 1703 he purchased one hogshead of “Margoose Clarett” (Chateau Margaux).  Over the span of 54 year he purchased Canary wine ten times for a total volume around 2 tuns.  This represents an approximate household consumption of 2,106 quart bottle or three bottles per month.  The cost of his Canary wine ranged from 30 Pounds per pipe all the way up to 100 Pounds per pipe.  In the absence of an established annual trend this may reflect a range in quality of the Canary wine purchased.

Wine Expenses from The Diary of John Hervey covering 1688-1742

June 18 1697, 80 Pounds for 2 pipes of Fayall & 1 Pipe of Canary.
June 21 1697, Parcell of pictures & for a hogshead of old Canary, 80 Pounds.
Jan 15 1705, 9 gallons 1 quart of Canary he bought for me 4..15..0.
Feb 17 1710, 4th part of a pipe of Canary, 15 Pounds.
Feb 7 1711 60 gallons of Palme & Canary wine etc. 33..10..0.
March 8, 1718, 30 gallons of Canary, 12..1..6.
March 21 1718, Port-wines, Canary, & all other demands to this day, 114..17..6.
Jan 10 1724, 3 parcells of Canary, a pipe of Porte at 28 Pounds.
March 29 1734, for a pipe of Canary 30 Pounds.
Mar 26 1741, a hogshead of Canary at 31..10..0.

Canary Wine in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Geographical Distribution Of Indigenous Vegetation, Arthur Henfrey, Edinburgh,1854, Image from David Rumsey Map Collection

Geographical Distribution Of Indigenous Vegetation, Arthur Henfrey, Edinburgh,1854, Image from David Rumsey Map Collection

The Canary Island wine trade with Britain never recovered the vigor of the 17th century.  At the beginning of the 18th century English imports of Portuguese wines, including port wine, and the wines of Madeira increased due to favorable relationships between Britain and Portugal.  Thus with the Canary wine we see that in 1785 only 65 tuns were imported into Britain, in 1808 it increased to 1683 tuns, and by 1821 it was down to 1000 tuns.  Though exports from the Canary islands to Britain decreased the wines were still exported around the world.  In Williamsburg, Virginia we find 22 bottles of Canary listed in the Inventory of the Estate of Joh Marott in 1717.  Canary wines were also advertised for sale in The Virginia Gazette in 1771.

 ”To be SOLD at John Greenhow’s Store, near the Church, in Williamsburg, for ready Money, on reasonable Terms,…Old Spirits, best and common Arrack, Madeira, Lisbon, red port, Claret, Canary, and Renish Wines…”, Publisher: Purdie & dixon, Page: 3, Column: 2, 1771-12-12.

The 19th century view of Canary wine appears somewhat consistent in that Tenerife produced the largest amount of wine followed by Gran Canaria.  Of the three wines produced the sweet Malmsey from Malvasia was considered the best.  In 1833 Cyrus Redding published a book on wine commenting that the Canaries produce 25,000 pipes of white wine annually while 15,000 are consumed internally or distilled.  Tenerife alone producing 22,000 pipes.  Upon tasting a 126 year old bottle in a small pint-size bottle he found it was “flavour was good, and it had ample body.”  “Teneriffe produces the best wines of all the islands, having the greatest body.”  “On the eastern side of Palma, Malvasia, or Malmsey, is grown, which in a few years gains a bouquet like a ripe pine-apple.  The dry wines are not as good as those of the other islands.  The best vines do not grow more than a mile from the sea.”

In 1863 Agoston Haraszthy found the Canary Islands producing a large quantity of wine with Tenerife alone responsible for 40,000 pipes of wine.  This included the Malvasia wine which he found “of agreeable taste, sweet and spirituous” and the “Vidogne, which though keen and tart when new, gains by age.”  He notes the wines of Palma island were considered inferior.  Two years later wine merchant W. R. Loftus states the principal islands were Gran Canaria and Tenerife.  The wines also known as Teneriffe “resemble Madeira, though far from possessing its flavour or body.”  The dry Vidonia produced from the Vidogna grape “has a good body, and improves with age.  It is made from grapes gathered before they are ripened, and when new it is far from pleasant; but a few years soon removes this flavour, and greatly increases its mildness.”  Palma is inferior to that of Teneriffe.  The Malmsey is “very excellent, although possessing, as some affirm, an acid quality.”  He notes that in 1827 417,703 gallons of Canary Wines were imported into Great Britain but have decreased ever since.

Though Agoston Haraszthy and W. R. Loftus do not mention the Powdery Mildew which hit the Canary Islands in 1852, Thomas George Shaw comments that the Oidium attack “sufferings and losses have been consequently great…”.   The Canary Islands suffered two blows from Powdery Mildew in 1852 and Mildew in 1878.  These attacks devastated the vineyards to such an extent that in 1888 Charles Edwards writes that he no longer purchased the wines for the disease “came disastrously upon the vineyards of Tenerife.”  By the end of the 19th century the wine industry appears to have recovered.  In 1898 A. Samler Brown wrote that wine exports reached a low of 4,855 Pounds in 1885 but just 13 years later had reached some 25,000 Pounds per year.  The grapes planted were Tentillo, Negra Molle, Moscatel (black and white), Verdelho, Pedro Jimenez, Forastero, and Vija-Riega.   The inferior vineyards were found higher up on the hills and were more susceptible to disease.  The better vineyards were lower, warmer, and produced more expensive wines.  Wines in barrel were mature in eight years but improved up to 25 years of age.  Fortified wine was still produced along with a small amount of high quality sweet wine known as Gloria.  Red Canary was also produced and Samler Brown found that the red wines of Tacoronte were the best reds in Tenerife.   Indeed 90 years later Tacoronte-Acentejo became the first Denominacion de Origen (DO) in the Canary Islands.

Contemporary History

Vineyard in Tacoronte, Image from Bodegas Monje

Vineyard in Tacoronte, Image from Bodegas Monje

I have not found much detail on the 20th century history of Canary wine.  In 1972 D. E. Pohren write, “the island of Tenerife, with its strong, dry white wine from Guimar, its heavy-bodied, strong red from Tacoronte, its aged wines from Icod, etc.; and La Palma, with its claret of 14-16% from Fuencaliente and its highly aromatic , white wine from localities scattered throughout the island”.  In terms of varietals planted there are “Malvasia, pedro ximenez, albillo and listan predominate on the islands.”  In 1992 Tacoronte-Acentejo on Tenerife was granted the first DO for the Canary Islands.  Since then a total of 10 DOs have been granted, five of which on Tenerife with the remaining five on La Palma, Hierro, Gran Canaria, La Gomera, and Lanzarote.  This year Decanter Magazine found the wines to have increased by 72.9% in volume and 5.4% in value, and the Balearic Islands, up 20.9% and 5.1% since 2011.


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Edwards, Charles. Rise and Studies in the Canary Islands. T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1888.
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Unwin, Tim. Wine and the Vine. Routledge, New York, 1996.

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