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San Andrés, Tenerife wines and travellers

Barrels of wine in Tenerife Gerardo nuñez, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As San Andrés (St Andrew's Day) approaches and with it the opening of the wineries, so talk turns to wine. The quality of the island's wines has been universally recognized. Proof of this are the references we collect from many travelers who have visited Tenerife.

Sir George Leonard Staunton, 1st Baronet
(10 April 1737 – 14 January 1801)
was an employee of the East India
 Company and a botanist.
The Irish doctor George Stauton, who visited Tenerife in 1792, agrees with the rest of the visitors, both before and after him, that the goodness of the La Laguna climate, together with its exclusive situation, “in an eminence and in the middle of a fertile and very extensive”, determine its great agricultural wealth. For example, only a few years before (1787), the physician John White, “on wines, oil, potatoes, wheat and everything that concerns the supply of ships. The island provides these items in abundance and not only produces the fruits of the tropics, but also a large part of the vegetables of Europe”.

But it is precisely the vineyards "that form the most fruitful branch of the products and prosperity of Tenerife" (Ledru, 1796). Many previous travelers had already discussed the quality of our wines, such as Thomas Nicols (1560): “Tenerife produces three kinds of excellent wines, which are known by the names of Canario, Malvasía and Verdona. The English confuse all three of them with the name Sack. The vines that the Canary Islands wines are produced from were transplanted by the Spaniards from the Rhine to Tenerife, in the reign of Carlos I of Spain and V of Germany. That of Malvasía was not known in Tenerife before the Spanish brought some vines from Candia (Crete), which today produce better wine and in more abundance than on the island of Candia itself, whose goodness is increased by transport and vegetation. The Verdona or Verde wine is stronger than the Canary, it is taken to the east of the island and shipped in Santa Cruz. The Canary goes to the West and embarks in La Orotava”.

In the 18th century, the variety of our wines had been reduced to two, although the quality of Malvasía had diversified, as the astronomer and naturalist Louis Feuillée (1724) states:

“The main riches of the Canary Islands come from the good wine harvests that are made there. There are two kinds: Malvasía and Dry Wine. The Malvasía is divided into two, first and second. The English trade with the former, which is the most delicate and palatable. Hamburgers and Dutch people trade in the latter, which does not have the sweetness and delicacy of the former. Dry Wines are appreciated by those who make long journeys. These wines are never spoiled by many storms in the sea ”.

André Pierre Ledru, who visited Tenerife on a scientific mission in 1796, pronounces in similar terms: “In Tenerife two kinds of wine are made, Malvasía and Vidueño. The first (…) is made with the bunch that is left on the vine after it has matured, so that it is toasted and scorched by the sun. It is sugary, pleasant to the taste and keeps for a long time. Formerly the English exported it in large quantities. Nowadays the owners make it only for their own use (…) Vidueño, extracted from a large grape that gives a strong and spirited liquor, is prepared following the usual method in Europe ”. 

Note that sixty years after Feuillée's comment, the English wine trade in the Canary Islands had already disappeared. 

It is precisely in Ledru where we find an extensive description of the cultivation method: “Every year they are given five tasks:

  • 1st, in November and December the earth is deeply stirred, preparing it to receive the January rains and to kill the weeds; the use of manure is unknown.
  • 2nd, they are pruned in February, to fix the sap in the good vines; This work is done in January if the southerly winds have reigned before, because they accelerate the development of the shoots.
  • 3rd, immediately after this last operation, the vine is tied to the trellises, which are meters and a half high, and the branches that must give the fruit are attached, in order to give them a solid support against the winds.
  • 4th, in May the vine is carefully harvested and cleaned of all parasitic plants that consume part of the juice and give it a disease known in France as ringworm.
  • 5th, the last operation consists of clearing the rows and extending the branches, arranging them in such a way that they all enjoy the vivifying action of the sun.

Ledru, in the scientific mission in 1796 also leaves us a record of how and when the harvest was carried out: 
"The harvest is generally done in July or August. Once harvested, the grapes are taken to the press, built roughly like those in France. There it is stepped on, and when the first must has flowed, the grape harvester surrounds the pomace with a rope of reed and covers it with logs that are tightly tightened with a screw in order to squeeze all the liquid it contains from the cluster. Often the owners add brandy to the wine in sufficient quantity to clarify it, increase its strength and keep it for a long time. Sometimes they also put red wine in it to color it”.
The Lagar or Wine Press in Garachico

Focusing on the trade of this product, James Cook (1776) -who curiously states that a species of grapes from Tenerife is considered an excellent remedy against consumption- describes it as “quite considerable, since there are produced forty thousand pipes of wine [The term comes from the Portuguese word for barrel, pipa. A pipe is a large, lengthy barrel with tapered ends, and the sizes vary quite a bit - anywhere from 350 to over 600 liters], which are consumed on the island or turned into aguardiente, which is sent to the Spanish islands of the new world ”.

Although it may seem so, this calculation is not exaggerated, if we take into account the data provided by Olas, for whom the inhabitants of Tenerife exported fifteen thousand pipes of wine and brandy annually; adding that in the last census, preceding his trip, there were no fewer than 96,000 inhabitants on the island. Thirty years had passed since then and it can reasonably be assumed that the population had increased greatly. Thus, the quantity of wine consumed by a population of at least ten thousand people must rise to several thousand pipes, and the liquor factories have to use another very considerable quantity, since it takes five or six pipes to make one of liquor.

As for wine prices, they logically vary according to the dates, so we will limit ourselves to mentioning that foreigners had to pay a price considerably higher than that of the island's inhabitants. On the other hand, merchants had to pay high tariffs to export our wine, as Feuillée (1724) points out: “The King of England greatly protects the trade of his subjects in the Canaries, showing interest, since he demands from them the payment of considerable fees for the entry of wine into England. The fee for each pipe is twelve pounds sterling. It is estimated that more than ten thousand pipes enter each year, so the King earns more than the wine owners (…) 

The King of Spain's income in the Canary Islands is very considerable. He is responsible for six percent of all merchandise that enters or leaves the Islands ”. The Canarian trade experienced one of its most critical and expansive moments in the XVII Century, with the export of its wines to England, but in the second half of the century, the British considered a balance of payments increasingly favorable to the islands, as detrimental to their interests. Thus, they tried to restructure it and orient it towards their benefit through monopolization by the Compañía de Canarias.
The Compañía de Canarias (Canary Company) was a privileged English company founded in 1665 with the aim of acquiring Canarian wines at low prices, establishing a monopoly on trade with the islands. The reluctance of the Canarian authorities to negotiate with the company, the opposition of English merchants outside the company and the illegality of its monopolistic status led to its disappearance in 1667.
To finish, we cannot forget the most playful -and for many the most interesting- aspect of wine, that which produces a strange and contagious joy imbued by spirited vapors, according to some, released by the god Bacchus and culminating in the "exaltation of friendship". Edward Barlow (1668) tells us: 
“After disembarking we went to a tavern to drink wine (…). This wine is considered throughout Europe as the best of its kind, being called Jerez Canario. We drank it with great enthusiasm in two or three places, as it is very good and palatable; and not being used to having such a good drink, it went to my head before I knew it; In spite of everything, it is of such good quality that it does not make anyone sick, which means that you can drink as much as your stomach allows ”.

Hablamos de los vinos de Tenerife y los viajeros I, II, III, IV

Tenerife Land of Eternal Christmas

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