Canary Islands Malmsey

By Andrew Stevenson.
Mention Lanzarote, Tenerife or La Palma, and you think of package holidays to the sun. But wine from the Canaries, particularly the malvasias – anglicised as Malmsey – was very popular in Britain and its colonies in the past: Shakespeare refers to it frequently, calling it “an absolutely penetrating wine,” in Henry IV. Robert Louis Stevenson writes that “a little good canary will comfort me the heart of it,” and there are countless other references in literature. The Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV, reputedly drowned in a barrel of Malmsey in 1478.

xToday Canary Islands Malmsey is little known, even to the hordes of tourists who descend on the archipelago, largely due to the chequered history of relations between Spain and Britain. But each island has its own clones of Malvasia (as well as other ancient varieties, thanks to Phylloxera never having reached the islands) and its own distinctive terroirs. The distinctive common factor is the volcanic soil. Some vines are trellis trained (an influence of Portuguese colonists in the 16th Century), but most are low bush vines, planted ungrafted into the fertile, black volcanic soil, often within small enclosures bounded by dry stone walls to protect the vines from the wind.

Some dry malmseys are produced, but the majority are sweet. The sweet malmseys are unfortified, and Botrytis is very rare. The wines are elegant and perfumed, with a robustness reminiscent of sherry, but without the challenge that sherry can present to some consumers. In terms of food matching, they strike me as being as adaptable as the richer styles of Pinot Gris found in Alsace: I could see many working well with onion tart or roast pork, while the sweetest styles, particularly those with an oxidative feel, will work with some chocolate desserts. The most striking thing, however, is the amazing variety between the malmseys I tasted at a recent London tasting, funded by an EU programme to support minor wine-producing areas.

the wines

Bodega Arca de Vitis, Tenerife

Arca de Vitis is situated in the curiously named Güímar (a relic of the aboriginal language of the Canaries) on Tenerife. Unlike a number of other wineries, they use only their own grapes from their 13 hectares of vineyards. They were showing three experimental, small production (800 50cl bottles of each) malvasias under the Contiempo label. Each of these wines is from the DO Valle de Güímar.

x Arca de Vitis Malvasía Seco Contiempo 2005
14.5%, 500ml. A brassy mid gold. Quite a powerful nose with butter, salted almonds and some oxidation. Very powerful flavour – quite intense and full on. This seems to me to have some overtones of Gravner’s north Italian whites. A very interesting wine. Very Good Indeed.

Arca de Vitis Malvasía Seco Barrico Contiempo 2005
15%, 500ml. The nose is slighter, more minerally and more approachable than the first wine, with some hay and a hint of caramel. But the nose is deceptive: on the palate, this has the full, powerful, oxidative flavours of the first wine, but with a rounder, creamier edge. Quite deep and complex, with a sort of completely dry toffee flavour on the finish. Huge length, with that toffee hint lingering. Very interesting wine indeed. Very Good Indeed/Excellent.

Arca de Vitis Malvasía Naturalmente Dulce 2005
14%, 500ml. A nice delicate, fragrant nose – full, gently grapey with some fresh grassy hints in the background. Quite delicate on the palate and very elegant indeed. This carries its 80 g/l residual sugar very well and has a nice balancing acidity. This almost seems to be in a different, more fruit-driven style to the two secos. Really Very Good Indeed/Excellent.

Bodegas Los Bermejos, Lanzarote

There are fourteen producers on Lanzarote, mostly very small. Los Bermejos is located at the centre of the island on a plateau 300 metres above sea level. The malvasía grape grown here is specifically the Malvasía de Lanzarote. Their wines are bottled in very classy-looking, vaguely amphora-like bottles imported from Italy.

Bermejo Malvasia Seco 2005
13.5%. This has a crisp, buttery, grassy nose, reminiscent of a cross between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Interesting character on the palate. Quite strongly flavoured, but with a fresh delicacy that you wouldn’t immediately associate with the Canaries. Very Good.

Bermejo Malvasia Semidulce 2005
12.5%. To achieve the level of sweetness desired, fermentation is stopped by chilling the wine. This has a pale gold appearance. The nose is more muted than the dry Seco, but with a nice hay-like freshness to it. Very delicate palate with a nice elegance. This is more off-dry than semi-sweet. Very clean and elegant throughout. Very clean finish, still delicate, but followed by very good length. There’s something reminiscent of a Rheingau Spätlese about this. Very Good Indeed.

Bermejo Malvasia Naturalmente Dulce 2005
14%, 500ml. This is a deep golden colour with a bit of brass. Interesting nose: quite deep with buttery and hay notes and a hint of oxidation, which gives it added depth and an impression of age. The oxidation is apparently deliberate and linked to a very long fermentation period (up to two and a half months, in stainless steel). Full, and definitely sweet on the palate, again with a slightly drying edge of oxidation. Very full, with great depth. Very, very long, maybe with a tiny touch of heat right at the very end. Very Good/Very Good Indeed.

Bodegas Carballo, La Palma

Bodegas Carballo Malvasía Dulce 2003
14.5%, 500ml. From the DO Palma, this is made from the malvasía blanca fina grape, which is harvested when very ripe. A deep orangey gold. The nose is unusual, even in the company of the other malvasias: it’s salty and tarry with a very definite streak of kippers – a really tangy, ozoney, ocean fresh nose. Rather curious attack: very concentrated, with really quite sweet fruit, but also with a real savoury tang. Deep and concentrated with huge acidity adding to the salty tanginess. Fascinating stuff. Very Good Indeed.

Sociedad Cooperativa Cumbres de Abona, Tenerife

Cumbres de Abona Testamento Malvasía Dry 2005
14%, from the DO Abona. Quite a pale appearance. Gentle, fresh, fragrant nose: quite grassy and more than a little reminiscent of a floral, warm climate sauvignon, though there’s also some orange flower water on the nose too. Fresh, floral palate, with a hint of oxidation. There is plenty of acidity. As with the nose, reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc, but maybe with a bit of very fresh Manzanilla mixed in. Very good finish, with enormous length. Very Good+.

Cumbres de Abona Testamento Malvasía fermentado en barrica 2005
14%. After a long maceration and fermentation, this spends 6 months in a mix of French and American oak barriques. Mid straw colour. Crisp full nose, reminiscent of an oaky sauvignon-chardonnay blend from New Zealand. After a fresh and tangy attack, it fills out nicely on the palate. Full and quite buttery, with lots of acidity on the finish. Very fresh and fragrant throughout. Very Good.

Cumbres de Abona Testamento Malvasía Dulce 2005
15%, 500ml. A mid straw yellow. The nose feels very dulled and muted, though there is still some nice fragrance there. On the palate, it’s sweeter than the nose was leading me to expect. Very delicate and fragrant with a silky feel. Very good acidity. Very Good/Very Good Indeed.

El Grifo, Lanzarote

xEl Grifo Malvasía Seco 2005
13%, all of these wines come from the DO Lanzarote. Pale straw. The nose is full and almost pungent: rubbery and buttery with some oxidation. On the palate, it’s bone dry – suprisingly so – and has a notable acidity. It has a buttery depth and a sauvignon-like freshness. Great depth and some complexity. It’s marked out by the perception of high acidity. Very interesting stuff. Very Good Indeed.

El Grifo Malvasía fermentado en barrico 2003
13.5%. This feels much more normal, more rounded and more international on the nose, with the feel of a Chardonnay-Semillon-Sauvignon blend. Creamy, full attack. This feels quite international initially, but the Malvasia character and acidity comes through towards the finish, when there’s a salty, savoury note. Very Good.

El Grifo Malvasía Semidulce 2005
12.5%. A rather muted nose with fresh hay and butter. Very good palate: it is definitely semi-sweet, yet it also has a good acidity. Very even flavour. Possibly lacks a bit of character. This would make a good aperitif. Very Good.

El Grifo Malvasía Dulce 2005
11.5%. A slight, but gently fragrant nose with a buttery, floral grapiness. On the attack, some great acidity is immediately evident. This is very nice and very elegant. Very clean and fresh tasting. A very impressive wine. Excellent.

Bodegas Tamanca, La Palma

Bodegas Tamanca is a family-run winery in El Paso on the island of La Palma. The Malvasia grape grown here is the malvasía de La Palma.

Bodegas Tamanca Malvasía Dulce 2003
500ml, 15%. A sweetish rich nose, slightly honeyed. Sweet, fragrant attack, yet it has a lovely delicacy. Very full on the finish, and it feels a touch hot after. Decent stuff that doesn’t really repay over-analysis. Good/Very Good.

Llanovid Socidedad Cooperativa, La Palma

The Llanovid Co-op, which has around 400 members, makes its DO La Palma wines under the Teneguía brand.

Teneguía Malvasía Dulce 2005
14.5%. This has a very rich, sweet nose with a salty hay note and a hint of oxidation. Rich, deep and sweet on the palate. Quite orangey-caramelly on the finish. This seems to be a simpler, less ‘typical’ version and is more like a sweet wine from somewhere – anywhere – else. Good/Very Good.

Teneguía Malvasía dulce Reserva 1997
14.5%. The most expensive wine on show (by some way) at €35 ex cellars, and with around only 3000 bottles produced. This was aged for three years in French oak barrels. It’s a deep brassy colour. The nose is redolent of candied orange and grapefruit. Very, very smooth and delicate on the palate with a nice savoury edge. Lovely balance, with very evident acidity towards and on the finish. The overall impression is of silkiness. Superb stuff, and interesting to see how Canaries Malvasia takes a bit of age. But in comparison to the others here today, this seems a bit pricey. Excellent.

Teneguía Malvasía dulce NV
500ml, 14.5%. They call this their special sweet Malvasia, and this is the only wine here with any botrytis – 90% of the grapes are affected by botrytis. 1500 500 ml bottles were produced of this particular version, which is largely from the 2000 vintage. Ex-cellars, this would cost around €25. A deep brassy gold, almost looking like a golden armagnac. It has a deep apricot jam and orange nose with some slightly salty caramel. Apart from that hint of salty savouriness, it’s quite Tokaji like. On the palate, it’s sweet and direct with buttery orange flavours, yet it also has a very good acidity that just manages to stop it becoming sticky. The acidity is especially noticeable on the finish, when there’s a distinct prickle on the tongue. Undoubtedly an interesting wine, but it shows to me that Malvasia is best when botrytis hasn’t affected the grapes. Very Good/Very Good Indeed.

Bodega Viñátigo, Tenerife

Viñátigo was the only bodega present that is based on the north side of Tenerife, within the DO Ycoden Daute Isora.

Bodega Viñátigo Malvasía Classico 2004
15%. Made from grapes that have been left to raisin on the vines. The grapes are macerated for twelve hours and fermentation is stopped by refrigeration when the resulting wine has 80 g/l residual sugar. It is then aged in new Alliers oak for two months on its lees. It has a mid lemon gold appearance. The nose is very attractive with hints of butterscotch and some lychee and kiwi fruit. Fresh, clean attack. It then quickly shows a richness and fullness that much exceeds most of the other sweet malmseys on show. Very clean on the palate, with a nice nutty, salty, almost manzanilla like feel on the finish. Possibly, this has less of a distinct Canary Malvasia feel, as it’s much more concentrated, sweeter and has a bit less apparent acidity. But still, you’d not be disappointed by this. Very Good Indeed/Excellent.