08 June 2018

Did a Dublin-born prince die
in a vat of wine from Crete?

Wines on a supermarket shelf in Platanes, near Rethymnon … did Malmsey first come from Crete? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

George Plantagenet (1449-1478), Duke of Clarence, was the son of Richard Plantagenet (1411-1460), Duke of York, and a grandson of Edward III. He was born in Dublin Castle on 21 October 1449, and when he was baptised in Dublin his godfathers were James Butler, 4th Earl of Ormonde, and James FitzGerald, 6th Earl of Desmond.

The Duke of Clarence spent part of his early childhood in Dublin Castle and in Trim Castle, Co Meath. Despite his youth, he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1462. In 1469, he married Lady Isabel Neville, the elder daughter of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known as the ‘Kingmaker.’

He was the middle brother of King Edward IV and King Richard III, and he played a key role in the dynastic struggle we know as the Wars of the Roses. He might eventually have become the first Dublin-born King of England. But, while he was a member of the House of York, he switched his loyalty to the House of Lancaster, and then reverted to the House of York.

He was later convicted of treason against his brother, Edward IV, and was executed – the myth is that he was drowned in a vat of Malmsey wine. He appears as a character in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 3 and Richard III, in which his death is attributed to the machinations of Richard III.

Malmsey always sounds so English to me that it could be a village in Gloucestershire or Somerset. Perhaps it could be more suitably the name of some sort of cider or scrumpy, but I could not match it with wine. How could wine have such an English-sounding name?

Perhaps, I thought, it was an English term derived from some unknown source, in the way that Sherry comes from Jerez or Port from Oporto. After all, the French would never use the name ‘Claret’.

Today, the label ‘Malmsey’ is used almost exclusively for a sweet variety of Madeira wine made from the Malvasia grape. Grape varieties in this family include Malvasia bianca, Malvasia di Schierano, Malvasia negra, Malvasia nera, Malvasia nera di Brindisi, Malvasia di Candia aromatica, Malvasia odorosissima, and a number of other varieties.

But I have learned this week that Malmsey and the Malvasia family of grapes probably originated in Crete.

The name Malvasia probably comes from Monemvasia, a mediaeval and early Renaissance Byzantine fortress on the coast of Laconia, known in Italian as Malvasia. But others say the name is derived from the district of Malevizi (Μαλεβίζι), west of Iraklion in Crete. The area includes Fodele, said to be the birthplace of El Greco, Palaiokastro and Gazi.

Monemvasia was a trading centre for wine produced in the east Peloponnese and in some of the Cycladic islands. In the Middle Ages, the Venetians became so prolific in trading in Malvasia wine that merchant wine shops in Venice were known as malvasie.

Whichever origin – and, of course, I would prefer Crete – Malmsey became one of the major wines exported from Greece in mediaeval times along with Rumney.

Both Iraklion and Crete were known to the Venetians as Candia, and both Monemvasia and Candia have given their names to modern grape varieties. In Greece, there is a variety known as Monemvasia, evidently named after the port, though now grown primarily in the Cyclades.

In western Europe, a common variety of Malvasia is known as Malvasia Bianca di Candia, or ‘white malmsey of Crete,’ because it was said to have originated in Crete.

The Monemvasia grape was long thought to be ancestral to the western European Malvasia varieties, but recent DNA analysis does not suggest a close relationship between Monemvasia and any Malvasia varieties. However, DNA analysis suggests, on the other hand, that the Athiri (Αθήρι) wine grape, a variety widely planted throughout Greece, could be the ancestor of today’s Malvasia.

Athiri or Athiri Aspro is a white Greek wine grape used to make Retsina on the island of Rhodes. This grape is noted for its lemon character and in other parts of Greece it is often blended with Assyrtiko, or with Vilana and Ladikino.

Whatever the origins of these wines, I am enjoying my wine in Crete these weeks, and, unlike the Duke of Clarence, managing to avoid drowning in a vat of Malmsey wine.

Enjoying a glass or two of retsina at lunchtime at the beach in Platanes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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