From the late 1200s wine flowed into England from south west France. England owned the south western vineyards (think Bordeaux) thanks to the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry III (reigned 1216 – 1272).
By the 1400s the wine supply had dwindled and been polluted.
Shakespeare’s plays, ‘Henry IV Parts 1 and 2’, deal with the years 1366-1413 and highlight the issues of seriously poor wine quality at that time. The ale-house and tavern scenes were used to expose the evils of bad wine being sold to the people, or at least highlight their mind-blowing potency!
In ‘Henry IV part 2’ the hostess of a tavern refers to the arrival of Falstaff, Bardolph and a page:
“Yonder he comes and that arrant malmsey-nose knave, Bardolph, with him.”
Malmseys were the ultra sweet, raisiny wines carried by the merchant trade of Genoa from the Mediterranean vineyards, especially Cyprus.
Today’s Malmseys are considerably more refined and delicious. They are highly sought after, with most now being made in Madeira.
Shakespeare also makes numerous references to ‘Sack’, which was different to Malmsey wine and is what we would today refer to as Sherry. Sack often had sweetener added to it which would have horrific side effects, with further fermentation taking place after drinking it! Worse still, dye was also sometimes suspected of being added. Falstaff once said “I’ll have some Sack and my eyes will look red as if from crying”.
One final reference to Malmsey wine, which we must mention, is in Shakespeare’s Richard III when the Duke was either drowned or his body finished off in a butt of Malmsey wine…a nasty way to go.