Have Some Madeira, M’Dear

The wonderful Flanders & Swann song quoted in my title wittily celebrates the seductive charm of Madeira, a wine that once stood much higher in public esteem than it now does. Since I firmly believe the world needs a renaissance of wit, charm, and seductiveness – especially in wines – I was delighted recently to attend a seminar on and tasting of Madeira, a wine I’ve always loved.

Once upon a time, Madeira was not just an important wine worldwide but had a very special presence in America: 95% of Madeira production was sold here, according to Robin Kelley O’Connor, the leader of the seminar.

Robin Kelley O'Connor, left, and Ricardo Diogo, winemaker of Vinhos Barbeito

Maybe it was because of Thomas Jefferson, who seems to lie at the root of almost every American wine situation: He certainly loved Madeira and drank as much of it as he could get. In any event, so important was the American market to Madeira producers that Prohibition was a worse disaster for them than phylloxera – again, according to O’Connor. Overnight, their major market disappeared and their livelihoods dried up. Many tore out their vineyards and planted subsistence crops in their stead, so that mixed agriculture still prevails in Madeira, and a whole hillside of vines remains a rare sight.

Madeira is an island, the largest of a cluster of them, a volcanic archipelago stuck out in the Atlantic about 300 miles west of the coast of Morocco, and about 500 miles south of Portugal, which has owned it for centuries. Think of it as the Atlantic Ocean’s answer to Hawaii: a 50-mile long, 30-mile wide, subtropical, steep-sided upthrust from some of the deepest waters anywhere. It’s a wonderful place to visit, and not just for the chance to drink gallons of its wine: Its harbor and capital, Funchal, is a charming small city, and the seafood – especially espada, a fish of the great depths just offshore – has to be tasted to be believed.

Espada -- ugly but good

In the days of sailing ships, Madeira was an important way-station, a place to harbor and refit, take on fresh water and food before proceeding on to either the Americas or the Indies. Madeira the wine was discovered when some of those ships’ captains, either more abstemious or more clever, saw that casks of the island’s wine that had made the round trip out and back in their ships’ unheated and uncooled holds had changed remarkably for the better. They were prematurely aged and thoroughly oxidized, which would spell doom for most wines; but Madeiras, fortified and high in alcohol as they were by human manipulation and highly acid by gift of the island’s volcanic soils, were not only still alive but had grown richer and mellower.

Nowadays Madeiras can’t afford that round-the-world cruise: The aging and oxidation are accomplished under very controlled conditions right on the island, in a process that will remind Italian wine fans of the creation of Vin Santo. But the result is the same: a lush, golden-amber wine, with an aroma and flavor that seemingly include the whole family of nuts – almond, hazel, walnut, chestnut – plus caramel and dried fruits and even rancio, that leathery/high meat aroma that often distinguishes the best Armagnacs.

There is an extensive range of Madeira wines, from simple young ones like Seleccionado or Rainwater right up to 40 Years Old. Wines with a specific vintage year on the label must contain at least 85% wine from the indicated year, aged minimally 20 years in wooden casks. And Madeira of any age may be Rich (i.e., sweet), Medium Rich, Medium Dry, or Dry.

Producers achieve that wide range by selecting from among the island’s many grape varieties for the style they’re after. Sercial is the driest, Verdelho medium dry, Boal medium rich, and Malvasia (Malmsey: that’s right, Shakespeare’s Malmsey, a barrel of which is always useful for drowning a prince or two) is the sweetest. All, however, finish dry, which makes them more versatile with food than you would expect from what is usually thought of as a dessert wine. For me, most Madeiras – especially older ones – qualify as what Italians call vini da meditazione: wines for sipping by themselves and just thinking with, or thinking about. That’s a very useful wine category that deserves more attention than it gets. Maybe some smart entrepreneur will open a Vino Da Meditazione Bar.

I tasted a large number of lovely Madeiras at that seminar, since five of the island’s major producers were represented: Blandy’s, Henriques & Henriques, Justino’s, Pereira D’Oliveira, and Vinhos Barbeito all showed multiple styles and ages of Madeira. Here are the ones I enjoyed most:

Blandy’s Sercial 10 Years Old: fine, light, and elegant; very long finishing.

Blandy’s Vintage Bual 1968: just lovely – hints of sweetness throughout, but overall dry and elegant.

Henriques & Henriques 15 Years Old Bual: lush, with lively acidity and a slightly sweet toffee finish.

Justino’s Madeira Old Reserve 10 Years Old Fine Dry: attractive nutty, dry nose; light on palate; long walnut/hazelnut finish; very fine and elegant.

Justino’s Madeira Old Reserve 10 Years Old Fine Rich: surprisingly dry, with excellent balance and a wonderful nutty finish; 100% Tinta Negra.

Pereira D’Oliveira Reserve Verdelho 1973: Rich, strong nose and palate; quite impressive.

Pereira D’Oliveira Reserve Boal 1968: Caramel and chestnut nose and palate, dry nut-and-leather finish; very fine.

Pereira D’Oliveira Reserve Boal 1922:  Dear Reader, you can never guess how much pleasure it gave me to drink a wine older than I am! This was a simply gorgeous wine that doesn’t separate into components but offers itself as an integrated experience, and an amazingly fine one.

Barbeito Historic Verdelho Savannah Special Reserve: Lovely, soft, with the slightest hint of sweetness and a dry, bitter almond finish; 85% Verdelho variety plus 15% older Tinta Negra.

Barbeito Historic Series Bual Boston Special Reserve: A beautiful amber wine, with the classic caramel and rancio aromas. Excellent.

Barbeito Sercial 1988 Fraquera: Fine and exceptionally lean, while still retaining typical Madeira character.

Flower market in Funchal

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