Archive for the ‘Madeira’ Category

Madeira, The Methuselah of Wines

November 23, 2015

Asked to name some of the world’s great dessert wines, casual wine drinkers would probably have a hard time remembering Madeira. Sauternes, sure, plus a handful of other French specialties. Port, almost certainly, and probably Sherry. Maybe even trockenbeerenauslese Rieslings. But that lonely little island in the deeps of the Atlantic, a few hundred miles off the coast of Morocco,

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where they speak Portuguese and grow Portuguese varieties and age their wines forever? That is more often than not forgotten. Which is a plain shame, since well-aged Madeira is almost certainly the greatest dessert wine of them all. Certainly, it is the longest lived of all wines.

A few weeks back, Rui Falcão of the Madeira Institute presented a seminar in New York on Madeira. It was a fascinating event, filled with the kind of information and lore that we winos love. Falcão started by saying simply that everything that kills every other kind of wine is exactly what makes Madeira great. After that, things started to get interesting.

It turns out he wasn’t joking. The two great enemies of most wines are heat and oxygen. Madeira couldn’t begin to exist without prolonged exposure to both of them. When we describe another wine as maderized, we mean it’s dead – oxidized, perhaps even cooked-tasting. That’s where Madeira’s distinctiveness starts. All Madeira, of whatever type (more about that later), Falcão said, is kept for years before it’s bottled, sometimes for decades, in large barrels in above-ground storage without temperature controls.

This on an island off the coast of Morocco. Granted, the Atlantic moderates the temperatures somewhat – but still we’re in the tropics, where the first wonder is that they can make wine at all, and the second is how they treat it.

vineyards

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Throw out the rule book: Madeira plays a different game. Its wines are driven neither by variety nor terroir: like Champagne, Madeiras are wines that are shaped by the process of their making more than by any other factor. Even fermentation does not proceed “naturally.” It is always stopped, at the moment of the maker’s choosing (according to the grapes he’s working with and the degree of sweetness he wants in the wine), by the addition of neutral alcohol (originally derived from grapes).

In the days of sailing ships, Madeira producers used to send their wines on trips around the world in barrels stored below decks in unheated, uncooled holds, in order to expose them to the kind of temperature extremes and the kind of motion that would turn other wines into undrinkable bilge. Now makers accomplish the same thing more quickly and more economically by repeatedly heating the wines and allowing them to cool down over a period of months. After that, the wines selected for the best grade of Madeira are stored in casks stacked on the warmest level of the winery for any number of years. Literally so: they lie there for minimally three years, with no maximum other than the maker’s hopes.

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barrels

 

Madeira can take it: Falcão told us that he once tasted a 300-year-old Madeira. “Was it OK?” he asked rhetorically. “No: It was great.” I can’t affirm or dispute that from my own experience, but I’ve been lucky enough to have several times tasted 75-year old Bual, and I can assure you that that wine was nectar – probably the most elegant, complex, fortified wine I have ever drunk. It had so much acidity, and so many different flavor elements playing through it, that I hardly noticed that it was lightly sweet. In its evolution, the sugars had become very minor players in the wine’s character.

Bual is one of the grape varieties used in Madeira, and each is associated with a sweetness level. Sercial is the driest, then Verdelho, then Bual (sometimes Boal), and Malvasia – Shakespeare’s Malmsey – always the sweetest. These are all white grapes: They are the most prized and are always mentioned on the label. Tinta negra, the only red grape used, can be produced at any sweetness level – the label will say – and until recently was never named.

There are between six and eight producers; the number is unclear because some consolidation may be taking place. But there are 1,200 growers, who own a total of 1,200 hectares, and each of them has long-standing, sometimes generation-spanning, ties to a specific producer. Falcão said that the smallest grower was a lady who cultivated three vines, and every year sold their grapes to the same house. That kind of quirky charm seems almost to epitomize Madeira.

Have Some Madeira, M’Dear

July 15, 2010

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