I spent the weekend visiting friends in Madeira, which gave me a chance to taste some of the great fortified wine at source. Like the island itself, the Madeira wine industry is quite traditional, its international heyday two hundred years ago. With its oxidised, rancio qualities, complex flavours, and astonishing ageing ability, there's no drink quite like it.
a little bit of history
Madeira is a small, sub-tropical island in the Atlantic Ocean, historically the last port of call for the Portuguese and other traders on their way to the Americas and Asia. The style of the wine developed from its travels across the Equator. Two things would happen to this wine: first, it was fortified with distilled cane spirit to make it last the journey and, second, the barrels were used as ballasts on deck causing the wine to be baked at a consistently warm temperature, producing a dark, mellow, and extremely popular wine. By the eighteenth century, fortification was standard practice and the wine was baked on the island to replicate journeying across the Equator. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, madeira was a very fashionable drink - George Washington drank a pint a day, and it was used to toast the Declaration of Independence - but it was badly hit by phylloxera in the 1870s, when many vines were replaced with sugar cane. The wine nearly disappeared in the early twentieth century, but it's made a slow recovery and general quality has improved over the last twenty years.
If there's no name of a grape on the bottle, then it's made from Tinta Negra Mole (now called Negramoll), an undistinguished but versatile black grape that accounts for 90% of all plantings on the island and is used to make the most basic madeiras. These will be labelled dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet, or sweet. The "noble" grape varieties, all white, are named on the bottle and indicate a particular style:
- Sercial - dry to off-dry; a traditional aperitif and the palest coloured of the four styles, with an acidic tanginess.
- Verdelho - medium-dry; this can be the most balanced in fruitiness, acidity, and sweetness of the four styles.
- Bual - medium-sweet; the name is an Anglicisation of the grape Boal. This is fruitier and more likely to accompany a dessert.
- Malmsey - sweet; here, the name is an Anglicisation of Malvasia. A rich, very sweet, deeply-flavoured wine, yet balanced by naturally high acidity, with the greatest ageing potential of them all.
Most wines are baked using the estufagem process. This can be done by heating the wine to temperatures of 55°C for at least ninety days for the lower quality wines. The highest quality wines have no artificial heating - instead, the oak barrels are left for many years at the top of the lodges in Madeira's consistently warm temperatures of 20°C.
The youngest madeira is three years old, which is aged in tank rather than wood. After that, there will be an indication of the wine's average age - five (tank), and ten, fifteen, or, less common, twenty (all aged in oak casks). A vintage madeira has to have been aged for at least twenty years, and can be aged for a hundred years or longer. A Colheita is a fairly recent style which has to come from one year but has been aged for a shorter time (five years or more).
what I tasted
There are only six exporters of Madeira, producing four million bottles a year. I visited three of them, all in the main town of Funchal. D'Oliveiras is located in a large, atmospheric lodge full of bottles of old wine and barrels with wine still ageing in them. However, the staff weren't very welcoming and we were given tastings of three basic wines. I got the distinct impression it would be a huge inconvenience to them for me to buy something.
H. M. Borges weren't much more accommodating, but they did have a broader and better range of wines to taste. I stuck to tasting four similar styles: five-year-old medium-sweet, ten-year-old Boal, fifteen-year-old Boal, and 1995 Colheita Boal. At €14 for half a litre, the latter seemed a tremendous bargain until I tasted it. The ten and fifteen year olds, though, were very good, complex if slightly reserved.
Blandy's is a much bigger and slicker operation than the other two, with a guided tour and a gift shop. There were more extensive tastings on offer, though for a fee. I couldn't resist tasting this 1960s trio, the first time I had ever tasted vintage Madeira.
Sercial 1966 - the nose on this was the most intense and oxidised of the three, with immediate treacle, toffee, and syrup, which continued into rich chocolate, dried fruits, and Christmas cake, with further mature notes of leather, earth, and mushrooms. Given that maturity, it was amazing how fresh the palate was, due to its high acidity. The dried fruits weren't quite as intense as the nose, either, with a spicy dry finish to add to the chocolate and coffee.
Verdelho 1968 - my favourite of the three. Brown in colour, with much less intense dried fruits - dried apricots, poached pears, raisins, and fruitcake, with a bit of fudge, and almonds and marzipan. That sounds pretty intense, but all these flavours were so balanced and complementary. Likewise, the palate was subtle, complex, and long, with mellow cinnamon and clove spices with lingering white pepper.
Bual 1968 - a similar brown colour to the Sercial, but more similar in intensity to the Verdelho, with figs, raisins, dates, toffee, and hazelnuts. The palate was the spiciest of the three - cinnamon, ginger, and white pepper - that slowly faded away to chewy dried fruits and an everlasting finish.
what to drink it with
The depth of flavours in great madeira wine are so complex and intense that it needs a food to match. I tried the three vintage Blandy's with a ginger chocolate sweet; the ginger, the chocolate, and the sweetness each complemented the three wines' varied flavours. Anything with chocolate and coffee is an ideal combination, especially for the sweeter styles. I'm not convinced I'd want to try a Verdelho with soup, as the Blandy's sign above suggests; the drier styles work well as apertifs or with a nutty dish. The oxidised nuttiness of the wines makes them a great accompaniment to an almond or marzipan dish and it almost goes without saying that Christmas cake and sweet madeira are a match made in heaven.