Madeira – remembrance of wines past

the Madeiras waiting to be tasted

I was privileged recently to try some wonderful Madeiras in a tasting that marked 200 years since the founding of Blandys as a Madeira producer in 1811.

I have long been a theoretical fan of Madeira, it is an amazing wine, but I cannot claim to have drunk or tasted much of it in my life. I have always – unfairly – lumped it in with Port and Sherry, both of which I appreciate yet hardly ever drink. Truth to tell, I find Sherry hard work and by the time I think of drinking Port I have usually had quite enough alcohol already.

Early on in my career I volunteered to do some of the pouring at a Madeira tasting, for Les Amis du Vin wine club. It was at the Charring Cross Hotel in London and my reward was two half-filled leftover bottles of Madeira to take home. So I duly carried a bottle from the 1870s in one hand and a 1910 in the other – past all the down and outs (a novel feature of London in the early 1980s) who were holding their bottles – meths or cider I expect, so I fitted right in.

Sadly my tasting notes have long gone – I have high hopes that today’s computerised versions cannot become lost!

However I also have wonderful memories of drinking a 1916 Vintage Malmsey one Christmas many years ago, but most of the Madeira I have tried in recent years has been pretty humble fare – always very nice, but more workaday.

The examples that Blandys served were certainly not that. They were incredibly fine, complex and fascinating wines that were all hugely enjoyable too. In a world of young, fruit forward wines it was fabulous to try something so very different – Madeira is an absolute classic of the old fashioned wine industry. It is very eighteenth and nineteenth century with its story closely linked to that of Europe’s colonial expansion. Madeira was the very last European port of call for a ship going just about anywhere, so was the last chance to replenish the wine supplies. As a consequence a vast amount of Madeira wine was shipped to the Americas – it seems that the signing of the Declaration of Independence was toasted with Madeira – as well as Australia and India et al. All the heating and cooling the wine endured during the voyages when crossing and recrossing the equator appears to have done it no harm at all. On the contrary, it seems to have sort of pasteurised it and made the stuff almost indestructable. It remains the only wine that you can leave open for decades and each glass-full will taste as fresh as the first.

We always used to be told that Madeira was heated in an attempt to replicate those sea voyages of the past. Well, as with so many things that used to said about wine, that was on oversimplification. Only the cheaper Madeira is treated like that, which does not make it bad by the way, just not so interesting. Basically if you want good Madeira look for the name of one of their famous classic grape varieties on the label:

Sercial – the driest in style
Verdelho – medium-dry in style
Boal medium-sweet in style
Malmsey – the sweetest in style

Only the best wines are actually made from these grapes, everything else uses the workhorse Tinta Negra Mole grape made in an approximation of the style of one of those traditional wines.

The best wines are not artificially heated at all, but undergo ageing in big old American oak casks – Madeira pipes – in warm and humid conditions. This is called a canteiro ageing system, but one of the things I rather like about Madeira is that although it is a system of ageing it seems to be more delightfully haphazard than the solera system of sherry. I am sure that it isn’t all done on a whim, but it sort of sounds as though it is.

The heat source is natural and can consist of warm spots high up near the roof of the winery, sometimes behind glass walls that catch the sun and I have even heard that sometimes the casks of wine are put outside directly in the sun – but apparently Blandys do not do that. What all this does is to concentrate the wine and give some oxidation. As it gets more concentrated they move the wine to cooler places in the cellars so that it doesn’t lose balance. Before it becomes over-concentrated they transfer the Madeira to 22 litre demi-johns and once these are sealed the wine does not develop much anymore.

The result of all this abuse and rough handling seems to be that despite the age and the residual sugar and richness of the wines, they still have amazing finesse and balance. Of course Madeira is a volcanic island and volcanic soils are fabulous at emphasising the acidity in a wine. That is really the hallmark of these wines – acidity. Not in the normal sense of them being crisp and light, but in that however rich, nutty and powerful the Madeira seems to be, the natural high acidity cuts through and balances the wine in your mouth leaving your palate clean and happy.

Vintage Madeira has to spend at least 20 years in cask – plus 2 in bottle – and many of these have had much longer, so very little of the original wine – except for the acidity – remains, which is the whole point really. Reading my scribbles I see a lot of caramel, toffee, coffee, figs, prunes, raisins etc – get the picture, all complexity from the ageing process. I would not say they were interchangeable at all, but they have a great deal of similarities between them, even when made from different grapes. The differences were more nuance and degrees of sweetness than anything else, but they were all astonishingly good.

Here is the line up:

1994 Blandy’s Colheita Malmsey
A Colheita is a wine from a single year, but not a vintage, so this did not have to spend 20 years in cask. It was bottled in 2010 a mere 16 years in wood. The rules actually require that a Colheita spends at least 7 years in cask and comes from a single harvest.

The colour was a deep golden amber and it gave off heady aromas of figs, caramel and nuts. The palate had rich, buttery toffee, toffee apple flavours and caramel, but what astonished me was the thrilling cut of acidity that cut through all that cleansing the palate and leaving a savoury and coffee-like finish, that then delivered loads of dried citrus right at the end. It was extremely long and at the time I thought it was fabulous, but then I did not know what was coming up. It was sweet, but with an overwhelming freshness about it – 89/100 points.

1985 Blandy’s Vintage Malmsey
24 years in cask

A deep golden colour tinged with a figgy green, the nose gave off molasses, treacle and rich coffee. The palate was stunningly complex delivering a whole spectrum of flavours from intensely sweet to quite salty with a resinous texture and bucket loads of dried citrus, raisins and the lighter note of currants as well as candied walnuts. The finish was astonishing, it was epically long and perfectly balanced between sweetness and the acidity – at no point did I think it was too sweet – 91/100 points.

1984 Blandy’s Vintage Verdelho
24 years in cask

Verdelho was always supposed to be the medium-dry Madeira, or off-dry and it was, very rich, but not sweet. It was paler to look at and offered lots of raisin and coffee notes, but no overt sweetness. It reminded me a little of some of those old amontillado sherries, but it did not finish as dry. This was short compared to some of the others, but it was good to see how the drier wines aged – 89/100 points.

1980 Blandy’s Vintage Bual
29 years in cask

A deep figgy, nutty brown – like a Rutherglen Muscat to look at. The aromas were amazing, richly raisined with a background savoury note of charcuterie and leather. The palate gave a whole range of flavours from Brown Windsor soup to treacle and raisins. The finish was almost lemony with a whole load of dried fruit, nuts and molasses together with a cleansing saline touch right at the end – 92/100 points.

1976 Blandy’s Vintage Terrantez
26 years in cask

One of the two lost grapes of Madeira – the other one is coming up – as it is difficult to grow and so was very sparsely replanted after Phyloxerra. The colour was the deepest yet, almost mahogany. The nose was lifted and smoky with black treacle and molasses, coffee, caramel and figs. The palate was amazing with buttery toffee, raisins, with layers of fresh, lively peach every now and again. The clean acidity kept it all fresh and the finish balanced coffee and caramel. Beautifully balanced and delicious – 94/100 points.

1968 Blandy’s Vintage Verdelho

26 years in cask

This was the palest of the line up, a sort of browny amber like burnt-marmelade. The nose delivered an extraordinary salty, almost iodine, twang that was savoury before being eclipsed by the rich nuts and caramel. There was sweetness on the palate, but it was amazingly tight and pure, almost mineral, before tangy marmalade characters started dominating which introduced a delicate sweetness that was beautifully balanced by the underlying acidity and the occasional flash of something salty. The finish was very, very  long and surprisingly powerful – 96/100 points.

It is amazing to think that while these grapes were growing Paris was rioting and Soviet tanks were rolling into Prague!

1966 Blandy’s Vintage Sercial

28 years in cask

An extraordinary colour, a sort of green tinged umber. The nose was remarkably fresh and pure seeming with dried lemon and dried lime peel aromas and some subtle fig and raisin too. The palate was the driest of them all with no overt sweetness at all -it was only 47 grams per litre of residual sugar after all! There were coffee tastes and a salty tang again, but it was also concentrated with burnt sugar flavours and dried fruit that gave way to a gorgeous brittle toffee sensation on the finish – 95/100 points.

1954 Blandy’s Vintage Bastardo

40 years in cask – this grape variety is probably the same Bastardo that was traditional in Dão and is widely grown in the Douro for Port and as Trousseau it is grown in some areas of France. Bastardo is now a rarity in Madeira and nearing extinction, it is a black grape and as I understand the regulations for vintage and colheita Madeira they have to be made from a white grape, so perhaps that is why it is so rare? Also the grape is renowned for being difficult to work, ripens late and gives un reliable yields.

Interestingly the red/black grape origins of this wine do show, it really is dark, almost teacly or espresso-like in colour with a rich deep figgy nose and even Pedro Ximenez-like notes. The palate has a real smoky quality, like American barbequed ribs as a sort of spicy molasses quality comes in too and that rich, raisiny PX / black treacle feel returns on the finish. A glorious wine, not as dainty as the others, more hedonistic, intense and enjoyable, but somehow less fine  – 91/100 points.

I enjoyed this wine, but it is very different from the others with more power than elegance, so perhaps they are right to restrict vintage Madeira production to white grapes if true finesse is what they are after?

1920 Blandy’s Vintage Bual

76 years in cask

A rich, yellowy gold with hints of walnut brown. The nose was a heady, lifted, cocktail of caramel, iodine, buttered toffee, currants, raisins and dried citrus peel, licorice and orange. The palate was wonderfully well-knit with a resinous, oily texture, toffee and caramel mingling with pepper, sweet spice, vanilla and dried citrus. It was luscious and full-bodied  with lovely acidity that lifts it all and keeps the long finish fresh and clean. Figs, coffee, oranges and caramel mingle together on the finish that lasted for well over a minute – 99/100 points.

There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the most amazing wines I have ever tasted.

1870 Blandy’s Solera Verdelho

The 1870 vintage was just pre-Phyloxerra, which hit the island in 1872. It was bottled in 1944 after 74 years in cask. This is not made in a solera as the Sherry people would understand it, it seems that a Madeira solera, in the past anyway, was a vintage wine  – in this case 1870 – to which 10% was added ten years later, so it contains some 1880 too. They can then add 10% up to another 9 times. This means that the entire original quantity has been replaced, but that all the different years have mingled together over the decades and that there is some 1870 in there together with all the other vintages too.

Quite a pale colour like a very dark khaki. The nose was smoky and fragrant with dried citrus and raisins and some smoky savoury notes. The palate was fresh and dry, but with a touch of caramel-like sweetness, spice, dried fruit, tobacco and umami nuances. This was the only wine where I was aware of the fortifying spirit on the palate. The final stretch of the finish mingled coffee and maple syrup rather wonderfully – 94/100 points.

This was wonderful and evocative, but did not quite reach the heights of the 1920.

Canteiro – casks of Madeira ageing in the heat of the the lodge roof

My Thoughts

I always think that what makes for a great wine is when there is some tension, when the richness is competing with the acidity, when there are sweet notes and sour notes that vie for your attention and these had tension in spades. I have never known wines to have such an amazing array of competing characteristics, I should imagine it is a bit like eating those sweets from the Harry Potter books – Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Bean – you never know what flavour to expect next.

These were lovely wines to drink in their own right as well as being a fascinating glimpse into times and wines past, they are so complex and so delicious I cannot for the life of me see why they ever went out of fashion, we should embrace this great wine and once again clutch it to our hearts. I for one intend to make sure that I have some Madeira on the go in future – how civilised to have a glass of superb wine every now and again in the full knowledge that there is no hurry to drain the bottle.

I have yet to visit Madeira, but can feel myself becoming quite fascinated by these wines, so perhaps I feel a trip coming on?

12 thoughts on “Madeira – remembrance of wines past

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