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.

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