The Atlantic Jewel: Madeira 1795 To Today

“The increasing refusal of the modern world to leave fine wines to age makes it probable, and sad, that our grandchildren will never drink a superb Madeira” – William Golding

Outed

Maintaining one’s reputation as a street-fighting wine warrior can be difficult at times. You must constantly be on guard. Seated on the 13:50 to Funchal, I find myself aimlessly leafing through my free copy of the Daily Mail when over the brim of the gardening page I spot royalty: HRH Jancis.
The Daily Mail!
That’s my reputation flushed down the drain. The Daily Mail: tabloid de choix for “Angry of Tunbridge Wells” fulminating behind the privet hedge. What a hypocrite! For years I have inveighed a new generation of wine-lovers to get hip to the delights of madeira and here I am on the cusp of being exposed as a Daily Mail reader. My God…this is going to be all over Twitter by the end of the day.

Regaining my composure and sliding the newspaper discretely out of view, I survey my fellow passengers and espy a desert of brilliant white and blue rinse interspersed with the odd oasis of baldness. Madeira: Atlantic retreat for the elderly and infirm. It would not surprise me if the cabin has been fitted with a conduction loop so passengers can order their Horlicks without stewardesses having to raise their voices.
It begs the question: where is the new generation of Madeira aficionados going to come from?
The answer is not from six-feet under…the younger generation have to discover the magic for themselves.

Madeira Funchal

Like many others, I discovered madeira at Blandy’s wine lodge in the heart of Funchal, the main city of the island that cascades down towards the bay and somnolent harbour. My palate was dazzled by the sensory delights of a 1920 Bual, its mouth-coating, mellifluous, honeyed sweetness waltzing in both harmony and dissonance with sharp acidity and a tangy oxidative dryness, a sensation not dissimilar to its distant sensory cousin, Tokaji.
Two paradoxical sensations, and at their nexus was this 83-year old madeira.
Seven years on, I my ardour has intensified and yet madeira languishes on the periphery of wine-lovers’ radar despite it being one of the most spiritual, life-affirming, joyous, multifarious beverages known to Mankind. How can I allow this lamentable state-of-affairs to continue?

I am jetting to Madeira to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime event organized by Belgian wine merchant Bert Jeuris, whose own epiphany courtesy of a Barbeito Boal 1968 prompted him to set up a company specializing in this island’s wines (see link at end of part two.) His acquisition of a significant private collection presented an opportunity to conduct an all-encompassing tasting that focused upon three major houses: Barbeito, Pereira d’Oliveira and Blandy’s. A small number had found the ‘golden ticket’ including Jancis Robinson MW, a Belgian TV crew, renowned chocolatier “Pierre Marcolinni” (with a suitcase full of chocolate), a seasoning of sommeliers from Michelin-starred Hof Van Cleve and Oud Suis and yours truly. Together we would taste through madeira born over four centuries, styles that dextrously skipped from bone dry Sercial to sweet Malmsay.

Without wishing to diminish the veterans, for this writer the real attraction were the modern day madeira. This was not intended as a genuflection towards indestructible rara avis from a glorious past, part also a celebration, perhaps even a wake-up call, to the brilliance of their modern day counterparts that suggest madeira is entering a new golden age

History

Terraced Vineyards

The commonly held view is that the zeitgeist for Madeira was from the 17th to the mid-19th century, a view that envelops madeira with anachronism that is difficult, but not impossible, to shake off. The genesis of the industry is analyzed in unstinting detail in David Hancock’s sumptuous “Oceans of Wine” (see bibliography.) The author states that the first vines were planted on the heavily forested island as early as the 1440s and that it only took fifteen years before wines were being exported. According to John Hurley’s “A Matter of Taste”, a “Malvoisie of the Isle of Madeer” was shipped to London in 1537. In the early days the wine was not fortified and little interest was paid to grape varieties, although the sweeter wines were apparently popular in England. In 1600, the poet William Vaughan advocated Sweet Malmey as a kind of “Tudor Viagra” that “strengthened the back” whilst the Bard himself name-checks the beverage in his plays.

The English merchants began trading the wine in the 1640s but the real turning point came in 1663 when the Navigation Act when England allowed wines to be exported directly to the colonies and exempted them from Crown duty. This put Madeira in a strong position vis-a-vis its emerging European competitors, immediately opening the British North American market since the island was conveniently located on the trading route between Europe and America. The pipas of “pipes” of wine was found to improve during its transatlantic voyage across the tropics and thus wine matured vinha da roda i.e. in the hull of a ship became popular instead of vinho canteiro, whereby the wine is matured on the island. By the 18th century, Madeira was coveted in not dissimilar fashion to Lafite-Rothschild today. Examining export documents, Hancock deduces that two-thirds of the vessels leaving Madeira between 1727 and 1738 were destined for British America, the bulk of which were laden with barrels of wine that had been found to improve in the ship’s hulls during their transatlantic voyage. But come the American Revolution, independent states were able to import from Spain and France. Madeira faced competition for the first time and never recovered its eminent position.

Still many American’s on the east coast, from Baltimore down to New Orleans, retained a penchant bordering on obsession for madeira; a wine that remained expensive and unaffordable to all but the wealthy, ergo it remained a status symbol that waned not until the end of the 19th century. Mannie Burke, proprietor of “The Rare Wine Company” and madeira’s indefatigable U.S. ambassador has authored two insightful booklets on “madeira parties”. These were hosted by affluent families, particularly landowners and ranchers in the Deep South in Charleston, New Orleans and Savannah; Baltimore a particular hotbed of famous collectors. The men, and it was always men, convened in oak-panelled dining rooms around five o’clock to dine on terrapin and canvas-back duck, circulating eight or ten madeiras around the table accompanied by nuts or almonds to keep the palate fresh. The wines would be appraised and discussed…much like offline are today.

The madeiras were transferred then stored in five-gallon wicker-clad demijohns up in the garret and here they would age. Wines were named after the shipper and only exceptional wine were deemed worthy of vintage declaration. If they changed hands, then bottles were rechristened with the name of the family that originally imported the wine, those most sagacious of whom had left the wine in demijohn rather than bottle. Interestingly, Hancock suggests that the Americans preferred drier styles whilst their British counterparts preferred sweeter (one might have expected the opposite.)

By 1815, it is estimated that around two-thirds of the island was devoted to madeira production. But perhaps its halcyon days were already over? Already shippers were replicating the effects of the long sea journey by artificially heating Madeira in estufas, but the quality was not as subtle. Its decline was protended by Professor Saintsbury in “Notes On A Cellar Book”, wherein he wistfully states that: “…the very best Madeira is, and always has been since the pre-oidium wines were exhausted, mainly a memory.” If that were true then it would be inadvisable to seek out bottles younger than 1852! Fortunately, André Simon did not concur although he suggests that madeira never quite recovered from oidium because of the island’s warm, humid climate, compounded by the fact that the caseiros, or grape-growers, had little incentive to replant noble varieties when hybrids and sugar cane yielded higher returns.

This state of affairs brought the Terrantez grape to the cusp of extinction and in 1873 the double-blow of phylloxera sapped the caseiros’ confidence in viticulture altogether, decimating 2,400 hectares of vineyard of which only half were replaced with noble varieties. It was only the persuasion and support of the English Madeira houses that the industry ever survived and one must be grateful to Leacocks, who maintained plantings of traditional noble varieties at Quinta de San Juan. Madeira’s problems worsened when it fell out of fashion, usurped on the dining table by fashionable champagne and Claret. A viscous circle of lack of investment combined with the move towards bulk shipments consigned for cooking meant that the great wines of the past were, to use Saintsbury’s stinging vernacular, mere memories. Bottles printed as Verdehlo or Boal were increasingly diluted by the cheaper, less noble grape variety of Tinta Negra Mole that had arrived at the end of the 19th century.

The number of Madeira houses dwindled from thirty-six after the Second World War to just seven today: Barbeito, Blandy’s, d’Oliveira, Justinos Henriques, H M Borges, Henriques & Henriques and one small producer: Artur de Barros e Sousa, known as Lomelino until 1922. Prohibition in American virtually sealed its fate, the great collectors such as JP Morgan and Douglas Thomas sold their collections.
Madeira’s days were numbered and over the 20th century it was die-hard aficionados and the surviving Madeira houses that kept traditions and memories alive.

Recently, moves have been made to reinstate Madeira as a respected, quality-driven wine. In 1993 the European Union passed legislation governing minimal percentages grape varieties. Amongst the island’s 2,000 growers, there has been a welcome move towards the re-planting of Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malvasia and bottles bearing those names must now contain a minimum 85% of that grape variety instead of the ubiquitous Tinta Negra Mole (though personally I feel that Tinta can make a decent wine in the right hands.) I personally hope that Terrantez and even the wonderfully named Bastardo do not become extinct and whilst I spotted pipes of the former in one or two lodges, the future of the latter hangs by a thread.

One of the main obstacle to progress has been the fact that Madeira is de facto two completely separate industries: one for quality drinking wine and the other for cooking. As Michael Blandy rued to me over lunch, the Portuguese authorities persist in treating Madeira as a single entity even though authorities banned the export of bulk wine in 2002 (nowadays the only way to do that is to add salt and pepper that declassifies the commodity.)

The Tourist Mecca: Blandy’s

Prior to the tasting, we visited the three houses whose wines were poured later that evening: Blandy’s, d’Oliveira and Barbeito. We made just a fleeting visit to d’Oliveiras, but the contrast between the other two presented much food for thought and so I will focus my attention upon this pair.

Blandy’s itself was founded in 1811 (plans are afoot to celebrate their bicentenary with a special 20-year old Terrantez.) It is probably easier to think of Blandy’s as a brand name, for its roots are in the umbrella organization, Madeira Wine Company, established in 1913 when two companies, Welsh & Cunha and Henriques & Camara joined forces to form the Madeira Wine Association Lda and make more effective use of their assets. In 1925 they were joined by Blandy’s and Leacock and eventually 53 companies were absorbed into the renamed Madeira Wine Association, the last to join Cossart Gordon in 1956.

Blandy's VatroomIn 1979, Blandy’s bought Leacock and thereafter Blandy’s has become the dominant brand name, although it is simply a marketing decision as to whether a release will be stencilled with Blandy’s, Leacock or Cossart. I should stress here and now that there is no difference in terms of sourcing of grapes or vinification method. In 1989, the Symington family bought the company and one could say injected a new lease of life, offering their expertise honed by their experience as a successful Port house.

I suspect that the “Old Blandy Wine Lodge” is the place where many of its 140,000 annual tourists first sipped a glass of quality Madeira. It is a compact, labyrinthine building dating from the 17th century, whereupon it has served as a former Franciscan monastery, hospital and a prison. In 1840 it was purchased by Charles Blandy and commenced its vocation has a Madeira lodge. It presently accommodates several cellars, a small functional restaurant, a magnificent library of documents and ledgers dating back to its earlier days and a tasting room where tourists are lured to their Madeira epiphany. Major renovation work in the vatroom was completed in 2000 and the results of that will be tangible in years to come.

Blandy's Demijohn Up in the dusty attic are several large attic rooms where rows of ancient barrels slumber, drowsy in the claustrophobic heat that reaches 76 degrees in the height of summer. Each barrel is numbered according to vintage and source with some so old that they are visibly warped with age. At their feet reside wicker-clad demijohns, one of which we are told includes quinine since the anti-malarial medicine was more palatable with a splash of Madeira. Winemaker Francisco Albuquerque regularly checks all the barrels to assess how each one is maturing and decides whether to blend them together, bottle them individually or halt the process by transferring into demijohn. It’s a bit like having assorted Lego bricks in front of you and trying to decide what to build and as such, a painstaking process of trial and error that demands patience.

There is something quaint and a little anachronistic about

Blandy’s and I don’t write that in an intentionally pejorative way. It is an absolute joy to visit the lodge in Funchal, but I have the overriding feeling that little has changed here since the 1970s. I guess that is part of its charm, the evocation of something timeless and traditional, but it is one of those places that an interior designer would strip bare and attempt to bring it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Perhaps it would lose something in the process? Perhaps that would be futile? There have been improvements, but the character of the place has remained unchanged.

Later, I asked winemaker Ricardo Tavares what in his opinion makes great old Madeira?

It is very difficult to characterize great Madeira in one or two adjectives. A great ancient Madeira is the outcome of many years of careful monitoring of the stock and not allowing the Conteiro system to “over age” at any particular stage of the maturing cycle of the wine. Part of the art, and secret, is to know when to progressively move the wine from the warmest lofts eventually to the coolest cellars so that we achieve the perfect balance of maturity. During the wine’s aging in cask, the primary flavours gradually transform into tertiary flavours. A great ancient Madeira is a remarkable wine, a combination of the unique exuberant and complex aromas of the bouquet – of which spice, dried fruits, crystallized fruit, wood, confectionary, balsamic, brandy, tobacco, caramelized and iodine are the most common notes that have gradually evolved over time, combined with good acidity levels keeping the wine fresh and lively followed by a long and persistent finish. In a nutshell, it is the wines’ truly remarkable ability to age that makes it great ancient Madeira: freshness vs. fruit vs. maturity vs. complexity vs. concentration.

That is all very well, but I wanted to ask what, in his opinion, constitutes fine modern Madeira?

If you can say such a thing, it is related to the clean and elegant style of the wine that we are able to produce that makes a great modern Madeira; complex and characteristic, with bouquet notes that are easily recognized by consumers, in which the grape variety come forward, besides sweetness. There can be absolutely no doubt that we have benefited from modern vinification techniques. Much greater care is also being taken on the viticultural side both from the shippers’ point of view and also the local Government giving technical advice to the myriad numbers of farmers. Virtually the first thing we did was institute some very strict (and initially not that popular!) maturity tests to the fruit both on the vine before harvest and on reception at the winery, in reality simply bringing into play normal and modern winemaking practices to what had become a rather insular and isolated business. This immediately allowed us to bring greater complexity into our wines that now clearly show through in the colheitas and in due course, into our future vintages.

Although this did not affect the ageing varietal wines (eventually destined to become the Vintages) there was clearly a period during the 60’s & 70’s when the commercial blended wines became rather “scruffy”! Fortunately due to the very small quantities of varietal wines made during this period they were almost bespoke and therefore escaped the mass production shortcuts that sadly became the rule … although I think this is fairly true for most wine growing regions at that time!

The Game Changer: Barbeito

Those who read Wine-Journal from inception may remember that one of the first articles I ever composed was my trip to the old Barbeito winery in September 2003. Even then, I was cognizant that Barbeito adopted a radically different approach to Madeira wine and since then they have consolidated a reputation as the most forward-thinking Madeira house. That can be put down to one man: Ricardo Freitas and seven years after my first visit he escorted us to the brand new winery opened in 2008, high up in the hills above of Funchal. Its appearance is in stark contrast not only to the Old Blandy’s Wine Lodge and others I visited, for here was a winery built of chrome, glass and steel that stood in stark contrast to the warped oak and cobble stones. Whereas Blandy’s caters brilliantly for the tourist, Barbeito’s winery is focused upon functionality and eking out the utmost quality.

Ricardo Freitas Vinhos Barbeito was founded in 1946 by Mario Barbeito de Vasconcelas and over the years they built up a solid base of clients around the world. Mario passed away in 1985 whereupon his daughter Manuela took over, having already worked for the company for nine years. Like many Madeira companies they exported Madeira in bulk, but during the 1980s they began to realize that this was tarnishing the Barbeito name, as well as Madeira itself. The turning point came in 1990 when Ricardo Vasconcelas Freitas (pictured) entered the company: a young, ambitious man who looks-wise, somehow reminds me of ‘the special one’…José Mourinho. He (Ricardo, not the ex-Chelsea manager) made the radical decision to cease bulk exports, a risky move in terms of terminating a reliable income stream. So it was a logical move when Vinhos Barbeito became a joint-venture with the Kinoshita family, whose Japanese wine and spirit business had been a regular client since 1967. Ricardo took over winemaking duties in 1993, the first time that a member of the family had accepted the position of responsibility and Barbeito never looked back.

Barbeito pride themselves on close links with their growers who are paid on quality of grapes and not quantity. The wines are matured in three warehouses, each with their own atmospheric conditions that allows Ricardo to “play” with different conteiro methods. The largest, known as “Warehouse A” is located in Funchal and has the highest degree of sun exposure and therefore an evaporation of around 5% that engenders more concentrated style of wine. “Warehouse C” at Camara de Lobos (claim to fame: birthplace of Cristiano Ronaldo) suffers less evaporation at approximately 3% and so the wines tend to be less oxidative and can be aged over a longer period of time. I visited “Warehouse B” at the winery, where the ageing process is split into two. The wines are aged in 620-litre casks housed on the first floor for the first 5- to 7-years where the evaporation runs at around 5%. They are then transferred down to the ground floor where evaporation is only 2-3%, allowing a far slower, gentler maturation. If a particular casks is deemed by Ricardo to be of particular quality, he will bottle this separately, hence the proliferation of small production bottlings that are well worth seeking out.

There is also a great emphasis on packaging, design and marketing. Barbeito’s single cask bottlings look the business. In addition, together with The Rare Wine Company, they have developed the “Historic Series” range, each Madeira wine named after one of the cities that hosted great 18th century parties in Boston, Savannah and Charleston. Talking to Mannie Burk in the austere chambers of JP Morgan in New York, chosen because of the banker’s great love of Madeira, I lamented the domestic image of the wine and the ineluctable fact that most Madeira events attract the clichéd crowd: a little old and a little stuffy. Nothing wrong with that, but it is worrying when young sommeliers are noticeable by the absence. To my pleasant surprise, Mannie told me that on the other side of the Atlantic, most of his events throng with younger people eager to learn. That bodes well for the future and I hope that can be replicated in my own country.
I guess here in the UK we need a Mannie to really promulgate the wine with the same conviction and fortitude.

Of course, there are numerous challenges Madeira faced and I asked Blandy’s Ricardo Tavares what obstacles face the industry?

Many of the challenges that we face are those that other niche wine producers from all over the world deal with on a daily basis. However there are a few other challenges that are perhaps more specific to the Madeira Industry itself such as: overcoming the perception that Madeira is not just a cooking wine but one of the world’s greatest and most historic wines, encouraging new and younger consumers into the category which we have attempted with launch of wines such as Blandy’s Alvada and Blandy’s Harvest, gaining visibility and share of voice in an increasingly crowded market place; defending vineyard area from real estate projects, ensuring that there is sufficient manpower to pick the grapes during the harvest and  making sure that Madeira remains contemporary and relevant.

We had a huge battle getting authorization for Alvada and Colheita Madeira simply because it had never been done before although there is not a word prohibiting the blending of two classical varietals in any legislation. Colheita was even more problematical, again both from our colleagues as well as from the authorities even though Colheita has always been a specifically authorized style! … simply because it hadn’t been done before!  These innovations have been of huge benefit to the consumers’ perception, allowing them to experiment with small hand-crafted lots of wine that truly show the character and style and versatility of the different varietals.

How do you change consumers’ perceptions of the wine?
Changing consumer perceptions without the use of mass media is a process that takes many years of dedication, constantly passing the same quality message over and over again. At Blandy’s,  we are trying to achieve this through  a)  the family story that we share with the many thousands of visitors that visit  us at  The Old Blandy Lodge in the center of Funchal every year,  b)  the press, the consumer and the trade tastings that we personally conduct all around the world , c) the strong relationships that we continue to build with our distributors , d) the time that we spend talking personally to top sommeliers, restaurateurs and wine enthusiasts  and e)  our  constant search for new ways of  creating a direct link between the ageing wine and the bottled wine. This is not easy but these measures are gradually spreading the message and beginning to change the consumers’ perception about Madeira.

The Tasting: Madeira 1900-1987

Right, let us get on to business.  Around twenty of us gathered around a long table for the tasting held at Villa Cipriani, whose terrace overlooked a moonlit Atlantic Ocean. All very romantic, but Mrs. M was home with a Pot Noodle and in any case, my mind and my senses was blinkered upon the appraisal of forty-three Madeiras that were revving the engines. I must confess that I feared that such a number of intense wines could overwhelm at one sitting. On the contrary, it is a testament to the freshness and balance of these wines that my palate was not the slightest bit jaded at the end of this surfeit and to this end, I merrily pilfered the dregs to accompany dinner afterwards.

Madeira Glasses (Taken at the end of the tasting after all the wines had been served. An incredible array of colours, generally the older Madeira’s towards the back.)

Preparation was of paramount importance, therefore bottles had been prudently opened the Friday before the Tuesday tasting to in order to allow the ethers not to overwhelm us, for the wines to settle and acclimatize to their new environment after decades in glass imprisonment. I have augmented these notes with those sampled on visits to the lodges, plus samples that were sent to me at a later date. Of course, every bottle was sourced from impeccable provenance, either from the collection purchased by Bert Jeuris or priceless donations from the private reserves of the houses themselves, some of which represented us drinking the wines into extinction, our tasting note their obituary.
Nevertheless it was imperative to remain as objective as ever. You can accuse me of being a cold-hearted bastard(o) when I disparaged some legendary 19th century wines, but this was not an exercise in getting all starry-eyed at century-old Madeira. I sought to winnow good from bad irrespective of age and so to this end I divulged my notes to Paul Day, a formidable Madeira connoisseur who has tasted many of these before, just to check I was ‘in the ball park’.

Allow me to obtuse for a moment because I am going to commence with the second flight of wines that comprised of Madeira from 1989 back to 1952.

To be honest, it was during this period, in particular the 1970s and 1980s that Madeira rather lost its way and this was attested by some under-performing wines that could not match either the young guns or the old-timers. The Madeira houses were rather stuck in their ways and parallel to Bordeaux, they were perhaps reliant upon their historic associations to sell occasionally under-performing wine. Nevertheless I appreciated the succinct Malvasia 1987 from d’Oliveira and the diminished oxidative style of the Verdehlo Frasqueira 1981 from Barbeito (May 2005 bottling).

Ricardo Freitas sent me three recent bottlings from the 1978 vintage, Madeiras that he was obviously excited about when I met him at the London Wine Trade Fair the following month.
He had good reason to be: these are fabulous wine that you should try to get your hands on, especially because in a couple of cases, these bottlings are superior to previous ones.
The Sercial 1978 was aged in old French oak casks since February 1979 and bottled December 2003. It surpasses the previous bottling with a succinct nose of orange peel, walnut and ginger, the palate underpinned by a citric attack that left the palate utterly revivified and yet was so light on its feet on its dainty, delectable finish. The Verdelho 1978 was aged in oak cask since February 1979, transferred into demijohn in October 2000 and then bottled the following March. It was a perplexing wine, edgy with intriguing marzipan and coca tinctures on the nose, tense but very fresh with rapier-like acidity strafing the palate though lacking a little harmony on the fresh finish with hints of rosewater on the aftertaste. Just 1,493 bottles were made of this compelling Verdelho.
The Boal 1978 is an absolute cracker!
This is the second bottling in June 2007 (the last in 2001) although this represents a tiny run of just 672 bottles. Ricardo had waited another six years in order to enhance acidity and he hit the bulls-eye with a stunning bouquet that just wafted from the glass with hints of yuzu and mandarin, the palate beautifully balanced to the point of being understated. The oxidative elements were barely in evidence on the finish, rendering an effortless Boal that will outlast you and me.

The 2009 bottling of the Terrantez 1977 from d’Oliveira sported a cheeky twist of sour lemon on the finish that lent both freshness and vitality, but better was their Boal 1968 emanating from the southwest part of the island having spent four decades in old oak casks before bottling in 2009. It had a sensual nose the unfolded to reveal heady scents of molasses and scorched earth, the palate so subtle, with hints of cardamom and walnut towards the finish. Delicious! The Bual 1958 from Cossart Gordon bottled in 2006 (there was another bottling ten years earlier) had hints of Valrhona chocolate on the nose, a touch of spirity alcohol denuding the bouquet of clarity, but compensated on a racy palate with touches of pineapple and lychee, suggesting this Bual still has a long way to go on its journey as long as that alcohol is tempered on the nose.

There were two wines from the Queen’s coronation year (I am sure she sat down for a tipple with her hubby after the reception.) Although the Malmsey 1952 from Blandy’s has a lovely caramel-infused bouquet and attractive rounded, sensual texture, yet it is their Verdelho 1952 that really demonstrated the ethereal complexity of Madeira. It demonstrated a beguiling sense of mineralité on the nose, beautifully balanced with just the right amount of oxidation towards the finish sprinkled with Indian spices…a brilliant Verdehlo. This actual wine was bottled in 1973 in a run of 2,500.

The third flight kicked off with a wine that took seventy years before being bottled. The Sercial 1937 from d’Oliveira elegant on the chalk dust tinged nose, the palate showing just a little too much volatility towards the barley sugar finish. Readers may recall my account of Christies’ memorable tasting of Leacock’s tutored by Michael Broadbent. Well, their Bual 1934 bottled in 1986 after 52-years in cask was another stupendous Madeira, displaying torrefactory aromas with time, the palate extraordinarily smooth with a hint of Schezhuan pepper towards the lingering aftertaste.
Of course, the greatest name for any grape is Bastardo.
Matured in Adegas do Torreao and bottled in 2006, the Bastardo 1927 from d’Oliveira did not display the class of the Leacock’s ’27 encountered a few years ago, but had a very precise honey and quince tinged nose that just faded quicker than I would have liked. We tasted the Bual 1920 from Blandy’s directly from casks that offered two very different sensory experiences. The first was initially aggressive and less viscous than I would expect from a mature Bual, the second from bottle more refined and cleaner with a saline aroma mixed with ginger and allspice, the palate more rounded and mellifluous with lemongrass on the finish. Lovely!
The difference between the two?
Nothing, except that the second had been put through a Kieselguhr filter.
The Malvasia 1916 from Barbeito was sourced from a private collection of demijohns belonging to Ricardo’s grandfather.
When my grandfather died in 1985 he had kept 10 or 12 bottles of all of his wines in his house, all bottled in 1982 or 1983,” explained Ricardo. “My mother did not really care about the wines and when my grandmother died, my mother sold the house and the wines were transferred to her home and she used them for special occasions.
It had a very refined bouquet with Satsuma and vanilla pod, tangerine developing with time, although it lacked a little depth on the mid-palate and the finish was drier than I would like from a Malvasia.

The Verdelho 1912 from d’Oliveira was aged for 95 years in the warehouse at Rua Visconde do Anadia. It had a lifted bouquet of dried mango, apricot, sea salt, toffee apple and quince, the palate feminine and understated, although the finish was a little dry and frayed, so I would not leave it too much longer.  The Sercial 1910 from Barbeito were sourced from the last two bottles in Ricardo’s grandfather’s private collection and was remarkably pale in colour, the nose showing an adhesive taint at first but magically coalescing in the glass, the palate powerful but so composed.
This was utter class.

Bottled in 2008, the Boal 1908 from d’Oliveira reminded me of a mature Barsac on the nose with touches of red cherry and nutmeg, whilst the medium-bodied palate did not quite have the weight of similar aged Madeira, but exhibited great persistency and elegance. Even better, the Malvasia 1907 from d’Oliveira comes from a reputed year for this house and this particular Madeira was aged for over nine decades at their warehouse in Rua dos Ferreiros. Fresh and complex on the nose, this was a stunning bouquet that held you in its trance, the palate powerful and full of bravura, hints of caramel and Chinese 5-spice towards the viscous finish. It was far superior to their Boal 1903 and Malvasia 1900, the latter fiery and excessively volatile on the finish. Better was the coeval Sercial 1905 from Blandy’s bottled in 1970 that exuded more precision on the nose, though there were strong, almost over-powering oxidative flavours on the palate and it was a little attenuated towards the finish.

The Tasting: Madeira 1795-1880

Now lets go antique hunting in the 19th century.
We kicked off in style with the Malmsey 1880 from Blandy’s that had been bottled in 1921. It had a riveting, boisterous bouquet of dark chocolate, dried mango and orange-blossom all with superb delineation, the palate balanced and precise with quince, walnut and allspice, long and sensual towards its viscous finish. The Moscatel 1875 from d’Oliveira spent one century in cask and had a complex bouquet of Manuka honey and toffee apple, but just lacked a little definition. The palate is attractive with hints of dried apricot, quince and a touch of caramel that came across too strong towards the finish to merit a higher appraisal (how mean after 135 years.)

1862 Boal The Malvasia 1875 from d’Oliveira was far superior. Bottled around the same time, it has a complex, vibrant bouquet with touches of balsam and seaweed, a nose it was difficult to stop inhaling. The palate was beautifully defined with subtle oxidative nutty flavours and hints of raisin, passion fruit and fig towards the sweet, seductive finish.  The Boal 1863 from Blandy’s had been transferred into demijohns in 1913, where it remained until 1978 when it was put into 2,266 regular bottles. There was a distinct algae-like bouquet mixed with apricot, marmalade and cola, the palate finely balanced and quite tangy, the spicy finished just showing signs of drying out. Personally, I would not leave this too much longer.  The Terrantez 1862 from Blandy’s was also bottled in 1913, this being a famous vintage for the grape variety. It was blessed with a heavenly, languid bouquet of molasses and quince that seemed to gain intensity in the glass, the palate linear with great length, an uncompromising, unyielding Terrantez, like your crotchety old grandmother you cannot help by love.

The second wine from that revered Madeira vintage was quite unique, for the Boal 1862 from Vasconcelos is the last bottle remaining in existence. It was grown from grapes in Quinta da Piedade and belonged to Ricardo’s family on his maternal side. Pale amber in colour, it had an exquisite bouquet of marzipan, perhaps even candy floss that tickled the senses into submission – the kind of nose that could you leaving giggling like a little girl. You remember walking into those old sweet shops with all that confectionary stored in glass jars on shelves? Like that. The palate is beautifully defined with notes of walnut and smoke on the entry and is so elegant on the finish. Ricardo candidly opined that this Boal may have been kept in wood for too long. Indeed, I think that showed in this wine, but it is still a lovely experience.

The Verdelho 1850 from d’Oliveira hailed from the founding year of the company and was bottled in the 1970s. Given its age, it had a remarkably fragrant, well-defined nose with woodbines and tobacco, hints of crème brulee in the background, the palate very well balanced with a fine thread of acidity, hints of wild mint and ginger towards the harmonious and persistent finish. As I mention in my note, I was taken by a sense of “completeness” in this Verdehlo, as if anything more would have been excessive.

Last but by no means least, the oldest Madeira to have passed my lips: the Terrantez 1795 from Barbeito. What made this so unique, is that it was bottled directly from the last remaining demijohn in Ricardo’s private collection inherited from his grandmother. It was an ethereal experience: quite pale in colour, beautifully defined on the nose with quince and marmalade, just a hint of nutmeg, the palate was utterly harmonious and feminine, just a hint of volatility towards the finish with hints of beeswax and honeycomb, just a faint tang of sour lemon lending freshness and as much vitality in a 215-year old wine as you would want. With some left in the bottle, I took the remains to accompany my dinner afterwards and if anything it seemed to improve. Give it another couple of centuries.

So let us complete the circle and return to the first flight of wines that lined-up the modern age, with a choice selection of non-vintage blends and vintages back to 1991. I have augmented these with wines tasted at the individual lodges.

Unequivocally, it is the Madeira from Barbeito that are set the standard and that are raising the bar, whether it is the understated, smoke-tinged Barbeito Sercial 10-Year Old Reserve or the complex Barbeito VB Reserva Lote 2 Casks 12D & 46A (a blend of 2002 Verdelho and 2003 Boal) that offers pressed yellow flowers and dried apricot on the nose, hints of ginger on the exquisitely balanced palate. Not to be outdone, Blandy’s Verdelho Colheita 2000 displayed an exquisite bouquet reminiscent of a mature Vouvray from Gaston Huet. Two more single casks from the hand of Ricardo were splendid: the feisty Barbeito Malvasia Colheita Cask 40A 2000 bears no indication of bottling on the label as Ricardo was on a ‘spiritual retreat’ and the printer forgot to put it on, but the 825 bottles produced in October 2009 have a striking nutty, smoky bouquet with brilliant definition. The Barbeito Sercial Cask 70B 1994 a little “rancio” on the nose, the palate more Verdehlo in quality than Sercial. It is exceptionally rare since Ricardo only produced 252 bottles.

The standout wine of the flight was the Barbeito Malvasia 30-Year Old “Lote Especial” that Ricardo explained is his homage to his grandfather.
My grandfather loved Malvasia and he liked challenges. It was the first time in the history of Madeira wine that the law allowed 30-year old blends, so I thought it would be a challenge in a similar way that his life was a challenge. The blend was done wine by wine: there was nothing in my mind when I started the blend that took 2 months and seven wines to assemble.
It sports a fabulous bouquet with mandarin, hazelnut and dates, the palate displays brilliant tension with spice, cardamom and nutmeg, surfeit with persistency and weight on the saline finish. It takes a few moments for your palate to recover from the tsunami of flavours, but what a fabulous concoction this is. I would try and bag one of the 1,500 bottles…if any remain.

Madeira’s Second Coming

I would first like to address the notion that the greatest Madeira wines belonged to the 19th century and before. To quote from the man renowned for his penchant for a glass of Verdelho each morning, Michael Broadbent in his “Vintage Wine” says: “I have to confess that I feel that some of the lustre and wonder of madeira got lost during the 20th century”.
Although my experience is a fraction of his, I have always been rather circumspect of that view. Certainly the halcyon days were long gone, but there more I taste the Madeira of the 20th century, the more they seem to match those from the 19th. Whilst there appears to be a decline in quality from the 1960s until the late-1980s, those from the first half of the 20th century rank alongside some of the best I have tasted.
Perhaps it is something as prosaic as affording those wines equivalent time to age as their predecessors?
Perhaps only now, the great wines from the 1920s and 1930s are beginning to come round?

But if this tasting proved anything, it is that Madeira is entering a new “golden age”, spearheaded by Barbeito with Blandy’s hard on their tail. The latter can be said to have a more commercial, perhaps less intellectual style compared to Barbeito, the caramel element a little more conspicuous at times, though there is nothing wrong with appealing to the masses, particularly when behind the scenes there appears to be reinvigorated approach towards quality. That is paramount for nowadays Madeira faces stiff competition, where consumers’ tastes have changed and where, to put it frankly, Madeira has an image problem. It remains synonymous with the elderly and the conservative. To the man or woman on the street, it is something you pour into a saucepan. However in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was a beverage the wealthy aspired to and therein lays the key: aspiration.

That can only come with some a change in consumer perception, marketing nous and above all else, consistently outstanding wines. Whilst I hope you gained a vicarious thrill reading about 100-year old, 200-year old wines, the most exciting discovery was the confirmation of quality apropos recent releases that certainly in the case of Barbeito, rank alongside anything they have ever produced and are perhaps even better. If I were a wine collector, I would take a break from buying up over-priced Claret and start adding a few single cask bottlings to my collection, some of which are produced in exceptionally small quantities but can still be purchased for comparative pennies. Alternatively, I would be phoning up The Rare Wine Company and checking out their “Historic Series”.

Maybe you were like me. I went to Madeira to soak up its temperate climes and came back vowing to have a bottle of Madeira permanently parked in my fridge (after all, how many beverages can you open and dip back into when you fancy over many months?) Remember that Madeira comes in a myriad of styles and you might prefer the drier Sercial and Verdelho to the sweet Buals and Malmseys. I have always felt that it is Verdelho and Bual where Madeira reaches its heights, however this tasting proved the quality of aged Sercials that offer a similar sensory sensation as German Trocken, as in the wine is stripped down and nails you to the floor with its acidity and tension (not that they taste similar in any way.) Also remember that the same Madeira can be bottled at different times just like champagne and they can differ considerably in style and quality, so always check the bottling date. So bearing all this in mind, if you find Madeira to your liking then sell a couple of bottles of Lafite and pick up a few bottles of 19th century nectar. You will find that an 1862 or 1850 will inspire far more memories and conversation around the dinner table than that self-aggrandizing First Growth barely out of nappies.

It is the journey home. I am sitting in the airport lounge. Jancis is over there playing Rachmaninov on her laptop and I am wandering around the lacklustre Duty Free wondering whether many holiday-goers will purchase a bottle of Blandy’s or Barbeito, whether they appreciate the brilliance enclosed by that cork and that seal? I ruminate upon those wines that passed my lips, Madeiras that spanned a timeline from Jane Austen to JK Rowling, from Napoleon Bonaparte to Nicolas Sarkozy.
Will he modern day Madeira last two centuries or more?
Of that, I have no doubt. Long after the 2009 First Growths are dead and buried, some of these Madeira will be as fresh daisies, strutting their stuff…but for whom?
I’ll leave that question hanging in the air, because only you can answer that.

Tasting Notes

N-V Barbeito Sercial 10 Year Old Reserve 90
Blended from three different warehouses, the 10-Year Old Reserve has a pale amber hue with green tints. The bouquet is elegant and refined, nothing too showy with walnut, a touch of chocolate, pecan nuts and a touch of smoke. The palate has a soft entry, very understated at first. But there is a very enchanting build with delicate notes of dried orange peel, mandarin, lemon zest and a touch of ginger. Taut and focused towards the finish with good length, this bottle showed better than on previous occasions. Tasted April 2010.

2001 Blandy’s Sercial Colheita 83
A single cask of 1,224 bottles, this has a surprisingly deep, lucid amber/golden hue. The bouquet is quite extrovert, one could argue more commercial although it is well defined with roasted walnut, dried orange peel and a hint of wet wool that faintly reminds me of a Chenin Blanc. The palate is quite honeyed on the entry, but it never really delivers after that, quite neutral and lacking the definition and substance of say, Barbeito’s equivalent. Tasted April 2010.

N-V Barbeito VB Reserva Lote 2 Casks 12D & 46A 92
This is a blend of Verdelho (from 2002) and Boal (from 2003) with a little more of the former. 2,118 bottles bottled in June 2009. A deep amber hue, a little more russet in colour. The bouquet is precise with very fine lift and definition, touches of hazelnut, dried honey and yellow flowers with marmalade coming through with aeration. This has very good structure: viscous on the entry but with racy acidity cutting through. Spicy and vibrant, freshly cut ginger mixed with dried apricot, mango and a hint of crème brulee. Great persistency towards the finish: this is a superb blend that is full of grace and composure. Tasted April 2010.

2000 Blandy’s Verdelho Colheita 92
A single cask of 1,210 bottles, this has a lucid, deep amber/orange hue. It has an intriguing bouquet, embracing some of those mature, oxidized Chenin Blanc aromas faintly reminiscent of say, a 30-year old Vouvray from Gaston Huet. It coalesces with time, very harmonious and focused. The palate is medium-bodied, very well balanced with those oxidative elements perfectly counter-balancing the honeyed sweetness. This is not a complex Verdehlo, but it more than compensates with poise and elegance. Very fine, although it cuts away a little sharply. Tasted April 2010.

N-V Barbeito Historic Series Verdelho Savannah Special Reserve 90
From 10-year old reserves, this has a deep amber colour with green tints on the edge. A toffee-scented aroma, well defined with walnut oil, sesame, smoke and dried honey. Quite tight, although it loosens up with time. The palate is medium-bodied with a viscous entry, very well balanced with good acidity, nicely judged oxidative honeyed fruit, although not a complex Verdelho. But one has to admire its power and intensity, whilst maintaining great composure towards the finish. Very fine. Tasted April 2010.

2001 Barbeito Boal Colheita Casks 48 & 84 89
With 1,722 bottles produced in June 2009, Ricardo said that the blend was much better than the single casks. It has a very clear, slightly paler hue. The nose is rather subdued with light honey and hazelnut aromas with faint hints of quince and lemongrass, although it would benefit from a little more vigour. The palate is medium-bodied, very well balanced, quite mellifluous and engaging. Notes of dried honey, mandarin, a touch of allspice and nutmeg, light and elegant towards the finish. Perfect to serve as an aperitif. Tasted April 2010.

2001 Barbeito Tinta Negra Mole Single Cask 10D&E 90
This Tinta Negra has a tight but well defined nose with walnut, freshly shaven ginger and smoke on the nose, then with aeration, a saline tang. The palate displays succinct balance with lemongrass, ginger, nutmeg and dried honey, just the right amount of volatility towards the finish with great persistency, although I would have liked it to show just a touch more complexity. Still, this demonstrates that one should never under-estimate Tinta Negra…not in the right hands. Tasted April 2010.

N-V Blandys Bual 5-Year Old Medium Rich Madeira 88
Tasted at Blandy’s lodge in Funchal. A light coffee/deep amber colour. The nose is quite restrained at the moment with touches of walnut, cigar box and dried lemon peel. Good definition but it is quite light. Hints of dark chocolate inflecting the nose, touches of lemongrass and allspice, cohesive on the oxidative finish with moderate length. Light, refreshing Madeira to serve as an aperitif. Tasted April 2010.

N-V Blandy’s Bual 10-Year Old 85
Made from canteiro Bual in their wine lodge, there is a strong note of caramel and crème brulee on the nose. Good definition, although it is a little obvious. The palate is medium-bodied, quite light and lacking a little substance. Fine tannins, attractive honey, molasses and caramel flavours, but simple towards the finish. Tasted April 2010.
(From this vintage, started making with full maceration and higher oxidation, which explains the deeper colour.)

2004 Blandy’s Malmsey Harvest 88
Bottled in March 2010, just 1,764 bottles produced. This has a broody, smoky, brown sugar-scented bouquet with touches of dark chocolate and turpentine. The palate is medium-bodied with fine balanced, touches of caramel and dark toffee, slightly lower acidity but very harmonious towards the mellifluous finish. This is quite commercial in style, but very well crafted. Tasted April 2010.

2000 Barbeito Malvasia Colheita Cask 40A 93
Bottled in October 2009, the Malvasia Colheita Cask 40A has a striking, potent, unforgiving nutty nose that jolts the olfactory senses. You will either love or hate the aromatics: touches of undergrowth coming through unashamedly volatile. The palate is medium-bodied with a great sense of tension, racy acidity, very well balanced with dark toffee, dried honey, smoke, roasted walnuts and a deep, earthy finish. This is a multi-faceted Colheita that you actually grow to love. Just 825 bottles made. Tasted April 2010.

1994 Barbeito Sercial Cask 70B 93
Tasted at Barbeito’s winery outside Funchal, the Cask 70B was bottled in August 2009. Pale amber in hue with green tints on the rim, it has an attractive bouquet with notes of dried honey, Xmas cake, fig and smoke, perhaps just missing the clarity and precision of Ricardo’s greatest offerings. The palate has a rancio character on the entry, very well balanced with Moroccan spice, Schezhuan pepper and lemongrass. Not an aggressive Sercial, but flirting with the idea, but there is Ricardo’s trademark deftness of touch on the finish whose sweetness is almost Verdelho in quality. This is a sublime Sercial, though only 252 bottles were produced. Tasted April 2010.

1993 Blandy’s Bual Colheita 90
One cask representing 1,500 bottles bottled in 2009, this Colheita has a light nose of orange zest, apricot, ginger and a touch of Satsuma, less oxidative in style than other Madeira. The palate is medium-bodied, very well balanced with good acidity, not a complex Bual, but very pure with a well-judged smoke/walnut element towards the finish. An unprepossessing Bual. Very fine. Tasted April 2010.

1991 Blandy’s Colheita Single Harvest 92
Tasted at Blandy’s lodge in Funchal. This has a strong, rather unruly oxidative bouquet with roasted walnut, smoke, light tangerine and a touch of earthiness that develops with aeration. The palate is well balanced with racy acidity, hints of Seville orange, marmalade, quince and hazelnut, taut and focused towards the finish. Good length. This is a great Colheita that goes great guns. Tasted April 2010.

N-V Blandy’s Malmsey 15-Year Old 88
A canteiro blend made in Blandy’s wine lodge, this 15-year old is very deep in colour. It is relatively simple on the nose with faint aromas of dark chocolate, walnut and a hint of seaweed. Good definition, but it would benefit from more vigour. The palate is medium-bodied, well balanced with hints of lemongrass, spicebox and dried apricot. Quite elegant towards the finish, moderate if not great length. Fine. Tasted April 2010.

N-V Barbeito Malvasia 20-Year Old Lot 7199 93
This is one of my favourite modern-day non-vintage Malvasia. The Lot 7199 has a limpid golden hue, this has a “thickly spread” bouquet with notes of dried honey and marmalade, a hint of vanilla pod coming through with aeration. The palate is medium-bodied with a spicy tang on the entry setting the scene nicely, opening up with a viscous texture, touches of marmalade, quince and molasses, great depth and poise towards the finish. This is a beautiful Malvasia. Tasted April 2010.

N-V Barbeito Malvasia 30-Year Old “Lote Especial” 95
Ricardo describes this as a “homage to his grandfather”: 1,500 bottles bottled in April 2007. This has a deep amber colour. The nose soars from the glass with ripe mandarin, grapefruit, hazelnut, just a hint of dried fig and date. Wonderful. The palate is medium-bodied with great tension on the entry, spicy, cardamom, nutmeg and smoke, very cohesive with great weight and persistency towards the finish that is adorned with a salty tang. Superb. Tasted April 2010.

1989 Pereira d’Oliveira Sercial 88
Produced from high altitude at Jardim da Serra at Estreito de Camara de Lobos, d’Oliveira made 5,800 litres matured in oak casks. Deep amber in colour, this has a tight nose with aromas of dried honey, quince and a touch of seaweed, opening up with aeration revealing more caramel/toffee aromas. The palate is quite sharp on the entry with racy acidity, toffee, nutmeg, walnut and a touch of dried tobacco. It is a little short on the nutty, saline finish, but not bad overall. Tasted April 2010.

1988 Barbeito Sercial Frasqueira 90
Just 600 bottles, bottled in September 2009, this has a clear golden colour. The bouquet is strangely taciturn despite rigorous coaxing, but it gently unfolds to offer aromas of orange peel, mandarin, dried honey and toffee, though overall it does lacks a little complexity. The palate is more outspoken: tangy marmalade on the entry, very good acidity, touches of quince, dried mango and ginger, with a salty Olorosso tang on the finish. Good length. I would actually cellar this for 8-10 years and let that nose evolve. Tasted April 2010.

1987 Pereira d’Oliveira Malvasia 90
Bottled in 2009 and aged for over 20-years in wood, this is very dark in colour: deep amber/mahogany. The bouquet is a little disjointed at first, developing aromas of orange peel, dried honey, furniture polish and a touch of Chinese 5-spice. The palate is medium-bodied with good acidity, touches of crème caramel, walnut, a hint of lemongrass and marmalade. Very compact but brimming over with flavour. Very fine. Tasted April 2010.

1985 Blandy’s Malmsey 85
Bottled in September 2009 (1,420 bottles) this has a clear deep amber colour. The nose is lacking some harmony, rather severe with harsh oxidative aromas that are not backed up by sufficient fruit. The palate is medium-bodied, a little harsh on the entry, perhaps a little forced. Marmalade, dried apricot with a touch of ginger, viscous towards the finish, but just lacking some natural charm. Drink now. Tasted April 2010.

1981 Barbeito Verdehlo Frasqueira 93
Just 900 bottles produced in May 2005, this has a clear amber/orange colour, then a beautiful, highly perfumed bouquet with mandarin, apricot, tangerine, vanilla and crème brulee. Very fine definition. The palate is medium-bodied with lovely, natural balance, less oxidative than other Madeira, the fruits ebullient with apricot, mandarin and dried honey, hints of lemongrass towards the finish. Very cohesive and great persistency, this is a great Frasqueira. Tasted April 2010.

1978 Barbeito Sercial 94
Aged in old French oak casks since February 1979 and bottled December 2003, this Sercial had a deep amber colour. What a fantastic bouquet: much more vibrant than the previous bottling with aromas of dried orange peel, walnut, smoke and a touch of ginger. Wonderful delineation and poise. The palate is medium-bodied with a citric entry that is bounding with energy, hints of mandarin, tangerine, lanolin, clove and a touch of cumin. Light on its feet on the finish, this is a great bottling of the ’78 Sercial by Ricardo. Tasted November 2010.

1978 Barbeito Verdelho 92
Aged in oak cask since February 1979, transferred into demijohn in October 2000 and then bottled the following March, the Verdehlo 1978 is deep amber in colour. This has an intriguing bouquet that takes a while to coalesce with scents of marzipan and toffee apple at first, a touch of chestnut and some coca aromas developing with further acquaintance. It does not quite have the animation of the Sercial ’78. The palate is has a slight volatile entry, an untamed, feral Verdelho in some ways, edgy but intellectual. Not a faultless Verdelho, lacking a little cohesion towards the finish, but undeniably compelling. Fresh as a daisy on the finish with a touch of rosewater inflecting the aftertaste. Wonderful. Just 1,493 bottles made. Tasted November 2010.

1978 Barbeito Boal 97
This is the second bottling of the Boal 1978, the first back in 2001. This is a much smaller bottling of just 672 bottles that were bottled in June 2007. It has a deep amber colour. The nose is very subtle and understated with delicate aromas of walnut, dried mandarin, fireside hearth and yellow plum but just leave this a minute in the glass and it envelops the entire room with its heady bouquet. The palate is sublime: perfect balance on the entry, crisp acidity that is utterly in synch with the fruit profile (Clementine, lemon peel and Japanese yuzu.) Very harmonious from start to finish, the oxidative elements toned down. Utterly seductive and with such balance that I bet this will last a century without trouble. Effortless. Tasted November 2010.

1977 Blandy’s Bual 90
Bottled in 2009, the 1977 Bual has a well defined nose with orange peel, a touch of woodbine, tobacco, a hint of cooking apple and orange zest and with aeration more walnut aromas begin to take centre stage. The palate is medium-bodied, viscous on the entry, not a complex Bual but well defined with sharp orange peel, dried apricot, smoke, walnut and ginger. Moderate length, still very youthful with another 20 years mandatory to get the best out of this. Just 1,241 bottles produced. Tasted April 2010.

1977 Pereira d’Oliveira Terrantez 91
Bottled in 2009, 1977 was an excellent year for the rare Terrantez, this example matured in wood for over 30 years. It has a deep amber hue with a light tawny rim. The nose is well defined, quite light and feminine, not as complex as other Madeira of similar age. Toffee, dried honey, nutmeg, apricot and a touch of orange-blossom, it gains a little complexity with continued aeration. The palate is medium-bodied, tangy orange and Clementine, great tension, a little mouth-puckering towards the finish with hints of sour lemon and molasses. It seems to get spicier with further time in the glass, indeed, quite a mercurial offering with a salty aftertaste. Very fine. Tasted April 2010.

1976 Blandy’s Terrantez 87
Bottled in March 1997, this Terrantez is very deep in colour (similar to a Malvasia.) It has a fresh, slightly caramelized bouquet, hints of marzipan, nutmeg, smoke and a touch of seaweed. The palate is medium-bodied, well balance, quite tight and minerally, although here just lacking a little depth towards the finish, with an earthier, drier aftertaste than the ’77 Terrantez from d’Oliveira. 5,829 bottled. Tasted April 2010.

1973 Pereira d’Oliveira Verdelho 88
Produced from Seixal and Sao Vincente and bottled in 2008, this has a clear, deep amber hue. To be frank, the nose is not as complex as others with straight-forward but not unattractive aromas of molasses, toffee apple and quince, although it lacks a little cohesion. The palate is medium-bodied with a salty tang on the entry, good balance with walnut, smoke, dried orange peel and tangerine towards the finish that just cuts away a little sharply. Not bad. Tasted April 2010.

1968 Pereira d’Oliveira Boal 94
Produced from the southwest part of the island and spending over 40-years in old oak casks, this ’68 was bottled in 2009 and is far superior to previous bottlings. This has a very sensuous nose, well defined and tightly wound, unfurling to reveal molasses, quince, scorched earth and a touch of leather. Very subtle. The palate is medium-bodied with good tension, fine acidity and balance, very subtle towards the finish with dried orange peel, nutmeg, a sprinkle of cardamom and walnut. Harmonious and graceful, this is a beautiful d’Oliveira. Tasted April 2010.

1958 Cossart Gordon Bual 93
Bottled in 2006, with a pH 3.41 and 1.02gms/l volatile acidity, this was bottled under Blandy’s label in 2002 (the first bottling of the ’58 was in 1996.) This has a very deep, very clear amber colour. There is a great deal of elegance here, very well defined with roasted walnut, almond, a touch of dark cherry, a hint of Valrhona chocolate with a touch of alcohol just detracting from its clarity. The palate is very youthful, vibrant on the entry, full of tension with racy acidity, cohesive, with tangerine, dried pineapple and a touch of lychee roiling around the finish. At 52-years of age, I feel that this is only halfway towards its drinking plateau…it’s a long road. There were 2,000 bottles produced.

1957 Barbeito Boal 89
Bottled in 1992 (1,200 bottles) the Boal ’57 has a lifted nose of quince, dried orange peel, just a touch of barley sugar and chlorine that remind me slightly of a mature Barsac. The palate is medium-bodied with tangy orange and Clementine on the entry, some dark toffee elements coming through on the mid-palate, leading to a relatively linear, quite salty tang on the off-dry finish. Tasted April 2010.

1952 Blandy’s Verdelho 96
Bottled in 1973 (2,500 bottles) this is a magnificent Verdehlo from Blandy’s. The nose is tight and compact at first, unfurling nicely with aeration, one of the few with real mineralité coming through. Quince, tangerine, toffee apple and a touch of smoke. The palate is adorable: beautifully balanced with fine acidity, layers of dried honey, mandarin, dried lychee, nutmeg and walnut notes, quite oxidative towards the finish with great persistency with those Indian spice gentle goading the palate for another sip. Wonderful. Tasted April 2010.

1952 Blandy’s Malmsey 90
Bottled in 1973, this has a very deep amber/mahogany colour. The nose is subtle and refined, not a complex bouquet but it kinda creeps up on you, quite rounded with caramel, dried apricot, nutmeg, wet dog and damp earth. Sod that…this is more intellectual than I first supposed! The palate is medium- to full-bodied, viscous in texture with marmalade, quince, dried mango and a touch of crème brulee. Good length and persistency. Very fine. Tasted April 2010.

1937 Pereira d’Oliveira Sercial 87
Bottled in 2008, matured in oak casks for 70 years, this Sercial has a very elegant bouquet with dried apricot, nutmeg, walnut and a touch of chalk dust. Very good definition and precision. The palate is viscous on the entry, intense dried honey and Chinese 5-spice on the entry, dried orange peel, very tangy with comparatively high volatility towards the finish. Not quite the length of other wines, quite Barsac-like on the aftertaste with its honey and barley sugar. Fine. Tasted April 2010.

1934 Leacock’s Bual 94
Tasted at Blandy’s lodge in Funchal. Matured for 52-years in oak (i.e. bottled in 1986) this has a deep amber colour. Very clear. The nose is very tight at first, then developing aromas of tamarind, orange zest, allspice, freshly cut ginger and some torrefactory aromas. The palate is very smooth and cohesive, dried honey and marmalade, ginger coming towards the finish. Very good length with a tangy, spicy, refreshing finish that has a slight Schezhuan pepper tingle on the aftertaste. Marvellous. Tasted April 2010.

1927 Pereira d’Oliveira Bastardo 90
Matured in Adegas do Torreao and bottled in 2006, the Bastardo ’27 has a refined, quite reticent bouquet with notes of dried honey, crème brulee and scorched earth, although its lacks the breeding of Leacock’s famous Bastardo from the same vintage. The palate is very elegant and harmonious, the breeding of this almost extinct grape variety really showing through. Very refined, very precise with honey, quince, Seville orange and hazelnut towards the slightly attenuated finish. Great length. Excellent. Tasted April 2010.

1922 Pereira d’Oliveira Boal 85
Bottled in 2003, this is remarkably deep in colour. It has a relatively straightforward dark chocolate scented nose with hints of orange-blossom and swimming pool. The palate is medium-bodied, quite weighty, a broad-shouldered, slightly cumbersome Boal that is missing some definition and elegance towards the drying finish. I would drink this up. Tasted April 2010.

1920 Blandy’s Bual 91
Taken directly from the cask at Blandy’s Lodge in Funchal, this has a very deep amber hue. Notes of dried orange peel, tangerine, ginger, spice, molasses and toffee. The palate has an attacking smoked walnut infused entry, superb harmony and a lightness of touch, less viscous than I expected but with superb tension and animation towards the finish. Then a second sample, this time taken from bottle, 2,118 bottled in 2006, this has a far more refined, cleaner nose than the one taken directly from cask. Here, there is a saline tang, dried mango and marmalade with a hint of ginger and allspice. The palate is more viscous and spicy, nice heat coming through towards the lemongrass tinged, mango and Schezhuan pepper finish. Lovely. Tasted April 2010.

1916 Barbeito Malvasia 89
This is sourced from a demijohn from Ricardo’s grandfather’s private collection; the 1916 has a very elegant, refined bouquet with dried apricot, Satsuma, vanilla pod and tangerine, fresh and vibrant. The palate has a very spicy/salty entry, harmonious, not quite the depth of other Madeira of similar age and the finish seems to be drying out. I would drink this soon. Tasted April 2010.

1912 Pereira d’Oliveira Verdelho 88
Aged for 95 years in the warehouse at Rua Visconde do Anadia, this has a lifted bouquet of dried mango, apricot, sea salt, toffee apple and quince – still fresh and vibrant. The palate is quite feminine and understated with notes of caramel, smoke, walnut and a torrefactory finish, which seems to be drying out a little, fraying at the seams. Tasted April 2010.

1910 Barbeito Sercial 97
The last two bottles from Ricardo’s late grandfather’s collection, this has a pale amber colour that completely belies its age. It has a rather strange nose at first, lacking a little cohesion, but then comes together beautifully with quince, dried apricot, nutmeg, dark cherry and sloe…very distinctive. The palate is medium-bodied, very elegant and understated, good acidity, lovely natural balance, not a powerful Sercial but one of poise and composure. Genteel almost. One of the finest finishes I have encountered on a Madeira, wonderful delineation and focus with hints of mandarin and quince. It has jaw-dropping length and persistency. Stunning. Tasted April 2010.

1908 Pereira d’Oliveira Boal 94
Bottled in 2008, this actually reminds me of a mature Barsac on the nose. Well defined with dried apricot, red cherry, a touch of walnut and nutmeg. Very refined. The palate is medium-bodied, slightly viscous on the entry with dried honey, apricot, marmalade and Seville orange. Not the weight of some of the coeval Madeira, but amazing persistency and elegance. Lovely. Tasted April 2010.

1907 Pereira d’Oliveira Malvasia 97
A reputed year for Malvasia, this was aged over 90-years at their warehouse in Rua dos Ferreiros and this bottle is better than previous ones I have encountered. This has a very fresh, very complex nose with notes of crème brulee, dried apricot, quince, hints of wild strawberry and fresh fig. A really stunning bouquet, developing a touch of chlorine with time.  The palate is just huge: incredibly powerful, spicy, hints of caramel, fig, Indian spice, Chinese 5-spice with an extravagant bravura finish that is so viscous and beautifully defined with apricot lingering seductively on the back-palate. Stunning. Tasted April 2010.

1905 Blandy’s Sercial 94
Bottled in 1970, this has a very precise bouquet with dried mango, apricot, a strong sweet vanilla/molasses accent. Very perfumed and opulent. The palate is medium-bodied, very refined and delineated with strong oxidative, dried honey flavours, slightly attenuated towards the finish with great length. Fig and even a touch of strawberry lingering on the aftertaste. Very elegant. Tasted April 2010.

1903 Pereira d’Oliveira Boal 83
Tasted at d’Oliveira winery in Funchal. Bottled in 2003. This has a deep brown core with green tints on the rim. It has a light, fragrant nose with a touches of burnt toffee, molasses, lime jus, all wrapped up in a volatile lift. It just lacks the finesse of say, some of the older Blandy’s Madeira. The palate has sharp acidity on the entry, not a complex mature Madeira, perhaps slightly pinched with notes of sour lemon, lime, a hint of burnt honey, with a lot of volatility towards the finish. There is a burn at the back of the throat. Tasted April 2010.

1900 Pereira d’Oliveira Malvasia 84
Tasted at d’Oliveira winery in Funchal. The 1900 Malvasia (bottled in 1982) has a very deep brown colour. The nose is light and rather reticent on the nose, with light scents of burnt honey, Chinese tea, a touch of damp earth and a more agreeable level of volatile acidity than the Bual 1903. The palate is quite aggressive with sharp acidity, not quite as harmonious as other Madeira of similar age. Notes of orange peel, fresh ginger, sour lemon, relatively simple with a linear light honey and citrus peel finish. Moderate length and again, there is a bit of alcoholic burn at the back of the throat. Tasted April 2010.

1880 Blandy’s Malmsey 96
Bottled in 1921, this has a roiling bouquet of dark chocolate, dried mango, orange-blossom, a touch of Chinese 5-spice and nutmeg. Superb definition and it is gaining intensity all the time in the glass. The palate is beautifully balanced with vibrant acidity: marmalade, quince, walnut, allspice and nutmeg. Light honeyed notes towards the finish, sedate and beautifully defined, long and sensuous towards the finish. Tasted April 2010.

1875 Pereira d’Oliveira Moscatel 91
Bottled in 1975, deep amber in colour, despite its rarity this is not quite as complex on the nose as other Madeira from this era. Manuka honey, passion fruit and toffee apple, it perhaps just lacks the same level of definition. The palate is medium-bodied, viscous in the entry with dried apricot, marmalade, quince and dark chocolate. The caramel elements come through quite strongly towards the finish. More pleasurable than intellectual, but still very fine. Tasted April 2010.

1875 Pereira d’Oliveira Malvasia 96
Bottled during the 1970s, this has a very complex bouquet: quince jus, dates, balsam, mint and a touch of seaweed, the kind of Madeira that you want to just keep inhaling. The palate has a salty tang on the entry, the oxidative aromas counterpoising the fruit to perfection, beautiful delineation, very fresh with great tension, nutmeg and smoke towards the long, spicy finish with raisin, passion fruit and fig on the aftertaste. Sublime. Tasted April 2010.

1863 Blandy’s Bual 90
This Bual was bottled in 1913 and kept in demijohns until 1978 whereupon it was put into regular bottles (2,266 to be exact.) There is a strong algae-like note on the nose that does not dissipate with aeration.  It has a slightly odd nose: fresh apricot, lemon curd, marmalade and cola. The palate is medium-bodied, finely balanced, tangy marmalade and quince on the entry, very taut with a delicate touch of spice on the finish that shows some signs of drying out. Fine, but do not leave for too long. Tasted April 2010.

1862 Blandy’s Terrantez 94
Bottled in 1913, this has a very fine bouquet of molasses, quince, dried mango, a touch of strawberry and marmalade. Very good definition and gaining intensity in the glass. The palate is medium-bodied and beautifully balanced, touches of caramel, Chinese 5-spice, nutmeg, tamarind and sea salt. Quite linear, very taut but great length. There is something uncompromising about this Terrantez, a kind of “take me or leave me” attitude…and I like that in a 148-year old. Tasted April 2010.

1862 Vasconcelos (Barbeito) Boal 93
This is the only bottle in existence according to Ricardo Barbeito, from grapes grown in Quinta da Piedade, Vasconcelos being a family that married into Barbeito some while ago. It has a pale amber colour, very clear, this has a very sweet vanilla, marzipan…almost candy floss bouquet. Very well defined. It is like walking into a sweet shop. The palate is medium-bodied with notes of walnut and smoke on the entry. Ricardo mentioned that he feels this might have been kept in wood for too long and I think that shows. Still, an elegant finish and a lovely, lovely Madeira. Tasted April 2010.

1850 Pereira d’Oliveira Verdelho 97
Bottled in the 1970s from the founding year of the company, this has a very refined nose with aromas of crème brulee, nutmeg, and a touch of woodbine, tobacco and dried mango. The palate is medium-bodied, very well balanced with fine acidity. It displays succinct, natural balance with touches of mint, Chinese 5-spice, ginger and dried mango/apricot. Very harmonious, very good weight with wonderful persistency. This Madeira has a sense of “completeness”. Tasted April 2010.

1795 Barbeito Terrantez 99
This Terrantez is a bona fide rarity since it comes directly from the sole remaining demijohn belonging to Ricardo Barbeito’s grandmother. Pale deep amber colour, very clear, the bouquet is very well defined with nutmeg, roasted walnut, quince jus and marmalade. The palate is medium-bodied, beautifully balanced and yes, fresh and lively. At 215-years young, it has delicate marmalade, dried apricot and quince flavours on the delineated, elegant finish, with just a touch of volatility on the finish, subtle hints of sour lemon, passion fruit, dried honey and beeswax on the aftertaste. Such femininity and grace. Taking the glass to accompany a following dinner, it remains as fresh as a daisy. What can I say…magical. Tasted April 2010.

Thanks to Bert Jueris for organizing this incredible tasting. Also thanks to Ricardo Freitas and Ricardo Tavares of Barbeito and Blandy’s respectively, to Mannie Burke in New York and Paul Day in London.

Links/Books:
The Madeira Collection (Belgium)
“A Century Past” – Mannie Burke of The Rare Wine Company (1999)
(Mannie is the man to go to for Madeira in the United States)
“Oceans of Wine” by David Hancock – Yale University Press (2009)
“A Matter Of Taste” by John Hurley – Tempus Publishing (2005)

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3 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for this one Neil! A great read and I am thrilled to see you’ve put such great effort in doing yours promoting Madeira.

    Love it!

    All the best,

    Niklas – a 38 years old/young (?) Madeira fan!

  2. [...] November saw Neal Martin weighing in with a lengthy article on his own Wine Journal and on eRobertParker.com. The article was built on several days of tasting and interviews in [...]

  3. Seriously top article on Madiera.

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