Vintage Madeira Dinner: Tribute to Mario Barbeito

BARBEITO VINTAGE MADEIRA TASTING DINNER: 1834 – 1926 – Quince Restaurant, San Francisco, California (3/19/2010)

Ricardo Freitas, speaking about his grandfather, Mario Barbeito de Vasconcelos
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The Rare Wine Company’s Mannie Berk, the leading expert on (and importer of) vintage Madeiras in the United States, organized this dinner as a tribute to Mario Barbeito de Vasconcelos, the founder of Vinhos Barbeito, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Mario’s death in 1985. On hand with us was Mario’s grandson, currently Barbeito’s managing director, Ricardo de Freitas. Vinhos Barbeito, one of the youngest Madeira firms, having been founded only in 1946, is also currently one of the most prominent, thanks both to shrewd decisions Mario made early on, as well as to recent innovations and leadership on the part of Ricardo. This was the second of two hommage dinners featuring virtually the same set of wines, all but one of which was either part of Mario’s beginning inventory for Vinhos Barbeito in 1946, or from Mario’s personal cellar. The one exception, a Malvasia from 1905, Mario’s birth year, had been purchased after Mario’s death by Ricardo, who was delighted to be able to buy a Madeira from that vintage (a prize that had eluded his grandfather). The first dinner was held in New York City the previous Sunday, March 14.

It was a treat to meet Ricardo Freitas, who not only took over as managing director of Barbeito in 1991, replacing his mother in that role, but has also been its primary winemaker since 1993. Ricardo’s grandfather, Mario, was foresighted for having bought up significant stocks of older Madeiras, largely in cask, in the mid-’40s and ’50s. Ricardo has been the one to bottle many of the wines that his grandfather purchased back then. In what other field of winemaking, besides Madeira, does it take three (or more) generations to shepherd a wine from vinification to bottling? And Ricardo was clearly very influenced by what he had learned about winemaking from his grandfather — especially the importance of keeping vintage Madeiras in cask for as many years as possible, and bottling them only a year or two before they are ready to be sold.

Ricardo seemed like a relatively shy and soft spoken person, so it is impressive that he’s already done so much to keep Barbeito in the forefront of modern Madeira winemaking, including ending the practice of adding caramel to the wine (as so many other Madeira producers do), producing single cask bottlings, and entering high profile partnerships both with Rare Wine Co. (their Historical Series) and Fortnum & Mason (their Christmas Pudding Madeira, among other special blends). And he clearly venerates his grandfather. It was particularly moving to hear him talk of fond memories of spending afternoons sitting in the library with his grandfather, when Ricardo was 7 or 8 years old. His grandfather’s library, which is now a tourist attraction on the island, holds one of the world’s largest collections of books and memorabilia related to Christopher Columbus.

I very much enjoyed all of the wines in this tasting, with the exception of the volatile and hard edged 1914 Boal MBV. My WOTN was a stunning, and extremely rare, 1900 Moscatel. We presumably tasted the very last of this wine in existence, as Ricardo was only able to obtain not quite two bottles from what was left of a demijohn of the wine from his grandfather’s private collection. I appreciated the complexity and unique nose and palate of this wine. The dish that was served with this wine, a delicious pasta with clam, orange, espresso dust and oil of Albenga, was also my favorite course of the night, and I thought it was the best pairing of wine and food. The other wines that most impressed me out of this memorable tasting were the elegant 1885 Verdelho and an 1882 Terrantez, which was also taken from the last of a demijohn that had been part of Mario Barbeito’s private collection. Our wines for the tasting were decanted the previous Monday, for two days, and then splash decanted one more time prior to this Friday evening tasting.

The caricature of Mario Barbeito that appeared on the cover of our program for the evening was drawn in 1944. It had hung in Mario’s library until it, and other treasures of the library, were damaged by recent flooding there–it had been under water for 48 hours. Ricardo is planning to have the picture restored.
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First Flight

Our course for this first Madeira flight was an Octopus Salad with topary bean, cauliflower and almonds.
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Our first two wines represented the drier side of Madeira, which ranges from Sercial–usually the driest style–to Verdelho, to Bual, to the sweetest style, Malvasia or Malmsey. Both of these wines had been purchased by Mario Barbeito in the mid-1940s, and were bottled by Ricardo in 2004. I preferred the intense 1910 Sercial, even though it was a bit less dry than a typical Sercial. The finish on the 1926 Verdelho was one of the shorter finishes in this tasting, but the wine had lovely flavors and excellent acidity.
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Mannie Berk introduces Ricardo Freitas
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  • 1910 Barbeito Madeira Sercial Reserva Velha – Portugal, Madeira
    Medium brown color with pale, slightly greenish, meniscus; VA, tart lemon, caramel, coffee, smoke nose; tasty, tart lemon, smoky palate with intensity and coffee edges, medium-plus acidity, but less acidity than a more typical Sercial; long finish (Barbeito’s Ricardo Freitas, who bottled this wine from cask in 2004, says that the wine was from the south coast, Caniço, where there are currently no vines.) (93+ points)
  • 1926 Barbeito Madeira Verdelho – Portugal, Madeira
    Light medium brown color with pale green meniscus; deep coffee, roasted nut, baked peach with brown sugar nose; tasty, tangy, roast coffee, marzipan, smoke palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (Barbeito’s Ricardo Freitas thinks this wine, which he bottled in 2004, is from the island’s north coast, Seixal or Ribeira da Janela. The wine was purchased by Mario Barbeito shortly before the company’s founding in 1946.) (92 points)

Moscatel Flight

Our dish with the haunting Moscatel was a delicious Senatore Capelli Selezione Spaghetti with clam, orange, espresso dust and oil of Albenga, a great pairing of flavors for Madeira. As mentioned above, this was my favorite Madeira of the tasting, and I am still haunted by the memory of its ethereal, and highly unusual, for Madeira, lime, green almond and jasmine tea nose. It was youthful, complex and fascinating. I only wish there was more of it in this world.

  • 1900 Barbeito Madeira Moscatel – Portugal, Madeira
    Medium brown color with pale yellow meniscus; VA, ethereal, surprisingly high pitched, lime cream, lime hard candy, green melon, green almond, jasmine tea nose; tightly coiled, tart green orange, smoke, tart tangerine, vanilla bean palate with earthy notes, a most unusual and memorable Madeira; long finish (Barbeito’s managing director, Ricardo Freitas, was able to obtain one and two-thirds of a bottle of this rare wine from a demijohn that had been in his grandfather’s private collection. He pulled it specially for the dinners in NYC and San Francisco this week, and no more is known to exist.) (96 points)

Younger Malvazia Flight

The pasta dish with this flight was Maccaroncello with salsa di fiore and Madeira gelee. The 1907 was by far the stronger wine, for me, in this flight, with rather unusual chocolate and Chambord-like flavors. The 1905, which Ricardo had purchased because it was from Mario’s birth year, also had some good flavors, but it was the wine that most showed its high alcohol of any in the tasting.
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  • 1907 Barbeito Madeira Malvazia – Portugal, Madeira
    Light medium brown color with nearly clear, slightly greenish meniscus; cherry, chocolate, framboise, black raspberry, dried apricot nose; rich, poised, Chambord, raspberry, milk chocolate palate with depth; long finish (bottled from demijohn) (94 points)
  • 1905 Barbeito Madeira Malvazia – Portugal, Madeira
    Medium brown color with ruby lights and pale, slightly greenish, meniscus; VA, orange, cherry, faint coffee nose; rich, tart cherry liqueur, tart cherry, tart blood orange palate with medium acidity, and hottest of our 12 Madeiras; long finish (Only bottle of the dozen in our tasting that wasn’t owned by Mario Barbeito; his grandson, Ricardo Freitas, purchased it because it was Mario’s birth year, and Mario had always wanted to own a Madeira from that year. Wine is from Jardim do Mar, purchased from the de Barros family.) (91+ points)

Verdelho/Bual Flight

Our dish for this flight was the one food disappointment — a dry and overcooked Wild Boar with celeriac, black trumpet mushroom and dolce forte sauce. The wines in this flight ranged from the very elegant 1885, to the tasty and youthful 1910, to the volatile and charmless 1914. I’d tasted the 1885 once before, a few years back, and this bottle was significantly better.
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  • 1885 Barbeito Madeira Verdelho – Portugal, Madeira
    Light medium red brown color with red lights and pale meniscus; complex, ethereal, coffee, baked plum, VA, baked orange, vanilla nose; elegant, lighter bodied than most, tart citrus, tart plum, espresso, vanilla, walnut palate; long finish (Purchased by Mario Barbeito around the time of the company’s founding in 1946, bottled in 1990; presumably sourced from the north coast, Ribeira da Janela.) (94+ points)
  • 1910 Barbeito Madeira Boal Reserva Velha – Portugal, Madeira
    Medium red brown color with pale meniscus; reticent, root beer, sassafras, stewed plum and prune, walnut nose; tasty, youthful, tart plum, tart prune palate with medium acidity and good balance; long finish (Sourced from the same location as the 1910 Sercial, Caniço, by Mario Barbeito a few years after he founded the company in 1946; bottled in about 1995; one of managing director Ricardo Freitas’s favorite wines.) (92 points)
  • 1914 Barbeito Madeira Boal MBV – Portugal, Madeira
    Medium brown color with pale meniscus; major VA, tart apple butter, very tart apricot nose; tart apple butter, tart apricot, young and solid, but hard edged and lacking charm, with medium acidity for a Bual; very long finish (from a demijohn that Mario Barbeito purchased near the time of the founding of his company; weakest of our dozen Barbeito Madeiras at this tasting, in my view, with higher volatility than normal even for vintage Madeira) (88 points)

Terrantez Flight

We tasted our rare Terrantezes with the artisanal cheese course. The cheese was good, but the Terrantezes (a relatively rare varietal for Madeira, but one of my favorites whenever I get to try them) were both superb. The 1882, taken from the remnants of a demijohn that had been in Mario Barbeito’s collection, was presumably a once in a lifetime treat.
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  • 1860 Barbeito Madeira Terrantez – Portugal, Madeira
    Light medium reddish brown color with pale meniscus; complex, apricot puree or paste, smoke, lemon, lemon tea, nutshell, herbs nose; tasty, tart lemon, smoke, quince, orange, roasted nuts palate with medium-plus acidity and sweetness; long finish (only a few bottles known to exist) (94 points)
  • 1882 Barbeito Madeira Terrantez – Portugal, Madeira
    Light, slightly cloudy, orange red color with clear meniscus; VA, enticing lime cream pie, cream, lemon cream, floral, vaguely minty nose; softer, silky textured, mature, lemon cream, lime cream, tart tangerine, lime honey, mint palate with medium acidity; long finish (Barbeito’s managing director, Ricardo Freitas, was able to obtain one and three-quarters of a bottle of this rare wine from a demijohn that had been in his grandfather’s private collection. He pulled it specially for the dinners in NYC and San Francisco this week, and no more is known to exist.) (94+ points)

Final Older Malvazia Flight

Our final course was a Cremoso al Cioccolato, with banana-citrus sorbet and sesame tuile. The 1834 was not as good as a bottle I’d had before, but it did have an intriguing, savory nose. It was fascinating to hear Ricardo’s reaction to the wine, as he was clearly disappointed too with how it was showing, and attributed its dark color and concentration to having been from the end of the cask (with a suggestion, to my ears, that it should perhaps have been bottled earlier than 2005). The 1875 showed much better, with greater structure and delicacy than the 1834. This bottle of 1875, on a par with one I’d tasted several years earlier, suggested to me that this wine is at its drinking peak.
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  • 1834 Barbeito Madeira Malvazia Reserva Velha – Portugal, Madeira
    Medium red brown color with pale meniscus; smoky, pork simmered in wine reduction, tart orange preserves nose; very tart, plum preserve, tart coffee, smoke palate with medium acidity; long finish (According to Barbeito managing director Ricardo Freitas, this was darker and more concentrated than usual, indicating to him that it was from the “end of the cask.” It was bottled in 2005.) (92 points)
  • 1875 Barbeito Madeira Malvazia Reserva Velha – Portugal, Madeira
    Light medium orange red color with pale yellow meniscus; intriguing, elusive, VA, charcoal, tart orange, coffee, roasted nut nose; tasty, resolved, creamy textured, coffee, tart orange marmalade, roasted nuts palate with medium acidity, and both more structure and delicacy than the 1834 Malvazia in our tasting; long finish (Bottled in 2003; presumably sourced from Ribeiro Brava) (94 points)

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