One of my single favorite types of wine comes from a volcanic island 400 miles off the coast of North Africa that has belonged to Portugal since its “discovery” by Europeans in the 1400s. It is a fortified wine that comes in a variety of styles—from very dry to very sweet—but that is always supported by lively acidity. Older versions are among the world’s most complex wines, with very long finishes, that inevitably leave a big impact on a first-time taster. Apropos of our upcoming July 4th holiday, these wines were also, by far, the most popular wine in the American colonies.
I’m talking about the remarkably long lived, very special wines of Madeira.
The reason these wines were so popular amongst our forefathers had a lot to do with a colonial era tax loophole. During the reign of Charles II, the British adopted an act forbidding American colonists from importing goods from Europe in their own ships. They were instead required to bring in such goods only through Britain, paying British duties and shipping costs. The loophole was that the island of Madeira, located conveniently north of Africa for ships returning from the Far East or India via the Cape of Good Hope, was not included in the act’s definition of “Europe.”
Our tea-partying ancestors knew a good tax break when they saw one, so America’s early love affair with one of the world’s great wines was born.
Madeira is unusual not only because of where it’s grown, and the grapes it’s made of (traditionally very high acid white grapes capable of very long aging), but also because of how it is made. Early on they started fortifying it, so that it would survive the long boat trips to destinations throughout the world. When some of those ships came back from months on the high seas journeying to India and other distant tropical destinations, it was found that the remaining wine had gotten even better, as a result of the long period of heating, evaporation and further concentration it received in the warm holds of these ships sailing the tropics.
Madeira’s winemakers learned to mimic these conditions in one of two ways—slowly heating the wines by keeping newly fermented casks in the top floors of lodges on this warm island for a couple of years or more; or by raising temperatures on the new wines even more rapidly, for a period of at least three months, using heated tanks.
The first of these two processes is called the “canteiro” method, named for the support beams on which the heavy casks rest in these lodges. The second is called “estufagem,” which takes its name from the tanks, or “estufas,” in which the wines are heated. Only the lesser Madeiras, mainly meant for cooking, are still produced via estufagem. The favored method, and the only one used for fine vintage Madeiras, is the slow heating and cooling, over a period of years, by canteiro.
Either heating process caramelizes some of the grape sugar, which was stopped from turning into alcohol by being fortified before fermentation was complete, giving the wines their unique caramel and toffee type flavors. Those flavors, coupled with the high lemony and citrus acidity, and the additional complexity that results from letting the best Madeiras continue to slowly evaporate, concentrate and develop by leaving them in cask for a decade (or sometimes many decades, in the case of the finest vintage Madeiras), is what makes these wines a mind blowing, thoroughly delicious experience. No wonder they were the favorite wines of Ben Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson, the most famous wine connoisseur amongst our founding fathers, is known for his love of Bordeaux, Sauternes and white Hermitage, from the Northern Rhone, all regions he visited when he was Secretary of State, and from which he purchased wine when he was President. Throughout his life, however, what always dominated his wine collecting and cellar was Madeira, which he purchased both in bottles and in “pipes,” which was the traditional name for small barrels wealthy patrons would buy and then bottle on their own.
When I look through Jefferson’s meticulous records of his purchases, however, what I notice is that the Madeiras he bought were, at most, eight or nine years old. There are Madeiras available to us today, however, that are 10, 15 and 30 years old, or significantly older—going back to the mid-1800s—with all the additional complexity and concentration afforded by that long cask aging.
I recently had a chance to sample much of what’s currently available from the five remaining major exporters of Madeira, at the annual Madeira trade tasting in San Francisco this month. I was also honored to be asked by the Madeira wine authority, the IVBAM, to deliver the “master class” for the trade that kicked off the annual tasting this year. So I’m still full of facts, figures and the lore of these magnificent wines.
The most important thing to know in choosing a Madeira is that there were once four primary high acid white grapes from which Madeiras were made. In progressive order of sweetness, from very dry to usually quite sweet, those four grape varieties were Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malvasia (also known as “Malmsey”).
Although those four varieties became nearly extinct on the island as a result of phylloxera in the late 1800s, when vineyards were replanted with the easier to grow and higher yielding red grape Tinta Negra Mole (the result of a cross between Pinot Noir and Grenache), along with American hybrids, the names of those “noble” white grape varieties were still used to designate the style of the wines subsequently made primarily from Tinta Negra Mole. Since 1993, however, wines made from Tinta Negra Mole can only use generic terms for sweetness levels—like Seco (or dry) and Meio Doce (medium sweet). The names of the noble white grapes, enough of which have now been replanted to make up about 10% of the island’s wine grapes, can only be used on a wine if at least 85% of it comes from those grapes.
Suffice it to say, if you haven’t yet tried a Madeira, you definitely owe it to yourself. Since it was the wine that George Washington and the other authors of the Declaration of Independence used to toast the signing of that milestone message of freedom, why not join me in raising a glass or two of Madeira to our founding forefathers on this coming July 4?
When you buy your Madeira, look for one that is at least 10 years old. (Madeiras five years old and younger are fine for cooking, but don’t give much feel for the complexity and depth of aged Madeira). Good values are available from Barbeito (try any of the Rare Wine Company Historic Series, made by Barbeito, in the style of Madeiras popular in particular colonial port cities, like Boston and Savannah); Broadbent; Henriques & Henriques (e.g., the Bual 10 Years Old or Verdelho 15 Years old); or Justino Henriques (try the 10 years old Reserve). For a bigger splurge, but truly amazing older vintage Madeiras, try D’Oliveiras (available from Rare Wine Co.).
Before we get to my detailed tasting notes from the recent trade tasting, here’s a brief primer on the different grapes used and types of Madeira, taken from the handouts I created for the master class. The important watershed event reflected in the “cheat sheet” below, which caused major changes in the rules on Madeira wine production and labeling, was Portugal’s entry into the European Union. That happened in 1986, after which Madeira was given seven years–i.e., until 1993–to phase in the changes required by EU wine regulations.
The most important of these for Madeira was the fact that a wine cannot be labeled with a varietal name (e.g., Pinot Noir, or Verdelho), unless it contains at least 85% of wine made from that grape variety. Since the tradition in Madeira post-phylloxera and prior to 1993 was to make most Madeiras with Tinta Negra Mole, but to label them with the name of the traditional white grape in whose style the wine was made, this caused a huge shift in the way wines had to be labeled. It also served as a major motivator for significant replanting of the traditional grape varieties.
I. Principal Madeira Grapes (and Pre-1993 Wine Styles)
- A. Traditional Grapes (previously “noble” grapes) and pre-1993 styles in order of dry to sweet. Since 1993, wine must contain 85% of the grape variety to use varietal name on label. Unless otherwise indicated, the grapes below are white grapes.
- 1. Sercial – Highest in acidity; grown at highest elevations; late ripening, resistant to oidium and mildew; also known in Portugal as Cerceal and Esgana Cão (dog strangler) for its searing acidity. The wines are the palest, typically golden tawny in color, with orange and lemon flavors in youth; nutty and balsamic type flavors with age. Aperitif wine, or served with appetizers, nuts and crackers, smoked fish, shellfish and goats milk cheeses.
- 2. Verdelho – Next highest in acidity, medium dry, rounder and softer than Sercial; also known as Gouveio in Portugal; larger grapes and clusters than Sercial; grown in the north and south at altitudes of about 1300 feet. The wines are similar in color to Sercial, and a little darker, with a nose of dried fruit and honey, and taste of candied fruits when young. Good as an aperitif; with cream soups, stuffed mushrooms, Serrano ham, smoked game; traditional pairing with turtle soup.
- 3. Bual/Boal – Medium sweet; large, heavy grapes; grown in parts of the north and south at lower altitudes. Yields wines darkest in color of the traditional varieties, with rich aromas and flavors of caramel and coffee, and dried fruits, like orange peel and apricot. Best as a dessert wine, with nuts and fruit or soft cheeses.
- 4. Malvasia, Malvasia Candida, Malmsey – Sweetest; original variety planted back in the 1400s, with cuttings from Crete; large, heavy grapes that ripen quickly but can stay on the vine as they don’t easily rot; grown at lowest elevations, mainly on the south coast, but also on the north coast. The wines are a little lighter in color than Bual, with a nose of toffee, vanilla and/or figs. Toffee, vanilla and sometimes marmalade on the palate. Best at the end of the meal, with cookies, chocolate or fruit tarts.
B. Workhorse Grape
Tinta Negra Mole – Widely planted after phylloxera, now amounts to 80-85% of island’s vines; the result of a cross between Pinot Noir and Grenache; small to medium sized black grapes with a soft skin; versatile, in that depending on growing conditions and processing, it can be made as dry, medium dry, medium sweet or sweet; mainly cultivated in the south.
- C. Very rare Traditional Varieties
- 1. Terrantez – Difficult to work with, low yielding. Very sought after by vintage Madeira enthusiasts, with a characteristically bitter note on the finish; a range of flavors from citrus to nutty.
- 2. Bastardo – A sweet black grape, known in France as Trousseau. Older samples have orange, praline flavors, with a bitter note on finish.
- 3. Moscatel – Moscatel of Alexandria; sweet and fragrant, often floral. Made very unusual, honeyed vintage Madeiras, sometimes with orange or lime cream notes.
II. Wine Types and Styles Post-1993
- A. Blends
- 1. If varietal name is used, must contain at least 85% of that variety.
- 2. Multiple grape blends – e.g., Madeira Wine Company’s Alvada label, a 50/50 blend of Boal and Malvasia; Barbeito’s VB blends (Verdelho and Boal).
- B. Age Indicators (age stated indicates age of youngest wine in the blend)
- Rainwater – Golden to semi-golden in color; bright and mild; formerly made mainly with Verdelho; Baumé between 1.0˚ and 2.5˚; youngest wine in blend is at least 3 years old.
- 3-Years-Old, Finest, Choice, Selected – Normally Tinta Negra Mole, or predominantly TNM; usually estufagem treated.
- 5-Years-Old, Reserve, Mature
- 10-Years-Old, Old Reserve, Special Reserve, Reserve Velha
- 15-Years-Old Reserve, Extra Reserve
- 20-Years-Old Reserve
- 30-Years-Old Reserve
- Over 40-Years-Old Reserve
- C. Vintage Designations
- 1. Vintage (Frasqueira)
The very highest quality wines, amounting to less than 5% of production. Since 1993, must be wine of one variety and one year, kept in cask for a minimum of 20 years and then another 2 years in bottle. In practice, the wines are usually kept in cask much longer than 20 years, but not kept for 2 years in bottle. Producers usually decide at about the 10 year mark whether the wine is likely to become a vintage wine.
- 2. Harvest/Single Harvest
A vintage wine with 5 to 10 years in cask.
- 3. Colheita
A vintage wine with about 6 to 10 years in cask (originally 12 to 18 years).
- 4. Solera
Designation reserved for quality wines that have been in “canteiro” for a minimum of five years. Very rare these days. Vintage date based on oldest wine in the batch. Traditionally you take 10% of the cask and replace it with the same amount of a younger wine. You could repeat this nine times, at which point, the solera would be closed and still contain about one-third of the original wine. Later on, some producers followed the system in Sherry, refilling with younger wine as many times as desired. Now the maximum number of additions allowed is 10, after which all the existing wine must be bottled at once.
- D. Degree of Richness/Sweetness
- Extra Seco – extra dry (0 to 49.1 grams of residual sugar per litre)
- Seco – dry (49.1 to 64.8 grams of residual sugar per litre)
- Meio Seco – medium dry (64.8 to 80.4 grams of residual sugar)
- Meio Doce – medium rich, or sweet (80.4 to 96.1 grams of residual sugar)
- Doce – rich or sweet (over 96.1 grams of residual sugar)
And here are my tasting notes from this year’s Madeira trade tasting. Because of my involvement in the program this year, and the fact that I continued to receive a lot of great questions during the grand tasting portion from those who attended my morning seminar, I didn’t manage to taste everything poured this year (as I did last year). For last year’s report, which also provided further information on all five of the island’s major remaining exporters, see my prior post here.
- 1996 Barbeito Madeira Verdelho Colheita Single Cask – Portugal, Madeira
Light medium golden yellow color; buttery, almond, light toffee, tart pear nose; tart lemon, preserved lemon, tart orange, roasted walnut palate with medium acidity; long finish 90+ points (90 pts.)
- 1997 Barbeito Madeira Tinta Negra Mole Colheita Single Cask – Portugal, Madeira
Light orange color with 1 millimeter clear meniscus; appealing, light apricot, saffron honey nose; tasty, elegant, tart apricot, tart orange, tart orange marmalade palate; long finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
- NV Rare Wine Co. (Vinhos Barbeito) Madeira Sercial Historic Series Charleston Sercial Special Reserve – Portugal, Madeira
Medium dark orange color with light yellow meniscus; appealing, lightly savory, saffron, light caramel nose; tasty, light caramel, tart lemon, light apricot palate with medium acidity; long finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
- NV Rare Wine Co. (Vinhos Barbeito) Madeira Savannah Verdelho Special Reserve – Portugal, Madeira
Medium dark orange color with ruby lights and 1 millimeter clear meniscus; very appealing, coffee, burnt almond, praline nose; very tasty, oily textured, tart orange, tart marmalade, light praline palate; long finish (good value at about $50) (92 pts.)
- NV Rare Wine Co. (Vinhos Barbeito) Madeira Historic Series Boston Bual Special Reserve – Portugal, Madeira
Dark tawny orange color with pale meniscus; lovely, praline, light date, honeyed nose; tasty, tart orange, praline, tart marmalade palate; long finish (91 pts.)
- NV Rare Wine Co. (Vinhos Barbeito) Madeira Malmsey Historic Series New York Malmsey Special Reserve – Portugal, Madeira
Very dark orange brown color with ruby lights and yellow meniscus; appealing, praline, toffee nose; very tasty, praline, vaguely saline, toffee palate with good acidity; long finish (91 pts.)
- 1988 Barbeito Madeira Sercial – Portugal, Madeira
Light medium orange yellow color with 1 millimeter clear meniscus; light almond, cashew, peanut nose; tasty, oily textured, almond, tart orange palate with high acidity; long finish (91 pts.)
- 1982 Barbeito Madeira Boal – Portugal, Madeira
Light medium orange color with light yellow meniscus; lovely, roast coffee, praline, date nose; tasty, delicate, praline, roast coffee palate with good acidity; long finish 92+ points (bottled May 2007; moved to 60 litre demijohns in 2002 to control evaporation) (92 pts.)
- NV Barbeito Madeira VB Reserva Meio Seco – Portugal, Madeira
From 500 ml – light golden color with 1 millimeter clear meniscus; cashew butter, almond butter nose; lighter bodied, lightly oily textured, almond, tart orange marmalade palate with a sense of smoke; long finish (91 pts.)
- 1989 D’Oliveiras Madeira Malvazia Reserva – Portugal, Madeira
Dark orange color with ruby lights and pale yellow meniscus; focused, roasted coffee, nutmeats, toasted almond, light walnut nose; tasty, rich, roasted walnut, roasted coffee, tart dates palate; very long finish (a remarkably complete, complex and delicious vintage Madeira at this relatively youthful stage) (93 pts.)
- 1988 D’Oliveiras Madeira Terrantez Reserva – Portugal, Madeira
Medium dark brown color with pale yellow meniscus; deep, walnut, roast coffee, sauteed porcini mushroom, umami nose; tasty, dark, rich walnut, roast coffee, vaguely savory palate; long finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
- 1977 D’Oliveiras Madeira Boal Reserva – Portugal, Madeira
Medium amber orange color with ruby lights and yellow meniscus; light praline, light coffee nose; tart lemon, light coffee, praline, tart orange palate with medium acidity; long finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
- 1973 D’Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho Reserva – Portugal, Madeira
Light medium brown color with ruby lights and yellow meniscus; focused, appealing, coffee, roast coffee, light walnut nose; tasty, focused, tart roast coffee, walnut, char palate; very long finish (94 pts.)
- 1969 D’Oliveiras Madeira Sercial Reserva – Portugal, Madeira
Light medium orange color with golden lights; saffron honey, roasted almond nose; light roasted almond, saffron, tart honey palate; long finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
- 1968 D’Oliveiras Madeira Boal Reserva – Portugal, Madeira
Medium amber color with yellow meniscus; appealing, vaguely savory, braised pork, nutty, tart lemon nose; tasty, tart lemon, coriander, very tart orange, walnut palate; long finish (93 pts.)
- 1912 D’Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho Reserva – Portugal, Madeira
Medium dark brown color with yellow meniscus; roasted nuts, walnut, sweet roast coffee nose; tasty, vaguely salty, tart lemon, very tart orange palate with high acidity; very long finish 95+ points (95 pts.)
- 1908 D’Oliveiras Madeira Boal Reserva – Portugal, Madeira
Medium dark brown color with yellow meniscus; very appealing, toasted almond, walnut, roast coffee nose; very tasty, rich but balanced, roast coffee, tart lemon, walnut, toasted almond, smoky palate with notes of apricot; long finish (96 pts.)
Henriques & Henriques
- NV Henriques & Henriques Madeira Sercial 10 Years Old – Portugal, Madeira
Light medium orange color with pale meniscus; safflower oil, butter, almond, date nose; tasty, oily textured, almond, butter palate; long finish (much better than last year’s version) (90 pts.)
- NV Henriques & Henriques Madeira Bual 10 Years Old – Portugal, Madeira
Medium dark amber color with ruby lights and pale meniscus; appealing, elegant, salted cashew, light salty caramel nose; tasty, elegant, salty caramel, cashew, praline palate; long finish 91+ points (good value at about $50) (91 pts.)
- NV Henriques & Henriques Madeira Verdelho 15 Years Old – Portugal, Madeira
Dark orange color with pale meniscus; roast almond, burnt almond, salted cashew nose; tasty, cashew, cashew butter, toasted almond palate with grip; long finish 91+ points (good value at about $50) (91 pts.)
- 2000 Henriques & Henriques Madeira Bual Single Harvest – Portugal, Madeira
Light medium amber color with pale yellow meniscus; saline, roast cashew, smoke mushroom nose; tasty, youthful, roast coffee, light walnut, tart lemon marmalade palate with medium acidity; long finish 90+ points (90 pts.)
- NV Broadbent Madeira Reserve Fine Rich 5 Years Old – Portugal, Madeira
Light medium orange color with ruby lights and yellow meniscus; light sweet coffee, praline nose; juicy, praline, sweet coffee, maple palate with near medium acidity; long finish 88+ points (88 pts.)
- NV Justino Henriques Madeira 10 Years old Old Reserve – Portugal, Madeira
Medium orange color with ruby lights and yellow meniscus; lively, sweet orange marmalade, apricot jam, tart cherry nose; tasty, fresh, orange marmalade, apricot jam, juicy, luscious palate; long finish (great value at about $25) (92 pts.)
Madeira Wine Company
- NV Leacock Madeira Rainwater – Portugal, Madeira
Light orange color with pale meniscus; intriguing, cashew, almond, peanut brickle nose; silky textured, sweet coffee, almond, peanut brickle palate; medium-plus finish (appealing for the style) (89 pts.)
- NV Blandy Madeira Alvada 5 Years Old – Portugal, Madeira
Light medium brown color with pale meniscus; dates, baked fig nose; earthy, roasted coffee, coffee grounds palate; medium-plus finish 85+ points (85 pts.)
- NV Blandy Madeira Sercial 5 Years Old – Portugal, Madeira
Light golden yellow color with 1 millimeter clear meniscus; saline, almond, light apricot nose; lighter bodied, almond, pear butter palate; medium-plus finish (87 pts.)
- 1994 Blandy Madeira Malmsey Colheita – Portugal, Madeira
Medium orange color with ruby lights and pale meniscus; intriguing, orange syrup, tart date, praline nose; juicy, orange honey, dates, praline palate; long finish (91 pts.)