Madeira, the cure-all wine.
From £18.99, €24.70, 733 Ukrainian hryvnia (50 cl), CA$49.08, AU$57.25, 948 Czech koruna, $42.99, 5,115 Japanese yen
As winter has drawn in way too rapidly for my sun-rooted soul and as we’ve begun to light the wood burner every evening, make soup and stews instead of salads, burn candles on window sills, harvest kale instead of tomatoes, I’ve felt a yen for different wines. I want wines with amber glow not diamond and crystal-splitting white light. I want wines that warm the throat instead of quenching my thirst. I want wines that are rich with spice and dried fruit rather than wines that are zesty with lime and white blossom. I want comfort, deep armchairs and long, slow books.
A couple of months ago, in Madeiras of the moment, Jancis reviewed a raft of wines that, more than any other wine, fit winter like a glove. Madeira has the warmth and comfort and glow, varying sweetness according to your mood, and they also have an underlying melancholy – something that, for me, reflects the sound and smell of cold winter rain and earth in the darkness beyond the window. So I bought a small clutch of madeiras. And from that comes my easiest wine of the week ever because my boss has done all the work. You don’t even need a tasting note from me. She’s captured the Henriques & Henriques 10 Year Old Sercial perfectly:
‘Lustrous, layered orange/amber colour. Lightly cheesy nose. You're really aware of some age on this wine, which has real integrity and salty savour. It's a little firmer and fleshier than the H M Borges version and has real follow-through. Flavours of soaked cut peel. You could drink this before or with a meal. This with a beef tea or bouillon would be magical. Guaranteed to cure any invalid, surely? Super-clean, pure and revitalising. Though much lighter and drier than any Bual or Malmsey.’
I chose this 10 Year Old Sercial for several reasons: it’s available in 15 countries; it’s stonkingly good value; and it’s worth every millipoint of its 17 points. But that’s not all. As Jancis notes, this is a wine you could drink by itself or with food, and then goes on to mention invalids and, mysteriously for some, beef tea.
Beef tea was the Victorians’ most staunchly relied-upon remedy for the ailing and, although the original recipes sound pretty ghastly, these days we can turn to the much quicker and arguably tastier Bovril tea or go for fine-dining glamour. With your winter coughs and colds in mind (and no, this is not a COVID-19 remedy – I don’t want to outshine the outgoing Trump in that department) and the gloom of facing winter in lockdown, I decided to test-drive Jancis’s theory.
In our household, we have two home remedies: dry Bovvie (Bovril) toast for tummy upsets and hot and sour tom yum soup or tom khlong soup (similar to tom yum but with tamarind) for colds and flu. My mother swears by chicken soup. My dad believes in the power of vanilla ice cream for sore throats and everything else including stubbed toes. So, I tried it with all of the above… And yes, it really is a magical invalid-food-pairing wine. It added depth and angles to the mild homeliness of the chicken soup; echoed the umami, earthy mushroom and tofu of the Szechuan hot and sour soup, allowing its spice and heat to fill the mouth without in any way overwhelming the wine. The prawn tom yum soup we had was yelpingly (chilli) hot and practically zip-wiring out the bowl with lime tang. The wine just picked up every mouthful and waltzed. It was wonderfully cooling, it turned sweeter. It felt like the relief of putting a cold compress on a burning forehead. We even tried gazpacho, just for fun. The madeira needs to be even colder than the soup, but I may have found a contender for sherry. As for beef tea/Bovril/Bovvie toast... Jancis, you would have made an excellent Victorian and may well have missed a vocation in healthcare. It's such a comforting pairing that I wanted to try it under my duvet (were it not for the thought of toast crumbs in the bed). So the H&H Sercial 10 Year Old may not cure you, but you will absolutely feel better for a glass or two. Confession: my Bovvie toast had butter on it.
But then I worried about all the healthy readers who might now be thinking this wine is not relevant to their lives. Quite the contrary. It’s a superb aperitif – and if you’ve just gone into lockdown, as we have, and you need something to cheer you up when the sun goes down at 4.30 pm, dump the tea, pour a glass of this. It is excellent with smoked almonds and raw walnuts. Rather more unexpectedly, on the pre-dinner nibbles front, it was excellent with salt & vinegar crisps, Perello Gordal olives and those oh-so-very English, tiny pickled cockles and mussels. Sercial deals with vinegar like a McLaren MP4/4 takes corners at a Grand Prix.
Sticking with the maritime theme, it was also delicious with smoked oysters (the tinned kind – proper lockdown-posh) and when I threw together a 15-minute cheat's fish stew, rich with tomatoes, basil and garlic, it outpaced the Loire whites we also tried it with. If you want a winter brunch alternative to Bloody Mary or Mimosa, may I suggest Sercial madeira with smoked kipper poached in butter, or the divinely savoury tamagoyaki Japanese omelette, or smoked salmon, with which it seems to have a particular affinity. Another surprisingly good match was sushi, but it needed the soy sauce and pickled ginger as a bridging ingredient to make the match perfect. Wasabi optional, and provocatively good.
If you're looking for something more substantial, it is quite possibly one of the most explosively delicious pairings with roast chicken that I have ever tried. You want the kind that's been lavishly buttered, preferably a thigh or drumstick covered in dark-golden crispy skin. It's umami bomb, the acidity of the madeira splicing through the unctuousness of the chicken, spiking lime and apricot highlights in the wine. For vegans, it's wonderful with baked mushrooms in a tangy, smoky, nutty romesco sauce. For vegetarians, believe it or not, try it with Georgina Hayden’s halloumi and apricot jam sandwich. That's addictive.
If you’re trying to comfort yourself with sweetness, here are some options that I can vouch for (see top photo as evidence):
- Craft chocolate, try a dark chocolate in the 80–95% range
- Fruit cake, preferably the dark, dense kind and/or mince pies
- Good-quality panettone or coffee-walnut cake
- Vanilla, coffee or praline ice cream
- Ginger biscuits/cookies and hazelnut biscuits/cookies
Last, but not least, I tried it with 11 (eleven!) different cheeses from the wonderful Courtyard Dairy. What I am prepared to suffer in the line of duty…
H&H Sercial is a direct, assertive little madeira so not all the cheeses could withstand its full-frontal attack. The soft goat’s cheeses withered. The wine brought out truffle notes in the St James sheep’s cheese from Cumbria, and the cheese brought out the apricot in the wine. The stunning Beenleigh Blue from Devon just shone with umami and tang in the company of the wine. The cow’s milk Rollright from Gloucestershire, which tastes like bacon and bacon Kips and milking shed and hay, almost oozed into smoky-egg-yolk territory when tasted with the madeira – one of my favourite pairings. I didn’t think that it worked at all well with the Vacherin Mont d’Or, however yummy and gooey and seasonal it was, or with the Tomme de Savoie or Ogleshield (which we also tried melted). And although the Yorkshire Dale End Cheddar was rich, sharp and tangy, perfect on paper, the two simply ghosted each other in reality. But Summer Field, a raw, alpine-style cow cheese from Yorkshire, sweet and nutty and imbued with dried-herbs wildness, was fantastic with the Sercial, bringing out its sea-air tang and bosky undertones.
It’s widely available in the UK. Exel Wine has the best price of £18.50, The Ministry of Drinks has it on sale from £23.99 to £18.99. The Good Spirit Co and Hay Wines both have it for around £22. Waitrose and The Wine Society are selling it at £20 and you can find it in at least 14 other independent wine merchants. It can also be found in Greece, Germany, Ukraine, Portugal, Canada, Australia, the Czech Republic, The USA (Indianapolis, New York, Tennessee, Louisiana, North Carolina, Virginia, Massachusetts, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Colorado, Florida, Washington DC, Arizona), Finland, Poland, France, Austria, Japan and Italy.