In praise of my desert island wine. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times, and tasting notes on some currently available wines are in Madeiras of the moment.
This was meant to be a landmark year. A significant birthday was to be celebrated with friends and family in several different countries. A daughter’s wedding was planned. A book and a glass were set to be launched in various cities.
But the wine event whose COVID-enforced cancellation I regret the most was a tasting planned for June this year in Tuscany of a dozen wines made in 1870 to which I’d been invited by the man who had collected them. Fine wine may be the longest-lasting thing we consume, but a century and a half is surely pushing it?
These 1870s are all madeiras (I use the present tense in the hope that our tasting can be rescheduled). Madeira is an exceptional wine in many respects. The best madeiras can indeed last longer than any wine I can think of, without any deterioration, whether stored in a wooden cask, a glass demijohn or a bottle, and – this is the really useful bit – whether that bottle has been opened or not. I always choose madeira when asked what my desert island wine would be because I’d be able to spin out a bottle for months, if willpower permitted.
The other reason I choose it is because, despite the palm-tree cliché, we don’t actually know whether this mythical desert island on which we find ourselves stranded is hot or cold. Madeira would do the trick for both because its high alcohol, usually 19–20%, would be warming in low temperatures and its characteristically high acidity would be refreshing in hot weather. There is also the convenient fact that madeira, unlike vintage port, does its maturing in barrels rather than in bottle, so there is no heavy sediment and, if my experience is anything to go by, much less risk of a hangover. Madeira is quintessentially refreshing rather than heavy.
The grapes that produce madeira – dark-skinned Tinta Negra in the main, supplemented by the much rarer classical white wine grapes Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malvasia – are all high in acidity, a natural asset only accentuated by this volcanic island’s exceptionally high yields. There are no extensive rolling vineyards, just tiny terraced green strips of land, generally with multiple owners, on which vines, bananas and other fruits and vegetables are grown, often in a rampant mix.
When harvested, the grapes tend to be low in sugar. Much of the alcohol in madeira is added as spirit, and then these fortified wines are aged for vastly variable periods and always treated to much more heat than any other wine would be. The heat treatment, whether created artificially or by extended ageing in a warm loft, is designed to mimic the voyages over the equator that effectively created the distinctive tangy-but-roasted style of madeira when the port of Funchal was an important staging post and wine was loaded on to ships at the island as ballast.
Styles vary from pale, light essences labelled either Sercial or, based on lesser grapes, dry, guaranteed to set the appetite on edge; to rather nuttier Verdelho, or medium dry, that’s still characterised by that tanginess; to Bual, or medium sweet, that can be like liquid Christmas pudding; to Malmsey, the traditional name for the sweetest madeira based on Malvasia grapes, whose cheaper imitations are labelled rich or sweet. Terrantez is another historic Madeira grape that almost disappeared from the island’s vineyards but is slowly making a comeback.
But this historic wine, as closely identified as embroidery and Cristiano Ronaldo with the world’s most popular island tourist destination (cruise ships usually dominate Funchal today), is under serious threat. The big problem for the handful of madeira wine producers still in business is that vine-growing is being abandoned, especially by young people, in favour of real-estate development – a trend exacerbated by plummeting wine sales on an island deserted by tourists this year. As in Champagne, there is considerable tension between grape growers and the brand owners, with the former urging the latter to buy more than they feel they need this year.
The Blandy family have fingers in most of the island’s commercial pies, including its hotels, but fortunately for wine lovers, their wine company has been run since 2011 by a seventh-generation member of the family, Chris Blandy, who is determined to ‘re-establish madeira as one of the world’s great wines’, as their website repeatedly declares. He is overseeing wine research more thorough than Madeira has benefited from for many years, and is working on producing some geographically specific wines for the first time: single-quinta (farm) bottlings rather than blends.
During an online presentation of their grandest new releases (back to the latest bottling of Blandy’s stocks of Bual 1920 – 1,199 bottles offered at £1,820 each) earlier this month, Chris Blandy argued that madeira is the most versatile food accompaniment of all. His goal is to convince sommeliers to serve various different madeiras throughout a whole meal, though presumably pandemic restrictions have put this campaign on hold for a while.
Anything to do with madeira is an even longer-term project than with other wines. As Blandy admitted, the finest madeiras, those carrying a vintage date, ideally need almost 30 years in wood to reach maturity – and although they may legally be bottled after 20 years in wood, they are never going to be cheap. The relatively new colheita category, wines that can be bottled after only five years in wood, are effectively early-bottled vintage wines and can be found for only about £30 per long-lasting bottle. You can find a young madeira to give some idea of the style (and a real fillip for savoury sauces) for as little as £12 a bottle. Just avoid anything sold as cooking madeira in a French supermarket: it will have been shipped in bulk and will have had salt added to it to ensure you don’t confuse it with the good stuff. And be careful to distinguish between older bottles that are genuinely vintage dated and those with the word solera on the label. The latter used to be blends of wines of very different ages and were so misleadingly labelled that for a while the term solera was banned for new bottlings.
A modern flagbearer for top-quality madeira has long been the house of Barbeito, run by Ricardo Diogo Vasconcelos de Freitas. The house style is to make some of the lightest, most ethereal madeiras, and Ricardo is always experimenting with the most open of minds. He pioneered colheitas made from the reviled Tinta Negra, for example, and swears that a 1972 Sercial made from grapes so underripe that they would have made a wine with only 7.2% alcohol had it not been fortified, turned out, after careful ageing, to be one of his best wines ever.
As Chris Blandy points out, before it is bottled madeira is constantly changing. The 1920 Bual that has been in his family’s cellars for a century has been through many different stages and over the years three different bottlings of it have been released. (Madeira back labels have to state the bottling date nowadays, which makes life easier for us consumers.) The 840 litres that remain were moved from American oak barrels to glass demijohns last March to preserve their freshness, and his fervent hope is that his children will be able to release the next bottling of the wine in 2070 when it will be 150 years old – like those 1870s are today.
Recommended current madeiras
All prices are approximate and for 75-cl bottles unless otherwise stated.
Barbeito, Boal Reserva
£15 for 50 cl Weavers of Nottingham, The Dorset Wine Company, Theatre of Wine, Caviste, The Oxford Wine Company, Selfridges
Barbeito, The Atlantic Rainwater 5 Year Old Medium Dry
£20 for 50 cl Vino Vero of Leigh on Sea, Fortnum & Mason
Barbeito, Sercial 10 Year Old Reserva Velha
£31.95 Lea & Sandeman and others
Blandy’s 5 Year Old Reserva Rich
£14.99 for 50 cl Waitrose, The Whisky Exchange
Blandy’s, Verdelho 1976
£220 in bond BI Wines
H M Borges, Sercial 10 Year Old
£33 Wine & Green, Delicias
Cossart Gordon, Terrantez 1975
D’Oliveiras, Malvasia 2000
£68 L'Assemblage, Turville Valley Wines, Theatre of Wine
Henriques & Henriques Medium Dry
£12 The Drink Shop
Henriques & Henriques Full Rich
£11 for 50 cl Majestic, Waitrose, £12.69 Cambridge Wine Merchants, £14 Ellis Wharton Wines
Henriques & Henriques 5 Year Old Medium Dry
£11.45 for 50 cl The Whisky Exchange
Henriques & Henriques, Sercial 10 Year Old
£20 for 50 cl Waitrose and others
Justino’s, Sercial 10 Year Old
£35 Butler's Wine Cellar, Seven Cellars, Noble Grape
International stockists via Wine-Searcher.com.