Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Madeira: Rich In History & Taste

Unfortunately, I don't know as much about Madeira wine as I would like, though I hope to remedy that in the near future. It is a fascinating niche wine, rich in history, and rich in taste. It is closely tied to American history yet occupies only a tiny place in our current society. Why is that so? Why has it been largely forgotten by so many people? And what can we do to change that?

Madeira is a Portuguese wine that can only be produced on the volcanic island of the same name, located about 360 miles west of Morocco. The island was first settled by Europeans around 1419 and its wine became very popular by the 17th century, remaining so for over 200 years. The United States lovingly embraced Madeira. For example, during the Civil War, it was the most favorite wine for Americans to collect, and every important family in Boston had a Madeira wine collection. Sadly, but by the late 1800s, the Madeira trade declined significantly, phylloxera being one of the responsible culprits.

To spur my Madeira curiosity, I recently attended a special tasting hosted by the good people of Vineyard Road Imports, who have a great portfolio of interesting wines. The speaker at the tasting was Blake Murdoch, of the Rare Wine Co., (pictured above) who is a local expert on Madeira wines. The Rare Wine Co. imports a selection of fine Madeiras, and their website provides lots of information about this intriguing wine.

Blake began by providing us some background on Madeira and then led us through a tasting of twelve Madeiras. It was an impressive group of wines, definitely pleasing my palate and making me desirous of learning and tasting more.

Though wine has been produced on Madeira for centuries, the Madeira we now know originated during the 18th century. The island had been a common port of all for ships, including many explorers, headed to the Americas and East Indies. So it was a frequent spot for ships to load up on wine, which was commonly fortified to prevent spoilage. But during the 18th century, an unsold shipment of wine was returned to the island, wine which had traveled across the equator and subjected to much heat. The transformed wine though was excellent, and producers began heating their wines to replicate the process.

This heating and aging process is known as estufagem, and there are three main methods. The most common, Cuba de Calor, is primarily used for inexpensive Madeira. Stainless steel or concrete tanks are surrounded by either heat coils or hot water pipes. The second method, Armazém de Calor, involves large wooden casks stored in a steam producing room. Madeira might be stored here for up to a year. The last process, Canteiro, is primarily for high-end Madeira, and the heat of the sun is used to very slowly heat the wine. This can take 20-100 years to complete. The wine is also allowed to oxydize a bit. Because of this entire process, Madeira can last longer than almost any other wine, even after it has been opened.

The island of Madeira primarily grows white grapes, which rarely get very ripe and have high levels of acidity. Most Madeiras are blends except for vintage Madeira, which are usually made from one of four grapes: Malmsey, Bual, Verdelho and Sercial. These grapes also describe the style of the Madeira, from the sweet and rich Malmsey to the light and dry Sercial. Up until the late 1800s, some other grapes were used as well, such as Terrantez, Bastardo and Moscatel. But there are few vines of those grapes any longer, and it is rare to find Madeira made from them.

We began our Madeira tasting with the "Historic Series," introduced in 2002, which are ten year old blends. Each wine bears the name of a U.S. city with a historical connection to sherry. As a generalization, people in the southern states used to prefer dry Madeira while those in the north preferred it sweeter. These blends generally contain about 70% of the named grape, and 30% of Tinta Negra Mole, a common red grape on the island. These Madeiras tend to be less pungent, softer, sweeter and less acidic than other Madeiras.

Of the four we tasted, they got darker in color with each successive one. All possessed lengthy finishes, and I generally preferred the dry to the sweet, though none of the sweet wines were cloying in any regard. The Charleston Sercial reminded me of a sherry, with its dry, nutty finish. It was a smooth wine and though dry, still had a hint of sweetness. I really enjoyed this Madeira as I did the Savannah Verdelho. This is supposed to be the scarcest grape on the island, with vines of 15-25 years. It was smoother and sweeter than the Sercial, with more caramel and almond flavors. The Boston Bual was a surprise as the bottle had been open already for about a year! Yet now of the flavor seemed to have diminished. It had more sweetness, and dried fruit tastes, reminding me of some ports. The New York Malmsey was the sweetest, with a complex taste of dried fruit, including some raisin notes.

Our next flight of wines included some of the youngest vintage Madeiras. To be a true Vintage Madeira, the wine must have been in the cask for at least 20 years. We began with the NV Barbeito "Ricardo Freitas" Signature VB (Verdelho-Bual), produced by a young winemaker. This easy drinking wine was smooth and soft, with plenty of acidity and flavors of nuts, caramel and vanilla. The 2001 Barbeito "Ricardo Freitas" Signature Bual was sweeter but had a bit of a bitter finish.

Next up were two Madeiras from the D'Oliviera winery, whose vineyards have been in family for over 400 years. The 1988 D'Oliveira Terrantez was a stunner, with an amazing aromat of fruit and floral, and an intriguing melange of floral, fruit and dark spice flavors. Its complexity, lengthy finish and astounding taste made this my favorite Madeira of the tasting. Terrantez is a rare white grape known to produce an intensely aromatic wine. If it can produce Maderias of such high quality, more vines should definitely be planted. The 1989 D'Oliveira Malvasia was a very sweet Madeira, and just not my preference.

For the final flight, we started tasting some of the older Madeiras, though all from the 20th century. The 1978 Barbeito Sercial was very interesting, with a smooth, delicious taste, including some smoky notes. The French Laundry pairs this Madeira with foie gras. The 1968 D'Oliveira Bual, which was my second favorite of the tastings, had a complex taste of caramel, dried fruit and nuts and a very lengthy finish. The Rare Wine Co. considers it a benchmark, and the best post-WWII Madeira that exists. I certainly can understand their enthusiasm for this wine.

The 1950 Barbeito Malvasia FV was dry and a bit bracing with all of the acidity. The flavors did not work for me, and it did not impress me as most of the others did. The 1912 D'Oliveira Verdelho, the oldest Madeira in the tasting, had a very dark brown color, and was sweet, with lots of concentration, good acidity, and rich flavors. Of the sweeter Madeiras, it was definitely my favorite, though overall I liked the dry versions better.

This was an excellent introduction to Madeira, and I tasted enough excellence to want to pursue the wines even more. Plus, I want to learn more about its history, beyond the tantalizing bits I already know.

What have been your experiences with Madeira?


Natalie Sztern said...

Wow! What timing... I leave for Barcelona tuesday and will be on a cruise stopping at Madeira on Oct 29th. I was definitely going for a wine tasting and now I have a selection of wines to look for. Thx

Richard Auffrey said...

Have a great trip! If you search my blog, you can also find some info on Barcelona as I was there a few years ago and loved it.