23rd October 2012
I love Madeira wine and only wish that I learnt to appreciate its unique taste and experience much earlier in my life. It is difficult to find the array of flavours that Madeira can offer in a single sip – its never ending finish and understated value for money – in any other fortified wine. So while your bottle is chilling in the fridge here is a bit more info you may want to get your teeth into…
Why is Madeira so unique?
The vineyards are located on one of the most inaccessible and remote mountainous islands in the Atlantic Ocean, 560km off the coast of Morocco. The terraced vineyards are built on volcanic fertile soils and are trained on 1-2 metre high pergolas that make the harvest a real back breaking job. The majority of the growers own small plots from 5 hectares to a couple of plants, similar to the Douro Valley. You could see a grower harvesting just a couple of baskets worth with tremendous pride. The steep vineyards make it impossible to use mechanisation so everything has to be done by hand.
The subtropical climate creates humid and foggy weather that does not allow for the grapes to ripen fully and provides an ideal atmosphere for mildew and grey rot. If this wasn’t enough the vineyards compete for existence with other more commercial agricultural products such as bananas. Only 500 hectares are planted under vines now but even with some new plantings of almost forgotten Bastardo, Madeira is very much a niche product.
The extremely limited production is further driven by the fact that only 15% of the total plantings is of traditional accredited varieties Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia. The majority of wine is made of Tinta Negra Mole with small amounts of Terrantez, Bastardo, Moscatel and Complexa. The advantage of having so many varieties is that they can be vinified in many styles from dry to sweet*. The term dry could be possibly a bit confusing here as even the driest styles have at least 20 g/l of residual sugar.
But why I think Madeira is so unique is for its astonishing acidity and intense complexity that defines its style amongst other fortified wines, and other wines for that matter. A combination of factors achieves this unique character. High acidity is defined by volcanic soil, which is naturally acidic, and its fertility encouraging high yields. The foggy and misty climate makes it tricky to achieve full ripeness and the varieties used retain naturally high acidity. The complex distinctive flavours are the results of an extensive estufagem** or canteiro*** ageing. Due to this treatment, Madeiras can survive a couple of centuries. Once I tried 19th century Bastardo and the freshness yet intensity just blew me away.
What is the future for this great nectar?
Overall sales have dipped 20% in the last 5 years to 3 million litres in 2011 driven largely by a drop in demand from its biggest market – France. Luckily some new markets such as Japan and Belgium are showing more interest in Madeira. British drinkers represent a steady 10% of global consumption.
But if Madeira wants to become more popular it needs to make some big changes in its image and straighten out the confusion it creates with the bewildering number of styles available and its unimaginative labelling.
Many think that Madeira is a drink for the older generation. No wonder, as the majority of Madeira enthusiasts are over fifty or knowledgeable trade people. If you had a chance to join the latest Madeira tasting in London you would notice that 90% of the attendees were males of moustache age. Both woman and the under 40’s were in the minority.
The key is to get more and younger drinkers to try it and show them how to enjoy it. Whether it is through a glass offering in bars and restaurants or more informal and entertaining consumer tastings with the focus on demystifying Madeira. Price should not be a problem here as Madeiras are one of the best value wines in the world. Furthermore, once a bottle of Madeira is opened it can keep fresh up to one year.
There is really no excuse for any sommelier not to get behind quality Madeira. I wish more care was taken when selecting the fortified section of any wine list, often it seems to be just ‘ticking the box’ without any thought to what might excite customers. Also I believe that tastings would attract younger and more adventurous consumers if they were organised in more informal (even trendy) settings and focused on food matching and how to taste & appreciate Madeira.
There is a wealth of Madeira styles. In some ways that is its beauty, but it can also cause confusion and not only amongst consumers. For a start, all Madeiras are sweet, as the fermentation is stopped by fortification so none of the styles reach full dryness. Not only is the sweetness scale easily misrepresented but it is sometimes omitted from bottle labels altogether. This means that consumers are expected to know what level of sweetness each variety represents. And then there is the huge range to choose from – Frasqueira, Vintage, Colheita, 3/5/10/15/20/30/40 Years Old, Reserve, Old Reserve, Special Reserve, Solera and Rainwater****. At the moment, only four allowed varieties can appear on the label, with Tinta Negra joining the group next year. If Terrantez and Bastardo were to follow it would be a sign of a new era for Madeira, both reviving old traditions and at the same time making things easier for consumers to understand.
Let’s not cook with it but drink it and enjoy it
1. Vinho Barbeito Malmsey 20 Years Old – Barbeito is one of the smallest operations on the Island out of total of only 6 producers – fresh hazelnuts, milk chocolates, raisins (RS 120-130 g/l) www.vinhosbarbeito.com
2. Justino’s Madeira Colheita 1996 – blend of 95% Tinta Negra and 5% Complexa bottled in 2002 – tawny colour with golden rims, walnuts, dark chocolate, balsamic spices and orange marmalade (RS 80 g/l) www.justinosmadeira.com
3. Henriques & Henriques Verdelho 20 Years Old – H&H are the experts on Verdelho – very fruity style, bags of ripe and dried tropical fruits, milk chocolate, green tea with salty and nutty notes (RS 60 g/l) www.henriquesehenriques.pt
4. Blandy’s 20 Year Old Terrantez – golden colour with pink hue, grapefruit and smokiness on the nose, very gentle and delicate flavours and texture with bitter finish being the trademark of Terrantez (RS 80-90 g/l) www.madeirawinecompany.com
5. Pereira D’Oliveira Terrantez 1977 – bottled on 2011, this style is very unique where the barrels are not topped up and therefore the wine is exposed to more oxygen until bottling – an explosion of tropical fruit aromas, passion fruit, mango, pineapple, lychee with rich balsamic vinegar, toffee, caramel, chocolaty, nutty flavours – wow- more delicate on the palate yet lingers on the finish for ages
“If you like bottled electricity you will like Madeira” (Rui Falcao)
*Types of Madeira wine – Sercial = dry (RS 18-65 g/l), Verdelho = medium dry (RS 49-78 g/l), Boal – medium rich (RS 78-96 g/l), Malvasia = sweet (RS 96-135 g/l)
**Estufagem – the process of heating wine in either stainless steel or concrete tank for at least three months allowing hot water (45-55C) to circulate the container which is meant to duplicate the effect of a long sea voyage. For better quality wine, large wooden casks are used, placed in a heated room (a type of sauna) for six months to year.
***Canteiro ageing – oxidative ageing in casks for at least two years. The casks are placed on the top floor where the temperature (heat of the sun) is higher and the circulation of air causes wine evaporation.
Frasqueira (= Vintage) – made from a particular vintage from traditional noble varieties and aged for at least 20 years before bottling
Colheita – from single harvest, like a vintage, can be from single variety or blend and can be bottled only after 5 years of ageing
3/5/10/15/20/30/40 Years Old – made from a single variety but a blend of different vintages with designated age which is the indication of the youngest wine in that blend
Reserve (=Mature) – indicates wines with a minimum of 5 years ageing
Old/or Special Reserve (=Very Mature) – indicates wines with minimum of 10 years of ageing
Solera – a batch of wine aged through the solera system where only 10% of the existing batch is bottled at a time and no more than 10 additions are allowed, after which the wine may be bottled at once
Rainwater – a younger style of medium dry Madeira with golden colour. There are a couple of stories how this style got its name but you can be ensured that no rainwater is harmed during production.