Blandy’s Bicentennial Madeira Tasting – the most comprehensive range of old and rare vintages ever assembled by the family

No wine seduces like Madeira, whose sweet, heady and entrancing aroma led us by the nose, Bisto Kid-style, from the entrance upstairs to this magnificent and magnaminous tasting presented by Michael Blandy (Chair), Chris Blandy (Director), Francisco Albuquerque (winemaker), Richard Mayson (Port & Madeira specialist) and Paul Symington.

Spanning 183 years and seven generations of Blandys, the line up (pictured) comprised the most comprehensive range of old and rare vintages ever assembled by the family.  They had well and truly raided the library (pictured) in honour of the Blandy firm’s bicentenary and, it transpires, the family’s resumption of a controlling interest in the Madeira Wine Company of which Blandy’s in the lead brand.

There might be over 1500 registered growers of Madeira but today, there remain only eight producers of which one, the Madeira Wine Company (“MWC” ), accounts for over half of bottled Madeira wine exports.  No mean feat in a world in which fortified wines struggle to broaden their constituency.

Survival of the fittest

MWC’s jewel in the crown is the Blandy’s brand, named after the merchant dynasty founded by fortune seeker John Blandy 200 years ago, in 1811.  In his book The Blandys of Madeira 1811-2011, Marcus Binney charts the family’s survival through thick and thin.  It’s a tale of astute acquisition and amalgamation against a backdrop of disease, depression, revolution and war.

Take Charles Ridpath Blandy’s purchase of old stock from British merchants who cut and ran during the disastrous oidium plague in 1852.  By his death in 1879, Binney says “the firm’s stock was estimated at 5,000 pipes (the equivalent of 3 million bottles), with a value exceeding £200,000.”  Bottled under the family name, these precious wines helped lay down the foundation for not just for Blandy’s success, but also Madeira’s world-wide reputation.  Easy to see why at this 200th anniversary tasting at which we had the great fortune to taste two pre-oidium Madeiras (from 1822 and 1811) both, I might add, in excellent condition.

Amalgamation

In 1925, during the depression years, the Blandy family’s survival instinct led them to throw in their lot with the Madeira Wine Association (now MWC), whose current (much rationalised) brands include Leacock’s, Cossart Gordon and Miles as well as Blandy’s.

The Blandy family successfully led the MWC until 1989, when they went into partnership with the Symington family of Port wine renown.  Referring to their contribution, MWC Chairman Michael Blandy identified how the Symingtons had broadened the MWC’s distribution network exponentially, as well as bringing invaluable marketing and technical know-how to the table.

For Paul Symington, an important step was the implementation of modern methods his family had successfully introduced for Port wine, which he said had resulted in “a much purer reflection of terroir,” also variety, albeit after initial resistence from the island’s certifying body IVBAM (Instituto do Vinho, do Bordado e do Artesanato da Madeira) who, he recalled, told multi-award winning winemaker Francisco Albuquerque he was making the wines the wrong way!

A new era

Fittingly, in this 200th anniversary year of Blandy’s, Symington confirmed that, just the previous week, the families had agreed that his family would reduce their shareholding in the MWC and the Blandy family would regain a controlling share and run the business.

Adding that the move was amicable, Symington explained it would enable his family to focus on their burgeoning Douro empire which now extends to 25 quintas, the Cockburns brand (acquired last year) and Douro table wines which, he said, “take up an immense amount of time.”

Going forward, MWC will be run by Michael Blandy and his nephew, director Chris Blandy, both of whom spoke about their family’s history in the business, which you can read all about in Binney’s book!

The tasting

After each tasting note I’ve provided vital statistics – residual sugar (RS), total acidity (TA) and power of hydrogen (pH), followed by comments on the wines and, to put them in their historical context, a key world event which took place during the year in question. 

Ironically, given it must have been the most readily available wine, Blandy’s Malmsey Madeira 1994 Colheita failed to arrive!  For the record, with its warm, dry summer and early harvest, 1994 was one of the best years of the decade, particularly outstanding for Malmsey which Albuquerque observed benefits from a low pH.  If it’s 3.5+, apparently wines can oxidise very quickly.  RS 118.4g/l, TA 6.7, pH 3.37

Blandy’s Malmsey Madeira 1985

A youthful reddish hue with an amber/saffron rim.  A beautiful nose, fresh, sweet and tangily mouthwatering like a fruit chutney.  A real charge of fruit in the mouth, which runs the gamut of apples, fresh, cooked and tatin.  Bracing acidity lends great line, focus and concentration to its long, lingering though still tight finish.  With a Demerara edge to its racy acidity, the sweetness is beautifully integrated.  Terrific. RS 117.9, TA 8.47 pH 3.51

Comments: a small vintage – only two casks were bottled, producing 1,420 bottles. Albuquerque said it has uncommon acidity, dry extract and concentration to show so well so young.  It was matured in 650l seasoned American oak at Blandy’s Wine Lodge in Funchal for 24 years.

History: US President Ronald Regan and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev meet for the first time.

Blandy’s Terrantez Madeira 1976

A deeper, browner hue with a less rapier-like penetration on nose and palate which Richard Mayson pointed out is typical of this variety with its distinctive bitter sweet twist and gentleness.  On the nose it’s malty and very spicy with a hint of tomato plant.  In the mouth, soft and relatively round, it shows barley sugar, malt, cafe crème and panneforte.  A long, spicy vibrato finish shows carraway lift.  Delicious in a slightly drier, more savoury style.  RS 95.46, TA 7.43, pH 3.41.

Comments: this very rare unprolific and disease prone variety, originally from the Dão where it’s also known as Folgasão, was nearly lost altogether.  Recommended with coffee or chocolate cake, perhaps even panneforte!  It was aged for 26 years in 1,000l seasoned American oak casks at Blandy’s Wine Lodge in Funchal.

History: Concorde makes its first commercial flight flight.

Blandy’s Sercial Madeira 1966

A youthful, intense pale red in hue with a bright’n breezy compellingly complex nose with nam pla, jasmine, rosy apple skins and hazelnut.  In the mouth, it’s dry, subtly textured and very focused with fresh cut apple fruit and hints of spice and rice wine threaded through its long, tight, juicy finish.  A deft touch of residual sugar brings balance and presence.  When I came back to it at the end of the tasting, the finish was pure hazelnut.  A thrilling wine with a wonderful echo-ing finish.  RS 50.61 TA 9.38, pH 3.33

Comment: from high altitude, wetter vineyards, it can be difficult to source Sercial, also to hit the minimum natural content.  Bottled in 2004, this was aged for 28 years in seasoned American oak casks at Blandy’s Wine Lodges (pictured).

History: Mao Zedong launches The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

Blandy’s Bastardo 1954

A darker, brownish hue with traces of vegetal tomato plant and spicy tobacco on the nose.  Like the Terrantez, it has a rounder profile than the classic four vareties, quite soft in the mouth with gently spicy dark and fruity tamarind spice, cafe crème and chocolate orange.  A very clean finish shows attractive, mineral acidity.  Very good.  RS 94.37, TA 7.95, pH 3.40

Comments: this, the only noble red variety, also known as Bastardinho, is very rare, in fact almost extinct on the island.  Shy yields and vulnerability to pests made it very unpopular with growers.  This is the last vintage of Bastardo from Blandy’s private collection.  It was aged for 40 years in seasoned American oak casks at Blandy’s Wine Lodges.

History: RCA manufactures the first colour TV set.

Blandy’s Malmsey Madeira 1954

A deep colour with a green rim.  The nose is tight and concentrated with an edge of savoury nam pla and liquorice spice to its sweeter macaroon and panneforte notes.  An expansive, faintly madeirised palate shows good depth of pungent guava fruit and dried fruits which, combined with its rapier sharp backbone of acidity, makes for a long, powerful finish.  Impressive, if lacking a bit of purity and line.  RS 119.61, TA 7.50, pH 3.40

Comments: a very fine vintage, compared by Noel Cossart to the great Malmsey vintages of 1808 and 1880.  It was bottled in 1975; only a few bottles remain in Blandy’s private collection.

History: Joe DiMaggio marries Marilyn Monroe.

Blandy’s Verdelho Madeira 1952

Sports a mouthwatering, spicy, fruit chutney nose with a darker tamarind undertow.  Very juicy in the mouth with lipsmacking, tangy acidity it shows sweet dried citrus, smoky guava and jaggery through the mid-palate and finishes drier with lifted savoury  tobacco notes and a salty edge to its textured, taffeta finish.  Plenty of traction, gush and go.  Delicious – an intense, incisive wine.  RS 145.5, TA 10.9, pH 3.52.

Comments: a remarkable vintage for Verdelho.  It was aged for 21 years in seasoned American oak casks at Blandy’s Wine Lodges.  Of its 2,500 bottles, very few remain in Blandy’s private collection.

History: Elizabeth II is proclaimed Queen of the United Kingdom.

Blandy’s Bual Madeira 1920

Relatively light in colour with a bright saffron edge.  Its fresh, focused nose is tight, lifted and pure with an edge of sweet toffee apple.  In the mouth it zings and sings, with racy, sweet and sour spine-tingling citrusy acidity.  Clear as a bell and with the finest bone structure, it’s possessed of magnificent purity, line and length.  A shimmering beauty – outstanding and, with the 1822 Verdelho, a favourite of this very impressive line up.  RS 102.48, TA 9.53, pH 3.48

Comment: at the time referred to as an exceptional vintage, especially for Bual “the finest the century has produced.” Some still remains in cask.

History: Prohibition begins in the United States.

Blandy’s Sercial Madeira 1910

A relatively airy, light jasmine-scented nose, with hints of apricot preserve.  In the mouth it shows austere greengage and green apricot, a touch sour, with a very present backbone of bracing acidity.  A stern, bone dry finish with green tomato and ozone notes shows a touch of warmth (alcohol).  Bracing; best with food.  RS 45.12, TA 8.25, pH 3.23

Comment: a great vintage for Sercial of superb character and elegance according to Noel Cossart.  It was aged for 74 years in seasoned American oak in 1984 and re-corked in 2003.

History: Portugal becomes a Republic; King Manuel II flees to England.

Blandy’s Bual Madeira 1863

A dark mahogany core with a saffron rim.  A lifted nose shows smoky, singed tarte tatin.  The palate explodes with spice, dried and fleshy tamarind, with jaggery and tobacco which catches your throat in a good way – lots of energy to this with its tight spine of grapefruity, pithy acidity.  There’s a touch of dust and a green note to its lingering, animated finish, but otherwise, immensely, intensely concentrated and lipsmackingly flavoursome.  A charismatic wine!  RS 92.00, TA 11.17, pH 3.48

Comment: a small but excellent year for Bual and Malmsey – Charles Ridpath Blandy requested some barrels be kept to one side for his private collection.  Pre-phylloxera, this wine aged for 50 years in seasoned American oak casks in the adegas de São Francisco in Funchal.  It was re-bottled in 1986.  Only a few bottles remain in the company private collection.

History: the first section of the London Underground Railway (Paddington to Farringdon Street) opens.

Blandy’s Verdelho Madeira 1822

An amazingly youthful wine from tip to toe.  A fruity nose shows exuberant guava and grapefruit with spicy orange peel notes.  In the mouth it’s tremendously smooth and balanced, with smoky, pungent citrus fruit and green tomato.  A savoury, extended finish with smoked, salty almonds is animated by a fine spine of acidity.  The seamlessness, balance and fruit of this 189 year old wine really give it the wow factor!  Jaw droppingly composed for its age.  TA 8.92, pH 3.45

Comment: a generally excellent year according to Noel Cossart.  This wine, part of the famous Grabham Collection (belonging to Dr Michael Garbham who married Mary Blandy in 1865), was aged for 78 years in seasoned American casks and re-bottled in 1986.  Only a few bottles remain.

History: Louis Pasteur is born.

Blandy’s Bual Madeira Solera 1811

A lifted, tangy chutney nose with a touch of VA, but it’s mouthwatering and attractive, seemingly with enough fruit behind.  In the mouth it’s less pure but very present – not least on account of its bracing acidity – with edgier ozone, mouldy orange and bovril notes to its thick cut marmalade fruit.  In contrast with the oh so fresh 1822 Verdelho, I found this interesting rather than pleasurable – a slice of history, indeed many slices of history…

Comment: this solera was founded to commemorate the establishment of Blandy’s Madeira and initially contained vintages dating back to 1788.  It was matured in seasoned American oak casks for 89 years and was re-bottled in 1986.

History: George, Prince of Wales, becomes Prince Regent because of the perceived insanity of his father, King George III.

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