Madeira, a visit in 2007

I am a total convert to madeira following this visit to the region in January 2007. As with many wines, forget the entry-level stuff in favour of the more finely structured canteiro or cask-aged wines.  These are wines of rare concentration, breed and intensity to eke out when you have a moment for reflection… and I am having rather more of those since my trip!

We visited three producers, all of whom export to the UK – madeira specialists include Halifax Wine Company (01422 256333) – owner Andy Paterson will happily talk you through this, one of his passions, also Patrick Grubb, a rare vintage specialist – (01869) 340229.

Henriques & Henriques  –  benchmark wines with good definition/structure across the range starting with the 3 year olds and following a trajectory which peaks with aged vintage and solera wines.  While I liked their cheaper wines best of the three producers we visited, the excitement really starts with the 10-year old wines and their debut single harvest wine made from the less well know Tinta Negra Mole grape.

Single Harvest 1995 Tinta Negra Mole – layered, vinous palate with mirin and salted almonds; lovely length and balance – a great aperitif or food wine.

10-yr old Sercial – salty nose with a hint of freshly cut granny smiths; the mid-palate shows hints of orange peel and raisin.  Classic bone dry finish; persistent with pithy grapefruit and a whiff of smoke.

10-yr old Verdelho – a layer of tropical fruit under a salty veneer; long on flavour with fabulous acidity.

10-yr old Bual – savoury umami nose, nutty with mirin and seaweed.  Fresh acidity on the attack leads onto a spicy, intense mid-palate with rich fruitcake.

10-yr old Malvasia – much darker and richer with plenty of demerara, warm spice and fruitcake; rich but poised with elegant balancing acidity.

15-yr old Sercial – a real notch up in intensity with a more obvious patina of age – smoky, spicy fruitcake with a walnut edge.

15-yr old Verdelho – floral pot pourri nose with salted caramels and hints of orange peel; raisins, walnut and orange peel on the well-balanced palate, long, lifted exotic tea, intense finish.

15-yr old Bual – an enticing nose of singed spun sugar, spice and orange peel leads onto a complex palate of dried fruits, Christmas cake, pickled walnuts and demerara sugar.  A lively seam of acidity carries the flavours over long, lively finish.

15-yr old Malvasia – bonfire toffee/treacle, fenugreek and carraway make for an intense experience; well-judged acidity maintains structure and balance.

Terrantez 1976 – my notes read “long, long, long, long, long, very focused, lovely acidity, salty green olives, café créme, bourbon vanilla, VINOUS, LONG” – I really enjoyed the intriguing yet integrated melange of flavours, its focus and layers.

Bual 1954 –
bonfire toffee and star anise on the nose presage an intense, developed palate.  At this age, the evaporation of water over the wine’s lengthy cask-ageing process produces results akin to a reduction sauce – an almost meaty, dense savoury undertow cut with salty green olive fleshed out with brandy steeped spicy fruit or plum cake. Balanced, tangy finish lifts the whole and takes you back for another sip.

Malvasia 1954 – sweeter nose with demerara, spicy fenugreek and macademia nuts.  Real depth of flavour – a spicy concentration of fenugreek with a treacle toffee edge a dried spice for lift – very attractive now.

Extra Reserva Vinho Velha – made in a Malmsey style (i.e. sweet) and bottled after an estimated 50 years in cask this is fantastically flavoursome and intense.  Heady nuts and caramel nose with marzipan which follows though on the palate with café créme, macaroons underscored by soy/balsamic notes.

1900 Solera – this solera was laid down in 1899 for the millenium and top over with fresh wines until 1985 when the contents were bottled.  The outcome – a full throttle, riveting and almost painfully intense experience!  Deep mahogany in colour the wine is massively concentrated with great density and power. Complex melange of raisins, fruitcake, spice box, toasted carraway seed and green olive.

Barbeito if you think that madeira is a staid, pipe and slippers wine then you need to meet Ricardo Diogo V. Freitas, third generation winemaker at Barbeito.

This human dynamo zipped us around his new warehouse, showed off his special design of estufa (the tanks used to heat cheaper forms of madeira to accelerate evaporation/caramelisation instead of lengthy canteiro-ageing) and, on day two invited us into the hub of his world – the tasting laboratory.

The wines are equally fleet of foot.  Firmly stamped with the Barbeito signature they are racy, delicate yet intense wines which do not readily fit into the classic madeira categories of dry (Sercial), medium dry (Verdelho), medium sweet (Bual) and sweet (Malvasia/Malmsey) owing to their very fine balance of sweetness and acidity.

Tinta Negra Mole Single Harvest 1997 – quiet nose but lively palate shows lovely orange citrus acidity and caramel, hints of café créme and a nutty undertow; long and elegant.

Bual 1995 Colheita Single Cask 80a – lifted nose with exotic lapsang tea mingling with caramel and orange peel.  Tremendous vigour and length on the taffeta-layered palate with elegant acidity animating delicate flavours of crème caramel, buttermints, nuts and maple syrup.

Bual 10 year old Reserve – the presence of older wines lends greater concentration of flavour; smoky builder’s lapsang tea (if you can imagine it!), pithy grapefruit with pickled walnuts and a good thrust of acidity giving length.

Malvasia 10 year old Reserve – this traditionally rich style is firmly structured with good depth of fruit/fruitcake and spice, those pickled walnuts again – very long.

Fortnum & Mason’s Christmas Pudding Madeira Malvasia Reserve – this is absolutely bang on the money – there should be a sixpence in the pudding which accompanies this!  Complex palate of nuts (whole almonds) and dried citrus – tons of candied orange peel and, I fancy, a touch of chocolate. Barbeito’s signature lively acidity keeps this trim and long.

Malvasia 1999 Colheita Single Cask 265 (exclusive to Fortnum & Mason) –  taffeta-layered palate shows walnuts and maple syrup; long and precise – very good.

VB Lote 2 Medium Dry Reserve casks 12a & 46a (yet to be released) – super tangy blend of cask 12 (1998 Verdelho) and cask 46 (1999 Bual) which simply dances over the palate; sweet mandarin peel and caramel with hints of spicy and pecan nuts; very elegant, very long and racy.

Barbeito Sercial 10 yr old – the driest style this is bone dry with delicious smoked almond, orange peel and citrus bite; long, persistent finish – great with salted almonds and green olives.

Barbeito Single Harvest 1997 – nutty, salty nose and palate with savoury anchovy notes and guava fruit – much better than it sounds!!!

Barbeito 1994 Malvasia Colheita Cask 232c  –  classic Barbeito – fleet of foot, fabulously focused and flavoursome with its lifted orange peel and moreish creme caramel notes cut with savoury salted almonds.

Blandythis is the best-known name of the Madeira Wine Company whose portfolio of brands includes Cossart Gordon (see below).  Blandy’s entry-level 3 year-old wines are widely available and very popular.  Alvada – an innovative blend of Bual and Malmsey is a good introduction to madeira’s two richest grapes.  The real excitement lies in some quite extraordinary vintage wines and we were lucky to taste some seriously old wines.

1999 Colheita Malmsey – the focus and a structure of a vintage wine with a lovely nutty edge to its tangy, sweeter raisins and citrus peel.   Good.

Bual 1977 – delicious – a terrific example of Bual: mouthwatering acidity wed to rich and tangy flavours of orange peel, fruitcake, cardamon and salted almonds. Layered and long.  Very good indeed.

Bual 1964 – with another 13 years under its belt this madeira has a fine ridge of walnut, café crème and macaroons fleshed out with rich, raisined fruitcake and spice box flavours.  Really good.

Malmsey 1915 – one of the last 10 bottles…seriously reduced – mahogany colour with treacle toffee aromas combining with tangy orange peel, dates, coffee, macaroons and chocolate on the palate; super spicy finish.

Cossart Gordon – this, the specialist label of the Madeira Wine Company has a drier style than Blandy’s madeiras – fine premium wines.

Verdelho 10 year old  – lovely fruity, salty nose with hints of guava.  Precise, elegant palate with lots of walnuts and salted almonds.

Bual 10 year old – enticing, smoky café crème, demerara, clove and nutmeg with good richness and depth; well-balanced acidity.

1988 Colheita Sercial – really good example of Sercial’s fine boned character – dry, focused pithy grapefruit, subtle salted and smoked almonds notes; very long finish – very impressive.

Terrantez 1997 – savoury, smoky nose. Its complex, beautifully balanced palate shows walnuts (dry and pickled), fruitcake, orange peel, dates and smoked almonds.  Long, rich and intense.

Bual 1908 –  a showstopper – expressive tangy “ripe & fruity” nose with a meaty edge.  Put simply the palate is an explosion, or more accurately, series of explosions of spice: dried fennel, star anise, clove and cardamon which infuse its moreish café crème, pickled walnuts and dark treacle flavours.  Really long, complex and well-balanced – the stuff of deep, contented sighs…

Sarah Ahmed
The Wine Detective
January 2007
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