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Putting the fun into Funchal for wine lovers: Madeira

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They say every cloud has a silver lining; in Madeira it’s golden – the island’s world class golden wines…

It seems two seconds ago that I reported on my Blend All About Wine Lisbon travels.  Last week the capital of Madeira received team Blend and we were thoroughly spoiled.  And, good news, you can be too. Madeira may not have that many producers (8 firms, one of whom has yet to release their first wine) but, in and around Funchal, you can expect the warmest of welcomes at among Portugal’s most accessible “cellar doors.”  What’s more,  you’ll be amazed what rarities you can taste and buy. Great for collectors but, equally, huge efforts are afoot to show what the island can do at relatively modest prices.  Here are my pictorial highlights.

cherubino labels madeira day 1 and justinos a 017Established in 2012, modernity and tradition rub shoulders at Madeira Vintners, the island’s newest Madeira firm.  They’re not afraid of mixing it up to get the right results – watch this space for more about how they expect to attain the quality and complexity of five to ten year old Madeiras in their three year old wines.

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Suffice to say quality starts with the raw material – the grapes. CEO Paulo Mendes (pictured) has a range of strategies to ensure that they’re grown, selected and handled as meticulously as possible.  Time will tell when they deliver their first wines to market, which will be 2016 at the earliest.

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Speaking of raw materials, the fish market in Funchal showcases the island’s abundant fruits of the sea.

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This devilishly good fresh (not salted) cod dish followed on from super moist mackerel with seasonal chesnut puree, both cooked to perfection by Octávio Freitas, chef at Restaurante Bay View, Hotel Four Views Baía, Funchal.  The view from my hotel room top.

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Between dinner at Bay View and Madeira Vintners we visited one of the island’s traditional firms, H.M. Borges, which was founded in 1877.  It’s now run by his direct descendants, Helena Borges & Isabel Borges (pictured, r, l) who, together with winemaker Ivo Couto, hosted our visit.

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Going from the sublime to the ridiculous – the newest company (Madeira Vintners) with no wines yet to sell to this long established firm, the sisters privileged us with a tasting of a Terrantez from H.M. Borge’s foundation year.  Aged in these demi-johns for some part of its life, this was my first snifter of this rare variety on this trip.  Let’s just say I’m a confirmed fan….

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Yep, here it is again, this golden “Old Reserve” at Justino’s stood out for its elegance. Small wonder when this non-vintage wine contains Terrantez up to 40 years old.

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Delving not so far back in time I last met Dina Luís in Tejo at Casal Branco where she headed up winemaking.  Looking dwarfed by her blending options at Justino’s (3000 barrels to play with no less) she told me she’s now relaxing into the assistant winemaking role here having arrived in February.

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My visit with Henriques & Henriques gave me a first hand insight into the work which goes behind ageing Madeira in whisky-seasoned American barrels – very delicious Madeira too if the first thus influenced wine – Henriques & Henriques Fine Rich Single Harvest 1997 – is anything to go by.  This bit of kit – a robotic brillo pad on steroids – removes the char from the inside of the barrels.

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Suffice to say this new-fangled stuff wasn’t around when these superb older Madeiras were produced.  The keen-eyed among you will spot the reference to the Ribeiro Real vineyards on the left hand label – the very same as produced the splashes of Tinta Negra used as a blending component by Ricardo Diogo Freitas in his stunning new Barbeito 20 year Old Verdelho and Bual.

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Speaking of which, Barbeito’s shiny new(ish) winery (2008)  was our next stop.  Complete with a robotic lagar and another new/old trick (well variety) Bastardo, which he is planning to resurrect.

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We dined simply at Restaurante Teleférico do Rancho for lunch.  For me espada (scabbard fish); skewered beef for the rest of the team.  But the reason to stop here is for the vertiginous view down to sea and the “Fajãs” vineyards, pictured, which can only be accessed by cable car.  Shame it was too windy for our planned descent.

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With the contents of our stomach thankfully intact, dinner was at a relatively new hotel high in the mountains overlooking Funchal (my ears popped). Chef Yves Gautier heads Hotel Quinta da Serra which is relatively new and keen to showcase its homegrown ingredients.

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As for showcasing Madeira wine’s uber-ageworthy credentials, together with Blandy’s lodge, there’s probably no better place to visit than Pereira D’Oliveira in the heart of Funchal (especially now they have taken over Barros & Sousa next door).

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Check out this gob-smacking list of wines which you can buy.  Below, some favourites:

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And the men behind them – Luis d’Oliveira and his nephew, Filipe.

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For tourists, Blandy’s Lodge in Funchal, where I tasted this outstanding ultra-rare demi-john  of 1887 Verdelho is most certainly the place to visit both to taste and experience a slice of history.

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But CEO Chris Blandy is an astute businessman and has started to move production – the back end stuff – to a dock-side location.  It makes much more sense logistically and financially and is part and parcel of his bid to add “the lowest cost operator within the trade” to the company’s many accolades, most recently Portuguese Wine Producer of the Year at the International Wine & Spirit Competition.

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The move pays quality dividends too – new estufas with external heating (and cooling) jackets (above) aim to ensure that the company’s bread and butter entry level Madeiras are the best they can be.

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All base wines are then aged for at least nine months in these traditional wooden vats which received their own police escort to the new site having been lifted out of the old warehouse by crane – quite a feat – watch the video here.   

Rubina Vieira, Head of the Madeira Wine Institute’s Chamber of Tasters presented a final Madeira tasting covering off each decade of this century and last which concluded with some exceptionally intense 19th century wines.

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The Institute had arranged a dinner for us at Restaurante Xôpana, an award-winning boutique hotel Choupana Hills Resort high above Funchal with fantastic views of the port.  The sardines dish which they’d cooked up with Chef Júlio Pereira was an out and out winner with Henriques & Henriques 5 Year Old Madeira – innovative and inspirational.  None of us remembered to take a photo so enthralled were we!

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The next morning we snuck in a generic table wine tasting at the government owned and run Adega S. Vicente (winery).  Though these relatively johnny come lately wines are work in progress the Verdelhos impressed most.

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Two mature wines showed the strength of this particular varietal suit: the unoaked Barbusano Verdelho 2009 and oaked Quinta do Moledo Verdelho 2008.  We enjoyed the latter over a lunch of local speciality, Arroz de Lapas (limpet rice) at Marisqueira Pedra do Mar, Seixal together with this view of the island’s rugged north coast.

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And finally, for those travelling by air the airport features a couple of Madeira Wine Company/Blandy’s shops while the duty free shop came up with the goods for my upcoming fortified tasting at Trangallan.

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