“I never lift to my lips a glass of this noble wine without seeing faces that are gone, and hearing the voices and the laughter and the jests that are no more.”-Silas Weir Mitchell, A Madeira Party (1895)
Great Madeira is a bulwark against corrosion and timeless amid our half-lives of gentle decay. It is inscrutable: to reduce it to tasting notes and the crude ephemera of snapshot opinions or scores seems crass. It will outlive you. It is a rummaging old ghost, an artifact from an era at once more genteel and barbaric. It brings to mind men racing toward the secrets of longitude or the shores of new worlds, it recalls corsairs and ornate antebellum dining rooms. It is an acid cutlass, born of the strange circumstance of its long ocean journeys. Heat, movement and oxygen crafted and mellowed its character, and fortification gave it strength to survive the months at sea.
Every other great wine of the world shows best the less it travels from the cellar of its birth, but for Madeira the opposite became true, and in the past markets paid top dollar for those wines labeled, by their voyage, “East India” or “West India”. In fact, for those vinho da roda that traveled halfway across the world and back, the vessel of transport became its own form of terroir. In Noël Cossart’s Madeira: The Island Vineyard, the author admires the palate of one 19th century Southern gentleman and Madeira dealer, William Neyle Habersham, whom he suggests, recounting an episode from the diary of one George DeRenne, could name the ship upon which a blind wine traveled. (This feat is accorded slightly less awe as Habersham, the authority of his day, was not above “recreating” certain famous wines for sale by blending wines from his own collection, and occasionally adding Sherry for good measure.) In the 18th and 19th centuries Madeira may have been named for the locales it traveled to—“East India”, and even “Japan”, famously carried to and from the country by Commodore Perry in 1854—or the vessels it purportedly traveled on, like Hurricane, Red Jacket, or Constitution. In colonial America and afterward, well-to-do households received pipes of Madeira annually, and the names of affluent New York, Boston, or Philadelphia families may have graced labels. Each bottle told its own story. For top Madeira today varietal labeling is preferred—it is the only wine in the world today in which the level of sweetness can be directly inferred through the name of the variety on the label—and the more fanciful and more evocative names of the past have been left behind. Nonetheless, it is difficult to taste a vintage like 1921, 1900, 1850, 1818, or 1760 simply to admire the wine, or to ponder how marvelous it is that a consumable product of fermented fruit could still be enjoyable after all that time. Instead, one’s mind conjures events flaring up far beyond the confines of one little island: in 1921 America’s noble experiment is just beginning; in 1900 the first zeppelin takes flight; in 1850 Los Angeles and San Francisco are formally incorporated; in 1818 Chile claims independence from Spain; in 1760, Abu Dhabi is founded. The wine is a time capsule.
Romance aside, for those pragmatists among us, one of the greatest joys of old Madeira derives from its relative value. This stuff is cheap! At the Old Blandy Wine Lodge in Funchal, I paid €15 (approx.. $20 USD) in total for two glasses of 1977 Terrantez and 1984 Boal. Price listings at D’Oliveira’s lodge for vintages dating back to 1850 are basically criminal. For the opportunity to try old wines while essentially eliminating the risk one would assume on similarly old bottles of Bordeaux or Burgundy, Madeira is incomparable.
Our Fair Country. Pass the Freedom Fries.
IN ITS AMERICAN HEYDEY, founding fathers clinked glasses of Madeira to toast nearly everything in the National Archives, and George Washington drank his body weight in the stuff every couple of months. According to Cossart, Francis Scott Key slurped it down while composing the Star-Spangled Banner, and Betsy Ross sipped Madeira wine while sewing the first flag. More legend than fact, perhaps, but useful stories that hammer the point: Americans love booze, and Madeira was a big deal in our fair country, for a very long time! Our market was incredibly important during the colonial period and afterward, but it contracted during our Civil War. Madeira had its own struggles with the arrival of oidium in 1851—which reduced yields by 98%, but did not totally kill the vines—and phylloxera in 1872, which did. Prohibition finally put the nail in the coffin for what Cossart describes as Madeira’s “oldest and finest market.” Long gone is the era of drunken presidents, Habersham’s reigning palate, and fancy Madeira parties; today, the US has fallen behind France, the UK, Germany, and Belgium in sales. Madeira exports over a million liters of wine annually to France alone—much of which is, granted, bottled and labeled for cooking—while the US imported only 136,000 liters in 2009. Yes, we all know that fortified wine is a hard sell in these enlightened times, but fellas, let’s get to work! This juice is our birthright!!
Clockwise from top right: levada snaking through a pine forest; an array of wines; a Verdelho vineyard in São Vicente; and vegetables growing on poios
The Madeira archipelago includes two inhabited isles: Madeira itself and the smaller Porto Santo, a 20 minute flight (or 2 hour ferry) northeast of Madeira proper. Three uninhabited Desertas Islands complete the chain; the largest of the three, Deserta Grande, is visible from the Bay of Funchal. The rocky, isolated Selvagens (“savage” islands) are administered by the government in Madeira, but they make up a separate archipelago and are actually closer to Tenerife in the Canary Islands than Madeira itself. The climate in Madeira is subtropical and humid, unlike the more arid Canaries, with more rain and moisture in the island’s mountainous interior and on its north side. Lush, green vegetation—cultivated or otherwise—is everywhere here, from ancient laurel forests to the tropical banana plant. The “isle of woods” is just that.
A sleek, modern highway system links the capital of Funchal, its other coastal areas, and the interior. Journeys that once took four hours by car have been reduced to under one, as roads tunnel through mountains and cliffs rather than winding upward and over the peaks. There is little flat land in Madeira beyond the airport runway; even Funchal slopes downward into the sea. As one speeds along the coastal highway, Madeira rises high above; its nearly vertical inclines are stepped with poios, the basalt stone terraces, carving out a few square meters here and there for bananas, sugarcane, sweet potatoes, apple trees, cabbages, and yes, even the occasional vineyard. Some of Europe’s tallest and most impressive sea cliffs are located on the Madeira coastline, including the nearly perpendicular, almost 600-meter tall Cabo Girão—visitors to Barbeito brave an unending series of upward switchbacks and dizzying turns to reach the winery’s huge new facility atop the cliff. Take importer Mannie Berk’s advice: hire a driver (I did not). Running down the mountains, from sources high above in the clouds, are the levadas, a 2,150 km network of cement irrigation canals. “Levada” has no direct translation, but it derives from the Portuguese verb for “to take”—literally, the levada “takes” rainfall to farmers, including grape-growers, for agricultural use, and provides energy to the island through hydroelectric plants. Visitors to the island are strongly encouraged by this author to spend a day taking a guided levada walk, without a doubt the best way to see the island.
Vineyards are planted all along the north and south coasts of the island, but they are concentrated in two major concelhos (municipal zones): Câmara de Lobos on the south side and São Vicente on the north. Together, the two concelhos account for two-thirds of the island’s production. In general, Malvasia and Boal fare better on the island’s southern coast, whereas Sercial and Verdelho, which develop a lower degree of potential alcohol, perform better on the cooler north side of Madeira. Tinta Negra grows everywhere vines are cultivated. Most vineyards on the island are trained in pergola systems—called latadas locally—and cannot be tended by machine. Rarely, one may encounter an espaldeira (espalier) system of upright rows. Barbeito, for instance, has a couple of experimental rows just outside their facility trained in this fashion, and Henriques & Henriques owns 10 hectares of espaldeira vines. The island’s humid climate results in constant fungal pressures, and organic farming has made little inroads in Madeira: only two producers, Justino’s and Barbeito, currently hold a few casks of wine labeled “Biologico”. Of course, a Madeira wine could not be truly “Biologico” unless the fortifying spirit is also certifiably organic—Justino’s is looking toward this possibility in the future.
TUFFACEOUS! Noël Cossart describes four major types of volcanic soils for the vine on the island: saibro (a decomposed red tufa), cascalho (stony soil), pedra mole (sandy yellow tufa), and massapes (literally, “foot-thump”, a clay of decomposed dark tufa). In an 1851 work entitled A Sketch of Madeira, Edward Vernon Harcourt categorized the same four types of soil in very similar terms; however, since “tufa” indicates a calcareous soil and “tuff” indicates a volcanic soil, it is likely that both authors actually mean the latter. Only on Porto Santo can one find calcium carbonate, a building block of the island’s white sandy beaches—a feature absent on Madeira itself. At any rate, Madeiran soil is volcanic, highly fertile, and highly acid. Locals suggest—and tasting confirms—that all Madeiran fruits have an unexpectedly high degree of acidity due to the volcanic soils, from bananas to passion fruit to grapes. The bananas are small, too: until recently, the EU barred Madeiran banana producers from selling their wares in member nations as the fruit was too small. Point: Chiquita.
Funchal at night
Wine and Food on Madeira
In Funchal, Madeira wines are not usually consumed throughout the meal; rather, they are served at its start and finish. Dry Madeira is often a complementary aperitif in local restaurants, and medium dry styles are recommended with soups and some starting fish courses, like atum (tuna) or the ever-present espada, a locally-caught scabbard fish baked and typically finished in a sauce of passion fruit and banana.
Islanders eat a lot of beef, despite the lack of cattle on the island. With espetada—grilled beef skewered on laurel wood—locals typically recommend reds from the mainland, and return to sweet Madeira wines with cheeses or desserts like bolo de mel, a treacle cake best crumbled by hand rather than cut with a knife.
Sercial, with its blinding acidity, is a surprisingly good after-dinner wine, as it refreshes and awakens the palate. Luis D’Oliveira, who currently presides over the business end of his family’s winery, recommends that lovers of Madeira savor Frasqueira wines at room temperature—regardless of the level of sweetness—and without food, as befits serious wines of meditation. Cossart, with an Englishman’s flair, pairs good old Madeira with Havana cigars and “intelligent conversation”.
Espada with Passion Fruit and Banana; some advice from Blandy's Wine Lodge
The Madeira Institute of Wine, Embroidery and Handicrafts oversees the production of wine on the island and, as one could guess, the production of handmade embroidery. Those tablecloths are expensive! And if you visit Madeira and decide to bring mom something crafty back, the real embroidery is sold with the IVBAM’s holographic seal; everything else is just machine-made garbage for tourists. In wine, the IVBAM authorizes planting, sets harvest dates, recommends (rather than mandates) grape prices, regulates the purchase of wine alcohol for fortification, and oversees the estufagem process. During the heating period, the IVBAM actually seals the estufas and the temperature controls for a minimum of three months. In addition, producers receive grant money from the EU for aging their wines a minimum of five years in cask; in such instances, the IVBAM will place its seal on the cask for the duration. Any aging designations that a producer wishes to include on a label (5 Year Old, 20 Year Old, the declaration of a vintage, etc.) must be documented and checked by the institute. An official, five-man institute tasting panel, including two revolving spots for representatives from the production companies (currently Ricardo Barbeito and Juan Teixeira, Justino’s winemaker), must approve all Madeira wines prior to bottling. Finally, the IVBAM maintains a cooperative winemaking facility in São Vicente. Here, they produce unfortified Madeirense PDO wines, and in 2012 they began work on a first experimental vintage of fortified Madeira as well.
In the absence of a bottling date on a Madeira wine, one can roughly approximate by looking at the seal on the neck:
Canteiro cask sealed by the IVBAM; neck seals from the JNV, IVM, and IVBAM eras
Where you cannot call a Vintage a Vintage, and other Truth in Labeling or the Lack Thereof
You can doctor your Rainwater with caramel coloring, you can buy your aguardente from France, and you can call a 5 Year Old baby a “Reserve” selection, but you can’t use the word “vintage” on a label. Thank you, Port lobby. Hence: Frasqueira.
AND I DIGRESS: The most planted variety in Madeira, Tinta Negra (yes, once Tinta Negra Mole, but “soft” is such a pejorative adjunct, and anyways it is not the same “Tinta Negra Mole” that one finds in Algarve) cannot be claimed on a label. So…it is HIGHLY LIKELY that every bottle of Madeira you encounter—ever—without a variety on the label is a Tinta Negra solo act. The beautiful thing about this grape: it’s frankly not all that bad, and it is the only grape on the island which can deliver across the entire spectrum of sweetness, from Dry to Rich. But you still won’t see it on a label. Justino’s has been making rock-solid Colheita wines with Tinta Negra since 1996—the first year for the “Colheita” category in Madeira—allowing the wine to mature in barrel for a minimum of 10 years prior to bottling. Also, those mysterious old casks and bottles you occasionally encounter that are simply labeled “Old Wine”? Delicious. And likely Tinta Negra.
Making the Wine: Receiving the Harvest
On the island, harvest typically occurs from late August through mid-October, with sweet varieties coming in before the dry varieties. At the time of our visit in 2012, during the last week of September, the harvest was 95% complete, but growers acknowledged that it was a very early year.
Madeira’s production companies purchase the grapes from small growers, who own one-third of a hectare on average. God forbid, as a grower, that you bring your harvest in during lunch hours, or over the weekend in this most debt-ridden sector of Portugal, as the production companies typically do not work these hours. Under the watchful eyes of the IVBAM, purchasers measure the must weight of incoming grapes with a refractometer. Higher sugar content at harvest nets higher prices per kilogram of grapes, and grapes under 9% potential alcohol must be rejected.
With such small holdings per grower, the number of growers a producer must rely on is quite large. Justino’s, the largest of the eight production companies, utilizes fruit from over 700 different sources. Some growers may sell fruit to multiple houses, and in the absence of long-term contracts fruit sources may change, but longstanding handshake agreements usually prevail. In 2009, 1,304 growers sold fruit to the major production companies. Henriques & Henriques is the only producer that actually owns vineyards but their dozen or so total hectares are not nearly enough to satisfy production.
Tinta Negra grapes in the latadas of São Vicente; harvesting
Making the Wine: Crafting Young Madeira via Estufagem
Three Year Old Madeira (a category every house makes, but not an official aging designation) is likely born as a ripening Tinta Negra grape somewhere in the latadas of São Vicente. After the harvest is received, potential alcohol is measured, and the grapes are paid for, the production companies go to work. Following are typical steps of production for a basic, three year old wine, often labeled "Finest":
**For those looking for the numbers, there are some old regulations floating around that list residual sugar levels for each style of Madeira (i.e. Dry has 18-65 g/l, Medium Dry has 49-78 g/l, Medium Sweet has 78-96 g/l, Sweet has 96-135 g/l), but it is worth noting that the DOP regulations today do not stipulate exact grams per liter, but rather Baumé ranges (Dry <1.5°, Medium Dry=1-2.5°, Medium Sweet=2.5-3.5°, Sweet>3.5°).
Estufas and a new Robotic Lagar at Barbeito; an example of an anonymous producer's price list for grapes
Making the Wine: Crafting Canteiro Wines for the Long Haul
Every production company on the island reserves some Tinta Negra and all noble white grapes—Sercial, Boal, Verdelho, Malvasia, and Terrantez—for canteiro aging. Winemaking through fortification is in many ways identical to the steps outlined above, except that the noble grapes are generally pressed prior to the start of fermentation. Barbeito actually uses a robotic lagar and skin maceration for Malvasia, and Justino's is experimenting with similar skin macerations for the grape, but such treatment is uncommon. After fortification, the wines are transferred to neutral casks. Casks vary in size and origin, depending on the producer. The Madeira Wine Company and D'Oliveira use only American oak casks, the traditional wood used for Madeira barrels, as they believe it lends the wines better color and complexity. When asked how he might acquire additional barrels—i.e., who are you buying your used barrels from?—Luis D'Oliveira acted as though he did not understand the question. Justino's uses a mixture of American, Portuguese, and French oak--the latter in the form of used Cognac barrels. At Justino's, casks range from 300 liters to 650 liters—the traditional size—to immense 40,000 liter wooden vats. Barbeito uses only French oak.
Legally, Canteiro wines may be released after only two years in wood, but producers generally reserve this method for 5 Year Old, 10 Year Old, 15 Year Old, 20 Year Old, and vintage styles. Wines mature much more slowly in the canteiro method than in estufas, and often take a minimum five years to show an inkling of complexity. Sercial is often the slowest to develop, needing seven or eight years in cask before its character becomes apparent. During this lengthy cask aging, the island's warmth and humidity affects the wines, and canteiro rooms are often designed to naturally intensify heat, through large windows or specially designed roofs. The canteiro rooms usually get into the high 80s and low 90s during the summertime, with humidity levels around 70-90%. Evaporation accounts for a loss of around 5% each year; as the wines age sugar, alcohol, and acidity are concentrated. Blending processes for the 5, 10, 15, and 20 year old wines are similar to those outlined above. These age designations are averages rather than minimums, and some older and younger wines may be incorporated into each. If they carry a variety on the label, it is still likely that a little Tinta Negra is present, as regulations permit up to 15% of other grapes in the wine—a concession not afforded to vintage-dated varietal wines.
Regardless of the harvest outlook, a wine only reveals its potential for Frasqueira or Colheita quality after a lengthy period of aging. Unlike Port, Colheita (vintage-dated) wines may be released after only five years in cask, but few producers choose to produce this style with less than seven years of aging. True vintage Madeira, the Frasqueira, requires a minimum of twenty years in canteiro, but it may remain in cask for a century or more prior to bottling. Some producers choose to transfer certain old stocks to glass in order to halt the aging (and evaporation) process, but others will leave the wines in cask until the amount is so minimal as to be lost entirely to the angels' share in a few years.
As wines age slowly in cask, fruit gives way to oxidative flavors. Sotolon, a lactone produced through oxidation processes, is a powerfully aromatic compound responsible for some of the aromas of Sherry, Vin Jaune, and mature Madeira. The aroma of sotolon can be likened to curry (fenugreek) or maple syrup. Color darkens as sugars caramelize and the wines oxidize. Volatility is common. As the wines age for 20 or more years in cask, varietal differences begin to give way to a common universe of complex tertiary aromas.
When purchasing and drinking vintage wines, remember that they often remain in temperatures well into the 60s and 70s throughout their lives. Storage in a cool location is ideal, but these wines do not need to be kept in a 52° cellar. At home in Napa, I leave my bottles standing upright in my liquor cabinet, which rarely gets above 70° F. 64-68° is probably ideal. And do not drink them too cool, either. The storage temperature is ideal for enjoyment of vintage wines. Young wines, particularly dry styles, should be chilled.
Clockwise from top right: Tinta Negra cask sealed until 2014; Barbeito's Canteiro room; Complexa in barrel at one of D'Oliveira's Canteiro rooms
And Now, Some Ephemera:
At D’Oliveira’s public lodge in Funchal (one of three they use for aging) we sat down to an impressive flight of nearly 20 vintage wines, plus several basic 3-, 5-, and 10-year old selections, which are not imported. Big thanks to Luis d’Oliveira for his time and generosity, and to Mannie Berk at Rare Wine Company for setting up our appointment. We tasted all five noble white varieties, but could only stare longingly at barrels in the back labeled “Complexa”, “Triunfo”, and “Bastardo”. Some standouts are below. I detest scoring wines. Scores are out of five possible stars.
1989 Sercial: Amber-colored, with Scotch-like notes of tar, turpentine, hay, malt, and iodine. Assertive style of Sercial, with serious acidity. ***
1977 Terrantez: Bottled in 2010, copper-colored with a rich body yet a refreshing, medium dry finish—somewhere between Verdelho and Sercial—and heady nose of citrus, passion fruit, and bitter almond. Volatile acidity apparent. ****
1971 Sercial: Dark amber color, with sassafras, licorice, herbs, grass, and lemon rind notes. Concentrated, full, and sky-high acidity. ****
1937 Sercial: Burnt caramel color with a green rim, hot tar and sweet caramel on the nose, toffee candy and lemon sours. Long, nutty and sheer on the finish. ****
1932 Verdelho: Mahoghany color, light-framed but age gives it concentration, dried flowers and savory spice on the nose, white pepper, botanical notes, prune, finish is driven by acidity. *****
1912 Verdelho: Sweet attack but dry on the finish, razor-sharp, beautiful and vibrant aromatics of sassafras, geranium, lemon, butter praline. ***
1907 Malvazia: Burnt amber color with a yellow rim. Sweet cereal grains, nougat, oxidized apple and walnut, fruitcake, and hay. Sweet but mellow, with a delicate yet long finish. ***
1875 Moscatel: Coffee-colored, this is a different animal altogether, with markedly lower acid than other Madeira varieties. High concentration of savory, textural umami notes, sautéed porcini and sweet soy, corn chip. The palate is liquid chocolate, fig and raisin. Huge. Sweet. Powerful. ***** *D’Oliveira is the last firm on Madeira with stocks of Moscatel, and 1900 is their last remaining vintage.
1850 Verdelho: Coffee-colored, utterly seamless. Incredibly intense on the nose. Finish is totally dry, with walnut, cedar, tobacco and black cherry flavors. A testament to longevity and the concentration of age, but I preferred the 1932. ****
All photos courtesy Kali Stamp --lovely wife, photographer, fellow traveler and imbiber of wine
I was lucky enough to do a couple of weeks vintage in Portugal in 2018 and manage to squeeze in a trip to Madeira.
This article is beyond sensational and covers absolutely every facet of my own experience there! The visceral and technical information presented in such a seamless and elegant way really does deserve all the praise this writing has received over the years.
Thank you Matt Stamp and bravo!
Some interesting new information: as of this year, Madeira producers can officially label wines as Tinta Negra!
Couldn't stop drooling throughout the read! Very educational as well! Thank you Matt!
Thanks everyone for your comments and support!