Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Bottle shot by Blandy
Madeira Island is famous throughout the world for its outstanding wines; Sercial, Verdelho, Bual (or Boal), and Malmsey are the names of the varietals upon which the Madeira wine production is based. While Sercial and Bual only grow on Madeira Island, Verdelho grows and is also vinified on the Portuguese mainland, and Malmsey is the Madeiran name for Malvasia, a grape whose numerous clones grow along the shores of the Mediterranean. Another, newer cultivar, Tinta Negra Mole, developed from a cross of Pinot Noir and Grenache, creates a dry, almost sherry-like wine, which can be drunk as a very distinctive aperitif.
Madera wines were very popular in Colonial America, and after the war of Independence, Madeira wines were some of the first imports to the new nation. Unfortunately, by the middle of the 19th century, these wines fell out of favor, as they were mostly sweet. The Depression and Prohibition dealt a final blow to their importation and by the middle of the 20th century there were very few aficionados that bought whatever limited number of Madeira was available in the market.
I have always liked good Madeira wines, to the point of making a special trip to Funchal, Madeira’s capital, a few years back to search out and purchase brands that are not available in New York City.
At this time, many of the traditional producers have either merged or closed, so the available wine comes from about 10 or 11 houses, most with histories going back to the 17th century. Some of the better wines are sold by The Madeira Wine Company, which started in 1913 as an association of producers/exporters who joined forces to increase their efficiency, and currently includes Blandy’s, Cossart Gordon, Leacock’s, Miles (previously known as Rutherford and Miles), and Winelodge; all very well known Madeira wine brands. Other current good producers available in the US are Henriques & Henriques, Vinhos Barbeito, Pereira d’ Oliveira, and Vinhos Justinos Henriques.
The wines are released after 5 or more years in cask. Some of the producers still have bottles in their libraries from the turn of the 20th century and, if you ever have a chance to taste a sample, you will be amazed by how good these ancient wines are. While current bottles are sold in the $10 to $60 range, there are still bottles in the market from the ‘50s and ‘60s that sell in the $125 to $250 range, and I have seen bottles from the late 1850s that can set one back more than $1000.
Good Madeira, like any fine wine, can be served with any kind of food.
For example, at a recent tasting, Soft-Shelled crabs were paired with a dry 5-year-old Verdelho from the Madeira Wine Company and an off dry, 10-year-old Verdelho from Henriques & Henriques. Both had a brown/iodine color, and the light palate showed some nutty flavors. Verdelho is also known as “rainwater” and you might see that description in European restaurant lists.
The second course was a Roast Pork Loin with Summer Corn Succotash. It was paired with a 10 year-old Bual, from Vinhos Justinos Henriques and a Boston Bual from Vinhos Barbeito. Both had a mid-orange/brown color and the palate was nicely nutty, with caramelized fruit and good balancing acidity. The “Boston” Bual was created for the Rare Wine Company’s line of Historic Wines in a style popular in the town of Boston, when the country was still a Crown Colony.
The Cheese Course (a blue-veined sharp cheddar-type, a fresh creamy goat cheese, a solid aged goat cheese, and figs with balsamic vinegar and dried cherries) was paired with a lovely 15 year old Bual from Henriques & Henriques, and a 15 year old, medium sweet from Pereira d’ Oliveira. Both were elegant, with a long finish, but the medium sweet worked a little better with the cheeses.
The Dessert was a Chocolate Cube with a Caramel Ice Cream side. And what a pairing! A 10-year-old Malvasia from Vinhos Justinos Henriques, and a New York Malmsey from Vinhos Barbeito (Historic Series, from the Rare Wine Co.). Both had a deep brown color. The New York Malmsey had a complex spicy, raisiny/tarry nose. The palate was concentrated and nutty with great balance between the rich, sweet fruit and the acidity. It had great length and richness on a spicy finish.
The last wine was a 1976 Terrantez from the Madeira Wine Company. Blandy's 1976 Terrantez was bottled in 1997, having matured 21 years in cask. It is very well integrated, with vivid acidity and a seductive blend of dried red fruits and roasted almond flavors. Initially, a bit shy on the nose, showing caramel and toffee, eventually the aroma started evolving. Unfortunately, I had to leave for another event, which meant that I had to gulp down this lovely wine, just as is has started becoming quite alluring.
To your health!
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