The island of Madeira off Africa’s north-west coast only has 450 hectares of vines used to make the wine officially designated as madeira. But because the volcanic soils are fertile yields are high and each year those hectares produce 4.5 million litres of a wine that has achieved worldwide recognition.
Madeira has about 800 growers and 90 per cent of their grapes come from terraces on very steep slopes that need to be hand harvested. Grape prices subsequently tend to be high, but the wines are bargains given the time involved in making them.
Blandy’s and Justino’s are the heavyweights among the seven producers, between them making more than half of the country’s madeira. Justino’s also produces 35 per cent of the island’s exports.
Madeira is unique in the way it is made and stored. The winemaking process is an accident of history. Grape brandy was added to stop fermentation and preserve wines on long sea journeys. During the seventeenth century winemakers discovered the positive influence of the sun on wine shipped through the tropics. Intense heat gave a light and acidic wine depth of flavour and a pleasant burnt quality.
Madeira was subsequently stored in the holds of ships as ballast and send on round-trip journeys to develop flavours. This wine became known as vinho da roda, or “wine of the round voyage”. Nowadays that process is replicated by storing wines in hot locations.
Most wine regions mature their wines in cool cellars, whereas Madeira wants to keep its wines warm. Part of the process is known as estufagem, “heating” in English, where pipes or jackets heat wine in tanks to develop flavours.
Most people associate madeira with the four white grape varieties that produce the main fortified wines: sercial, verdelho, bual (aka boal) and malvasia. Sercial makes the driest madeira, verdelho medium dry, bual medium sweet and malvasia sweet wines. But 85 per cent of grapes grown on the island are the tinta negra variety. The big four are only used in wines that are 10 years or older.
Tinta negra is a chameleon grape: It can acquire the character of the four styles of madeira depending on the altitude of the vineyard, the region where it’s planted and winemaking methods. For all grapes generally the higher the altitude the more the acidity. The sweetest wine, malvasia, is grown up to 200 metres while the driest, sercial, can be grown up to 800 metres. Acidity is a feature of good madeira. It provides texture, freshness and balance.
Vintage madeira is only made in exceptional years and must spend a minimum of 20 years in cask and two years in bottle. It typically represents about 5 per cent of each company’s output but demands high prices. High-end wines are stored in special lofts at the top of buildings, unlike the deep cellars of most other wine makers. The method of allowing wines to warm in these lofts is known as “canteiro” which refers to the beams that support the floors.
Wine is heavy and unless the high parts of the building are reinforced there is the danger of the weight of the wine causing floors to collapse.
Justino’s uses only French oak purchased from Cognac and Armagnac that is at least six years old. Blandy’s only uses old American oak. Six coopers work on the island of Madeira. Blandy’s employs four and Justino’s the other two. They spend much of their time repairing and recycling barrels because these casks are used for decades.
Wines are transferred between different size barrels depending on where they are in the ageing process. Justino’s prefers 350 and 650 litre barrels while Blandy’s employs a wide range of sizes. It needs small barrels because the floors in its building are old and could not hold the weight of large barrels. The Blandy’s building in the centre of the capital, Funchal, has been at various times a monastery, a hospital and a prison. Blandy’s acquired it in 1840.
Both companies store wine in ancient barrels purchased from Brazil, made from satin wood whose local name is radeiro de cedeo. Some of these casks are more than a century old.
Justino’s has the largest holdings of madeira on the island, and makes some superb wines. Julio Fernandes, commercial director, provided samples of 16 wines at the company’s Funchal headquarters. These were a revelation for the purity and freshness of the younger wines to the elegance of the 10-year-old madeira, through to the superb colheitas of 1995, 1996 and 1998.
Colheitas come from a single year but unlike vintage madeiras do not need to age for 20 years before being released. “These wines provide high quality wine from a single outstanding year but at an affordable price,” Fernandes said.
The highlight of the tasting included a 1940 sercial that was fresh and still seemed to be developing, and a 1954 verdelho with outstanding structure and acidity. A wine made from the rare terrantez grape from about 1958 was a revelation with its extraordinary length and range of citrus, fruitcake and coffee flavours. Only about 2,000 litres of wine are made each year from this grape on the entire island.
A 1978 boal offered similar flavours in the mouth plus toffee and spices. And a 1933 malvasia (then labelled malmsey) proved the concept of joy in a glass. Intense aromas and tastes of toffee, incense, caramel and wood stayed in my mouth for what seemed like an eternity. Even a large glass of water would not wash away the taste.
In the world of fortified wine Madeira’s 4.5 million litres is small compared with port and sherry. But madeira is a special and unique wine that deserves to be more appreciated.
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