The beauty of Madeira

A new book relates the compelling story of Madeira, one of the world’s unique wines. For publication in week of 10 October 2016.

The fascinating story of madeira, one of the world’s unique wines, is told in a new book by Richard Mayson. Madeira: The islands and their wines (Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library) is an ideal companion for people keen to discover what makes Madeira — the wine and the island — so special.

Madeira the wine appears to be the result of an accident. For centuries, grape brandy was added to wines to preserve them on long voyages. During the seventeenth century Madeira’s winemakers discovered the positive influence of the sun on wine shipped through the tropics. Heat transformed a light and acidic liquid into a wine with profound depth of flavour and a pleasant burnt quality.

Subsequently madeira was stored in the holds of ships as ballast and send on journeys around the globe. This wine became known as vinho da roda, or “wine of the round voyage”. Nowadays that process is replicated by storing wine in hot places.

Most winemakers around the world have deep cellars, whereas high-end wines in Madeira are stored at the top of buildings. This warming process is known as “canteiro”. The word refers to the beams that support the floors. Wine is heavy and unless high parts of building are reinforced the weight of the wine could cause floors to collapse.

The Portuguese navigator Goncalves Marco discovered Madeira in 1418. He named it after the Portuguese word for wood, an appropriate name given the number of years madeira spends in barrels. The best wines are stored for decades. Barrels are never entirely filled because winemakers want the wine to be exposed to oxygen. “Oxygen is our friend,” one winemaker told me during a visit to the island, “unlike in other winemaking countries where it can be an enemy.”

Over time oxidation gives madeira its unique aromas and flavours. Many casks are made from satin wood purchased from Brazil more than a century ago. Most casks undergo successive repairs. Mayson tells us that “skilled coopers replace warped wood and often rebuild entire casks weaving banana leaves between the staves to ensure a tight fit”.

He notes the considerable differences between younger and cheaper wines and those which receive extended barrel ageing, concluding that “in Madeira there is really no substitute for cask age”. For this reason, Mayson make no apologies for focusing on “older wines, even though they account for perhaps 10 per cent of the current Madeira trade”. He devotes a chapter to the oldest and finest wines he has tasted. This might be off-putting for people who will never get a chance to taste these delights.

Equally disconcerting is the fact that a shipper can expect to lose more than half the initial volume of wine to evaporation by the time a vintage madeira has been bottled after 20 years. “Vintage madeira is without doubt one of the world’s most thrilling and haunting of wines,” he writes. “The pungency, power and concentration of a great wine is as mind-numbing as the fragrance and delicacy is enchanting. No other wine deserves quite the same respect as a madeira from, say, the early nineteenth century which appears to combine the freshness of the day it was made with intensity, concentration and the ethereal complexity of age.”

Wines are transferred between different size barrels depending on the stage of the ageing process. Justino’s is the biggest company on the island of Madeira. It prefers 350 and 650 litre barrels while Blandy’s, another prominent company, employs a wider range of sizes. The latter needs small barrels of about 300 litres because the floors in its building in the centre of the capital, Funchal, would struggle to hold the weight of large barrels. The building was a monastery, a hospital and a prison before Blandy’s acquired it in 1840.

Most people associate Madeira with four famous white grape varieties which produce the main fortified wines: Sercial, Verdelho, Boal (Bual in English) and Malvasia. Sercial makes the driest wine, ideal as an aperitif; Verdelho is medium dry; Boal is medium sweet and Malvasia makes sweet wines, often labelled as Malmsey.

Mayson tells us that the majority of grapes grown on the island are Tinta Negra; the big four grapes are only used in wines that are 10 years or older. His stories about grapes are especially interesting: “The number of vineyards planted with Tinta Negra increased exponentially after the phylloxera problems of the late nineteenth century. Such is its acceptance by both growers and winemakers that this chameleon of a grape now accounts for nearly 90 per cent of all Madeira wine, ranging in style from dry through medium dry and medium sweet to rich.” It is relatively easy to grow and can produce big crops, which explains its popularity with growers. “Until 1993 when the legislation was altered,” Mayson notes, “much of the Madeira masquerading under the names of the traditional varieties was made from Tinta Negra.”

Mayson’s description of Sercial, known officially on the Portuguese mainland as Esgana Cão or “dog strangler,”’ is delightful. “Sercial is characterised by ferociously high levels of natural acidity. … [it] produces some of the most enduring Madeira wine, kept alive for decades by searing levels of acidity (up to 12 g/l in some wines). Sadly this is the least appreciated style of Madeira, and production of Sercial continues to decline with few new vineyards having been planted in recent years.”

Madeira has had a long connection with history. It was reputedly used by Thomas Jefferson to toast the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The first American president, George Washington, is said to have consumed a pint of madeira at dinner each evening. Madeira continues to sell well in the United States. Mayson believes the future is bright for the wine. In the past decade and half, he writes, helped by investment and regulation from the European Union, and with a younger generation in charge, madeira is “both more obedient and open”. He notes the quality of Madeira’s grapes has improved hugely since the 1990s.

“Although progress has been slow compared with some other regions, it would still be true to say that Madeira’s vineyards are now in a better state than at any time for the past 150 years.”

Words: 1,022

Categories: madeira, Not home, Portugal, wine

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