Article by Richard Jennings © February 2011
Tomorrow I’m off on a trip to Portugal and Madeira with Roy Hersh, Mario Ferreira and an eager group of travelers who are joining them. In anticipation of this long awaited trip, I decided to take a look back at my first big vintage Madeira tasting with Roy three and a half years ago in Seattle. It was a memorable event for me–my first comparative tasting of vintage Madeiras from different producers, including all the major styles–from dry Sercial to sweet Malmsey–plus two samples based on rare varietals, Bastardo and Terrantez, as well as one made from Moscatel.
We had 17 venerable Madeiras in all, ranging from 1827 to 1927. I learned a lot from the tasting, and have been to a few more extensive vintage Madeira tastings since then, including one I helped Roy organize in San Francisco. This one, though, was a major learning experience for me, and one that owed entirely to Roy Hersh’s skills at bringing people, and great wines, together. I therefore thought it would be the ideal event to review and post about on the eve of my trip, since I will actually be in Madeira with Roy by the middle of next week.
I was originally turned on to the rarified pleasure of vintage Madeira by the Saturday Wine Lunch group in Los Angeles in 2002, since a few of its members owned a number of great bottles going back to the mid-1800s and early 1900s (that they’d bought decades earlier for a relative pittance compared to the value of those bottles now). They rocked my world–tasty caramel and other rich and lovely flavors supported by a vibrant core of acidity. After trying several of them at weekly wine lunches throughout that year, I needed to know more about where this stuff came from, how it was made, and what made it capable of aging for so many decades.
I read everything I could about Madeira–and there are really only three books in English, all out of print. I also found a few notes online about all-Madeira tastings or dinners that had occurred years earlier, in different parts of the country (notably Savannah, Georgia, where there is a longstanding Madeira Society). In 2006, Roy, who knew about my passion for Madeira, told me he was organizing an extensive tasting in Seattle (DC and New York), and I knew I just had to be there. And not only did we have Roy on hand to share with us what he’d learned about vintage Madeira after a few trips to the island, but Roy also arranged for a great Madeira expert from Europe, Dr. Peter Reutter to be with us, for which I was hugely grateful. Peter’s website: www.madeirawineguide.com is a very cool wine reference resource, including the most comprehensive listing of vintage Madeiras available anywhere. Peter’s twin brother, who administers Peter’s website, was also on hand, as was Eric LeVine, the brain behind CellarTracker, not to mention other passionate Madeira geeks from around the country, each of us toting a special bottle for the tasting.
We convened in the mid-afternoon, on a cold and windy day (i.e., perfect Madeira weather), in a private room at Kaspars Special Events & Catering. The plan was to spend up to five hours tasting, comparing notes and discussing the wines, without the distraction of food, and to follow with dinner there (and then some additional, non-Madeira wines). The Madeiras were broken up into three flights, progressing from driest to sweetest, but will be listed below as seven flights, based on the seven varietals represented at the tasting.
It should be noted that the four so-called “noble” white varietals of Madeira – in increasing order of sweetness: Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia–essentially went defunct with the phylloxera devastation that hit the island in the 1870s, and which led to the ripping out of all the old vines, and replanting with phylloxera-resistant American vine species.
Eventually the hardy, red-skinned Tinta Negra Mole became the principal grape on the island, and Madeira was made from this versatile varietal in the styles of the former noble varietals. According to Noel Cossart (whose book Madeira: The Island Vineyard, is the best and most authoritative book yet written on the subject), the variety of Tinta grown on the island was developed from crosses involving Burgundian varieties of Pinot Noir as well as Grenache.
Since Portugal joined the European Union in 1986, however, there has been a growing emphasis on re-planting the original noble varietals, so the quantities of Sercial, Verdelho, Malvasia, and even Terrantez, is gradually increasing. At any rate, in wines described below, for vintages before the mid-1870s, the noble varietals indicated most likely were the actual basis for the wines described; since that time, however, the wines were actually probably made from Tinta Negra Mole in the style of the former noble varietals.
One conclusion I drew from this tasting was the clear difference in quality between Barbeito and D’Oliveiras bottlings, with the latter from comparable vintages and varietals nearly always being darker in color and more concentrated and rich on the palate. In the notes below, I’m going to share what I learned about the different styles of vintage Madeira at this event as a warm up for tasting with Roy next week at D’Oliveiras and Barbeito.
Sercial is the latest maturing of the noble white Madeira grapes, and is known for its searingly high acidity. It was traditionally grown in the coolest vineyards, at heights of up to 2,640 feet, or on the cooler, north side of the island. On the Portuguese mainland, the grape is known as Esgana Cao, “dog strangler.” When young, wines made from these grapes are tart and astringent, and require seven to eight years to mature. With fortification and aging, they remain dry, but develop almond, tea and complex tart flavors. I brought the D’Oliveiras sample in our tasting, which would undoubtedly have been made from Sercial. It was the group’s, and my, WOTF. The Barbeito was probably made from Tinta Negra Mole in the style of Sercial. It was also very good, and rather savory and briney, with less acidity than the 1862.
1862 D’Oliveiras Madeira Sercial – Portugal, Madeira Dark orange color, and a bit cloudy; soft, sweet orange and light caramel nose; lovely dry, super tart entry with a notion of tart orange, lime, tea and chalk on the very focused palate, with earthy edges (Peter described them as “ashy”); long finish. (93 pts.)
1898 Barbeito Madeira Sercial – Portugal, Madeira Very clear dark orange color; earthy, faintly mushroom, bouillon, sweet tea and briney nose; less tart than the 1862, with sweet tea, fairly good structure, and a brine note; long finish. (only in bottle for about 5 years, after years in wood and then a demijohn) (92 pts.)
This was a terrific flight, in which the 1850 would have been made from the Verdelho grape, whereas the later wines were most likely made mostly or entirely with Tinta. Like Sercial, Verdelho was generally planted on the cooler north side of the island. It ripens more easily than Sercial, so produces a medium dry wine with somewhat higher residual sugar levels after fortification than Sercial. Both Verdelho and Sercial are typically separated from the grape skins before fermentation. The Verdelho on Madeira is the same as that found growing in the Azores, and it was also planted in Australia. The 1900 D’Oliveiras was my WOTF. All four of them were complex, with terrific acidity and balance. With age, the varietal is said to often take on a distinctive smoky character, but I didn’t get that so much from these samples.
1850 D’Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho – Portugal, Madeira Deep dark brown color; sweet brackish nose; thick, syrupy, but with a tingly acid core, notes of prune and raisins; long finish. (93 pts.)
1885 Barbeito Madeira Verdelho – Portugal, Madeira Tea color with good clarity; soft, tart caramel nose; lovely, balanced entry, round sweetness and nice acid core; a chalk note on medium finish. (91 pts.)
1900 D’Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho – Portugal, Madeira Dark brown color with good clarity and a ruby light; sweet, mushroomy, earthy nose; lovely, pointed sweet tea entry, tangerine-like acid; medium-plus finish. (94+ pts.)
1912 D’Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho – Portugal, Madeira Dark brown color with a little cloudiness; soft, light caramel, tea and mushroom nose with a little acetone; gorgeous, charming sweet tea and lemony acid palate with a root beer or horehound candy note; long warming finish (94 pts.)
Bastardo is a red grape that, along with Terrantez, was relatively rare on Madeira even before phylloxera, but, like Terrantez, was considered very special and sought after. This dark-skinned variety is still grown in the Jura, Dao and Bairrada regions. It was a treat to be able to try a rare sample from this grape in the tasting, and it had a fabulous nose. It also had high acidity, more comparable to the Sercials in our tasting than any of the other wines that day.
1927 D’Oliveiras Madeira Bastardo – Portugal, Madeira Light tawny brown color; soft, intriguing maple syrup, pecan, vanilla extract, brown sugar and lemon tea nose; soft, plush texture but surprisingly tight and angular palate that lacks the complexity suggested by the nose, with tawny acid, a notion of balsamic vinegar and a sense of wood; medium-plus finish (Bastardo is a red grape) (92 pts.)
This was another terrific flight. Boal, “Bual” is the Anglicized version, refers actually to several Portuguese white varietals. The most common on Madeira is Boal Cachudo, which is grown in warmer locations on the south side of the island. DNA profiling comfirmed that Boal Cachudo is identical to Malvasia Fina from the Douro. Boal and Malvasia are traditionally fermented on their skins (unlike Sercial and Verdelho). The Boals in our tasting (at least the first two of which were probably made from Boal, most likely Boal Cachudo) were rich and deep, and not as sweet as our Malvasias. The last two showed a lot of espresso, along with other flavors. I was fortunate to taste bottles of the first two again a year later with Roy, at our vintage Madeira tasting in San Francisco, and they both showed better at that event – the 1827 spectacularly so.
1827 Quinta do Serrado Madeira Boal – Portugal, Madeira Medium brown with clarity; briney, salty and vanilla nose; deep rich quality with good acid, rich but not sweet, vanilla, maple syrup, crème brulee, with a notion of dried apricot and oyster juice concentrate; long finish 94+ pts. (in cask until 1935, bottled some time earlier than 1989, when more of this wine was bottled for Christie’s auction) (94 pts.)
1863 Barbeito Madeira Boal – Portugal, Madeira Dark, clear brown; soft, sweet tea with chlorine nose; soft, tangy vanilla, a bit one dimensional on the palate with mushroom edges; medium brown sugar finish (89 pts.)
1903 D’Oliveiras Madeira Boal – Portugal, Madeira Murky deep brown color; intriguing rich, deep tea and vanilla nose; barley sugar, dried fig and fruit palate with searing lemony acid; long espresso finish. (95+ pts.)
1907 Blandy Madeira Bual – Portugal, Madeira Soft medium brown color with clarity; tea, espresso and limey acid on nose; great sweet caramel entry with lovely deep acid, a hint of lime, very complex and rich; long lovely finish (95 pts.)
Another one of our super rare examples, from one of the all-time great Madeira producers. Terrantez is a white grape, although there is also a black variety. Terrantez is a particular favorite of Roy’s, and I could see why from this sample. True Terrantez-based Madeiras are known for gaining great complexity with age. I’m glad they’re starting to replant this variety again on the island.
1846 Blandy Madeira Terrantez – Portugal, Madeira Very cloudy muddy brown color; raw brown sugar with mushroom and a bite of chlorine and VA on the nose (and Eric’s “caramelized onion” fit too); nice, integrated palate of raw sugar, caramel and smoke, with good acidity and richness; long smoky finish. (24% alc. according to the label) (95 pts.)
Malmsey is the sweetest main type of Madeira, traditionally made from Malvasia grapes (which was likely the basis of our first three wines in this flight, all pre-dating phylloxera). This white grape is usually grown in the warmest locations at low altitudes on the south coast. Malvasia Candida is the most prominent type of this grape, although other types, including Malvasia Babosa (introduced by Simon Accioli, a Genoese nobleman, in 1515), are also found.
I speculated that Malvasia Babosa might have been the basis of our 1836 Oscar Acciaioly, but Noel Cossart’s book on Madeira indicates that the different types of Malvasia were usually pressed together. Although possessing typically the highest sugar levels of all the grapes used for Madeira, and known for gaining richness and concentration with cask age, they also have strong levels of acidity that enable them, like other top Madeiras, to age for many decades. I enjoyed all of the wines in this flight, but was particularly drawn to the unusual and complex flavors of our 1836 Oscar Acciaioly.
1830 Quinta do Serrado Madeira Malmsey – Portugal, Madeira Light clear reddish brown with good clarity; soft, beckoning brown sugar nose; mature, not likely to evolve much more, nice elegant vanilla, brown sugar, caramel and good acidity; espresso in long finish. (93+ pts.)
1834 Barbeito Madeira Malvazia – Portugal, Madeira Dark brown with good clarity; nose of crème brulee, brown sugar, mock turtle soup and a hint of rosemary; good body, tangy and lovely with hints of beef and herbs; long gravy-like finish. (94 pts.)
1836 Oscar Acciaioly Madeira Special Malmsey Fine Madeira Wine – Portugal, Madeira Medium reddish brown color with good clarity; woodear mushroom, white chocolate and kirsch nose, with hints of spruce and pine and a plastic note; lovely on the palate, concentrated, structured, rich with caramel notes; long finish. (96 pts.)
1900 Barbeito Madeira Malvazia – Portugal, Madeira Cloudy, medium muddy brown color; nose of brown sugar with tomato notes; rich, sweet, brown sugar palate with lime acid and notes of tomato paste, barbecue sauce and sundried tomatoes; very long finish. (94 pts.)
Our final Madeira was labeled with the name of the sweetest grape from which Madeira is typically made, Moscatel, referring to one (or more) of the three Moscatels – de Quintal, de Santa Maria or de Setubal – that used to be grown on the island. Because the Moscatels are valuable as table grapes, very little wine was made from them after 1909. Madeira made from these grapes also typically have the lowest acid level of any Madeira. This one had some unusual flavors, including cocoa powder and sweet potato, and I gathered from Peter that it was not particularly representative of a Madeira Moscatel.
1875 D’Oliveiras Madeira Moscatel Reserva – Portugal, Madeira Murky, cloudy reddish brown color; sweet potato, cocoa powder and VA on the nose; cocoa powder on the palate too, along with dried black fruit, tangy, molasses thick; long finish. (94 pts.)
Post-tasting Dinner wines
We hardly needed more wine after 17 fortified and fascinating samples, but we all brought at least a bottle, nonetheless, to go with our dinner. Below are all the tasting notes I managed to take during dinner, as I was clearly beyond doing much more wine analysis at this point in a long day of tasting. Nonetheless, the ’95 Pégaü Cuvée Laurence was still a great treat that stood out even to my fatigued palate. The excellent food was also welcome after a long full-afternoon of Madeira contemplation.
Kaspar’s Madeira Mania Menu:
* Curley Endive with Grilled Manchego Grape Leave Bundles & Truffle Oil Vinaigrette
* Winter Root Vegetable Barley & King Crab Chowder
* Marlin on Sun-dried Tomato Beluga Lentil Ragoût
* Grilled Boneless Quail in Crispy Potato Crust with Madeira Butter
* Braised Beef Short Ribs with Celery Root & Fingerling Potato Hash
* Warm, Decadent Chocolate Brownie with a Hot Mocha Sundae
Our dinner wines:(tasting notes available here http://www.rjonwine.com/)
1985 Chave Blanc
1989 Jaboulet Les Jumelles Cote Rotie
1990 Gruaud Larose
1993 Forman Cab
1994 Phelps Backus Cab
1995 Les Cailloux
1995 Pegau “Cuvee Laurence”
1996 Hill of Grace Shiraz
2003 Vice Versa Cab
2004 Kistler “Kistler Vineyard” Pinot Noir
1996 Weingut Reichsrat Riesling Eiswein