Article & Photos by Marco DeFreitas © March 2011
It was almost a year ago when I last attended a tasting of Barbeito Madeiras. The Rare Wine Company’s indefatigable president, Mannie Berk, organized an epic event to honor Mario Barbeito, the founder of Vinhos Barbeito, who had died 25 years before.
In collaboration with Ricardo Freitas, Mario’s grandson and the current winemaker and managing director at Vinhos Barbeito, a stellar collection of rare wines were assembled. A number of those were sourced from Mario's personal collection – some drawn from demijohn especially for that event.
Surely such an event could not be repeated? Or so I thought. Almost a year later, Mannie Berk and Ricardo Freitas once again joined forces to honor the 65th anniversary of the founding of Vinhos Barbeito. Once again they went to the well and sourced wines from Barbeito’s family cellar – some were the last remaining drops that existed, carefully drawn from demijohn. But this particular event did not merely look back on Mario and the wines that stocked the birth of his company; it also looked forward to the innovative work currently being done by Ricardo. This was an exploration at what was, is and promises to be.
Looking back, one cannot help but admire the courage and foresight of Mario Barbeito. Starting his professional life as an accountant, he switched gears and took on the challenge of establishing a new wine company during dire economic circumstances. At a time when companies around him were folding, Mario remained resolute in his faith of Madeira’s splendor. To survive, he became an innovator. Living in a society that was intently conservative, traditional and insular, he traveled around the world, created new labels and advertised. He wisely bought up stocks of old and excruciatingly rare wine from families around the island. He had a knack for scouting out treasures – so many that decades later Ricardo would occasionally stumble across a wine he didn’t even know existed, until hearing about it from his mother.
Looking forward, one can see Mario’s passion and spirit of innovation continuing on in the work of his grandson. New labels, such as the Historic Series, are being marketed. New blends such as the Verdelho/Boal “VB” are being produced. Single cask wines are being experimented with. Promotional tastings, such as this one, are being conducted around the globe. But innovation without quality is pointless, and the quality is there, as evidenced by Ricardo recently being named the best fortified winemaker in Portugal. Impressive as that is, it becomes more so when one realizes it is the first such honor bestowed to someone outside the Douro.
This tasting, once again moderated by both Mannie Berk and Ricardo Freitas, was held at the same venue as last year’s event, The Modern in New York City. Located next to the Museum of Modern Art, this stunning restaurant provided an exquisite view of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller sculpture garden. Chef Gabriel Kreuther fashioned a deft multi-course menu which complemented the wines without providing undue distraction. While I enjoyed his creations, I did feel his menu from last year’s event provided a slightly better matchup with the wines. Aside from the low light level of the room, which made color assessment of the wines difficult, the venue was superb.
The evening began with a flute of The Rare Wine Company’s Le Mesnil Champagne. While I admit not focusing on it, I do remember enjoying it as a crisp, clean and pleasant way to kick-start the palate.
This first flight was served without food. It was an interesting flight, offering a glimpse into the various directions that Ricardo is exploring.
Barbeito VB Lot 2 Ricardo reminisced on how people thought he was crazy in producing this Verdelho/Bual combination, as such blends are highly untraditional. The “VB” technically stands for “Vinhos Barbeito” and not “Verdelho-Bual”, as it would be illegal to label it with both varietals – but the acronym does cleverly work both ways. His first attempt (Lot 1) was a 50/50 blend of both varietals. In hindsight, he felt that nothing is really 50/50, that is, it was naïve to craft a wine with the richness of Boal and the lift of Verdelho by merely mixing them equally by volume. He was a bit more measured in his approach with Lot 2, attempting to persuade more of the Verdelho’s high-toned character to come through. This lot was assembled from 610 liters of 2001 Verdelho and 540 liters of 2003 Boal. I recall the first lot as good, but perhaps a bit too young and fruity. Although I am not sure if this blend is older, the fruitiness does seem to be dialed down a bit. The secondary notes of almond paste, honey and spice weave through each other nicely and the acidity is well displayed on the medium length finish. Ricardo pointed out that the Boal in this blend was heated at a lower temperature to coerce better aromatics and brighter acidity. It seemed to work. (90 points)
2001 Barbeito Boal Colheita Casks 48 + 84 Another unusual bottling, as the casks numbers are prominently displayed on the label. While I personally prefer to have this information on the label to ensure consistency in my purchases (such as having disgorgement dates on Champagnes or AP numbers on German QmP wines), I wonder if such information would confuse the average consumer. A light and elegant wine. Slightly reticent on nose. Firm on the palate with dried tropical fruits, wood spice and hazelnuts. A wine that evolved in the glass and slowly grew on me. Quite nice. (89 points)
1995 Barbeito Colheita Cask 23 Canteiro Made from Tinta Negra Mole, a varietal that Ricardo champions and feels is unduly denigrated. High quality grapes from selected vineyards with careful vinification (canteiro, as opposed to estugagem); these are the ingredients that Ricardo described as essential to making great Tinta Negra Mole. While I often get dried fruit notes in Madeira (apricots, oranges or limes), I don’t often get dried red fruits. Here I get something akin to dried cherries. Some toffee and spice suggestions emerge and a very definite sense of “maturity” to this youngster. Ricardo aged this wine in barrels that previously held extremely old wine, which perhaps accounted for this? Fine acidity framed the wine and provided excellent palate cleansing lift. An enjoyable wine with lots of character. This was the first single-vintage Tinta Negra Mole that Ricardo ever created. (91 points)
Barbeito Malvasia 30 Year Old Special Lot I’ve never seen a “30 Year Old” designation on a Madeira before, but if this is representative of the genre, we need more! I’m not sure I recall tasting a Malvasia with so much acidity. While the sweetness was perceptible relative to the previous wines in the flight, by itself this would almost appear dry. Although elegant and filigree by most Malvasia standards, this does not lack authority. Orange, nut skin, figs and spice. Not much torrefaction (coffee, caramel, etc), but loads of thrust. This delivered and an amazing punch and astonishing length. If you’re looking for a dessert wine, look elsewhere; this is a wine to savor by itself. My notes read “80 years or more of age”… I think Ricardo might have mentioned that some of the components used to produce this wine were that old – and since this is blended with some of Mario Barbeito’s special lots, that would seem reasonable. Ricardo created this as an homage to his grandfather, and a fitting tribute it is. (95 points)
This flight was served with oven roasted royal trumpet mushrooms with bouchot mussels, toasted almonds and harissa vinaigrette.
The Rare Wine Company Savannah Verdelho A blend fashioned from wines 12-60 years of age. Delicate, light and somewhat subdued. Dried apricots, cream soda and lemons with an interesting earthiness noted. Good, firm acidity. Ricardo stated that he sampled this from a half bottle recently and it showed quite different. He expects this to improve in the bottle. (87 points)
Barbeito Terrantez Reserve (bottled 1990s) Nut skin, dried citrus and butterscotch. Fine attack; medium weight. This seemed to fall a bit in the middle, but a whiplash of flavors returned and echoed the initial impressions. Not a heavy wine, but pure, elegant and refined. This continued to improve and impress with air. A persistent and pleasingly bitter finish. Some volatile acidity, but not enough to detract. Excellent. (92 points)
1978 Barbeito Sercial A fantastic nose that just screamed of freshly zested citrus fruits. The palate offered up dried fruits, vanilla, crème brulee, hazelnuts and slight volatile acidity. The finish was shockingly dry – Sahara desert dry. While not for everyone, I adored this wine’s complexity, precision, energy and focus. The finish was long and mouth puckering. My kind of Sercial. Yum. (94 points)
The Rare Wine Company Benjamin Franklin Special Reserve The official debut of this blend – the first time anyone, other than Mannie or Ricardo, was given the opportunity to sample it. Much like the New Orleans Special Reserve, this wine was bottled to support a charity – this time around in Philadelphia, thus the portrait of Madeira-loving Benjamin Franklin on the label. Mannie recounted an anecdote in which Benjamin Franklin reportedly wished to be entombed in a cask of Madeira so as to be eventually revived in the future; a tribute to Madeira’s preservative and curative properties, I assume. Crafted to have a Bual-like profile (~30 % Bual), this showed quite well, exhibiting a profile of nuts, toffee, dates and baking spices. This firmed up on the finish showing poise, balance and elegance – words I keep finding myself using when describing the wines of Ricardo Freitas. Lovely stuff. (92 points)
This flight was served with five flavor dusted arctic char with spaghetti squash and sugar cane sauce.
1957 Barbeito Bual “Jardin do Sol” A Barbeito family reserve wine. Sourced from a vineyard belonging to Mario Barbeito, which unfortunately no longer exists. Bottled in 1993. This was an intriguing wine which at first seemed too light and almost watery. Once it settles on the palate, however, it blossoms with citrus peel, vanilla bean and cinnamon. Deceptive length for a wine that seems almost weightless. (92 points)
1915 Barbeito Bual A Barbeito family reserve wine, drawn from demijohn for this event. Even with the poor lighting in the room, one can discern the darker color relative to its peers in this flight. Here we have some darker flavors of treacle and fruitcake. Good, but not high, acids. Medium length. A real treat to taste this rarity. (91 points)
1870 Barbeito Bual Sourced from the Vasconcelos family. A wine uncovered by Ricardo. Sweet, rustic, but quite enjoyable. A hint of heat, but not off-putting. Ricardo was of the opinion that this wine was fortified with sugar cane rum, and a rum-like nuance is indeed detectable. A wild, untamed, unique wine. (92 points)
1863 Barbeito Bual A Barbeito family reserve wine. Here we have some torrefaction flavors: caramel, cocoa powder, coffee, molasses – yet there is an uplifting citrus streak that keeps this electric. This exhibits a strong influence of oak aging (via its concentration, not oak flavors), yet this is harmonious and balanced. Stubborn palate adhesion. Fantastic. (95 points)
This flight was served with apple strudel and prune Armagnac ice cream.
1926 Barbeito Malvasia Sourced from the Vasconcelos family. A luscious, savory wine; sweet and brothy with a solid spine which frames the richness. Some Christmas spices on the finish. Intense and lengthy. (93 points)
1920 Barbeito Malvasia Sourced from the Favilla Viera family from vineyards in Sao Martinho. Perceptible sweetness yet relatively dry for a Malvasia. Chestnuts, walnuts, caramel and fruitcake. I last tasted this wine in 1999, as an earlier bottling. One would think that the extra years in cask for this newer bottling would sweeten this wine through evaporation. But if my memory serves, this seems more dry, nervy and edgy than the previous bottling; perhaps my memory is off? Regardless, this wine remains a wonderfully balanced, lengthy and extremely satisfying Madeira. Fantastic. (94 points)
1893 Barbeito Malvasia A Barbeito family reserve wine, drawn from demijohn. A deceptive wine in that at first it seemed soft, velvety, and round, however, the acidity asserts itself on the lip-smackingly delicious finish. Once again, the sweetness is perceptible, but this is not heavy in the least. There is a cool elegance about this wine and it is marked by refinement and grace. (92 points)
1886 Barbeito Malvasia Sourced from the Afonso family in Cama do Lobos. I remember this wine being sold in 2005 with a sibling bottling from the 1885 vintage. They were both bottled in 2002; the 1886 was bottled from demijohn while the 1885 was still in cask. I often thought that a side by side tasting of these two vintages would someday make for an educational comparison of glass vs wood. For being in demijohn, this wine did not lack for concentration. Bittersweet cocoa powder, butterscotch and burnt sugar. Weighty and tangy on the palate yet ethereal and weightless on the finish. A beautiful wine that really invites another sip. (94 points)
This flight was served with various artisanal cheeses.
1950 Barbeito Terrantez Fajã dos Padres A Rodrigues family wine, sourced from the famed Fajã dos Padres vineyard. Lovely wine, with fine, expressive aromatics. Dried apricots, nut skin, citrus peel and hints of spice. This overwhelms the mouth with fine intensity; lingers persistently on the well-coated palate. This has energy, lift and definite “old-wine” character for such a relatively young wine. Magnificent. (95 points)
1837 Barbeito Terrantez A Barbeito family reserve wine, in bottle. For being so old, there was a surprising amount of youthfulness to it. There were fresh (rather than dried) fruit flavors, sandalwood, and burnt sugar. I loved the combination of young fruit flavors swirling with the slightly torrefacted notes of caramel and cardamom. Complex, balanced, layered, vigorous and long. A substantial, yet filigreed wine. Superb stuff. (96 points)
I found it curious how many times I found myself thinking about “refinement”, “elegance”, “weightlessness” and “purity” as I tasted through this set of wines. There seems to certain style that this house is aiming for, in particular with the newer wines that Ricardo is personally responsible for. The promotional literature for this event quoted Jancis Robinson in calling these wines “The Lafite of Madeira”, and I can see what she might be getting at. While I certainly enjoy a Latour-like Madeira (D’Oliveira’s wines come to mind), I applaud the work that Ricardo is doing and embrace the diversity of styles we have to chose from. Life would be boring with only one first growth.