Article & Photos by Marco DeFreitas © May 2011
Roy’s Note: The following Guest Corner column was written by Marco DeFreitas who is a Madeira lover with family ties to the island itself. Marco has attended Madeira events near and far and several years ago joined us on our tour to visit Madeira as well as Porto and the Douro. Marco’s keen sense of the full range of grapes and styles of Madeira and his innate knack for reading the attributes of specific bottlings, enable him to captivate readers attention with insightful portrayals of the events he attends. FTLOP is fortunate to have another one of Mr. DeFreitas’ brilliant works on Madeira.
The year 1811 is often remembered as the year of “The Great Comet”, whose dazzling tail was visible by the naked eye for approximately 260 days – a record only recently eclipsed by Hale Bopp in 1997. To wine historians, however, it is also the year that a young John Blandy established one of the most important and enduring family-run Madeira enterprises.
The date and circumstance of John Blandy’s arrival in Madeira was never definitively documented. It was originally believed his arrival was in 1807, as part of a British force sent to protect the island against Napoleonic aggression. It was not until 2006 that the truth was finally revealed. Mannie Berk, one of the world’s great authorities on Madeira, uncovered a letter of introduction to Madeira wine merchants Newton, Gordon, Murdoch & Scott. It mentioned the ill health of John as reason for his voyage to Madeira and requested assistance in obtaining him employment. Dated 23 December 1807, his arrival would have been in 1808 and in just three years time he would have established his eponymous venture – a family business that celebrates its 200th anniversary this year.
Two hundred years of family ownership is impressive, even more so when one considers the events of the last two centuries: the financial upheavals, family disputes, famines, two world wars, the near decimation of the Madeira wine trade by the dual scourges of oidium and phylloxera and a Portuguese revolution. Circumstances were so dire during the 1974 revolution that John Reeder Blandy had his suitcases packed and ready to go in preparation for a worse-case scenario. But the Blandys are not merely wine merchants. Their interests over the years have included banking, servicing ships, running a travel agency, newspapers, flour mills and hotels. They owned the famous Reid’s hotel in Funchal before selling it in 1996. In 2010 they opened the Inspira Santa Marta hotel in Lisbon, with another scheduled to be opened in Oporto in 2012. Such diverse commercial interests might well explain the longevity of the Blandy’s.
Although today their wine enterprise is technically under the umbrella of the Madeira Wine Company (formerly known as the Madeira Wine Association until it changed its name in 1981), Blandy’s is certainly the most important and famous brand therein.
The Madeira Wine Company is represented by the various families whose businesses were absorbed over the years, but the Blandys became the principal shareholders after they bought out the Leacock family shares. The hard times that ensued after the Portuguese revolution of 1974 were complicated by the disputes between Blandys and the Leacocks – the Blandys wanted to invest and further develop the business during the crisis while the Leacocks were opposed. With the Blandys now firmly in charge, the company obtained the resources necessary to eventually steer the ship from the looming precipice.
But times were still uncertain in the 1980s. Portugal’s entry into the European Union demanded further investment. The Blandys approached another family-owned wine firm – the Symingtons, who own various port operations along the Douro. The Symingtons eventually became shareholders in 1988. In Alex Liddell’s book “Madeira”, Richard Blandy is quoted as saying: “There is an identity of interests between us: we are both family firms; we have the same outlook on life and the same way of doing business; and we are both in very similar businesses. In addition, the Symingtons were able to provide the MWC with considerable wine expertise and a wider distribution network than we already had”.
Many share holders took this opportunity to sell their shares to the Symingtons, who today hold a controlling stake – however, the company is definitely run as a partnership. Being the last remaining family owners from the original Madeira Wine Association, the Blandys are very much involved in its operation. Michael Blandy is the current chairman after succeeding his brother Richard in 2001. In addition, the young Christopher Blandy has also started to take a more active role in the company, ensuring a continued family presence for years to come.
To celebrate this 200th anniversary of Blandy’s family ownership, a commemorative tasting of Blandy’s Madeiras were organized at four locations: San Francisco, New York, London and Madeira. Thanks to Roy, for whom I am very much indebted to, I was able to attend the New York event and document my impressions. With some of these rare gems down to only a few remaining bottles within the company inventory, one would not expect to see another tasting of this caliber for perhaps another hundred years.
Michael and Christopher Blandy, Rupert Symington and winemaker Francisco Albuquerque (who is a three time “Fortified Wine Maker of the Year”) were on hand to host, provide commentary and answer questions throughout the event.
All the bottles were opened approximately a month beforehand. The tasting progressed from the youngest to oldest bottlings. Grape varieties and styles shifted along the way, making this a bit challenging for me as I usually taste Madeiras segregated by sweetness levels: dry to sweet. A tasting booklet was provided which provided commentary on each wine; these have been included below, in italics.
1994 Malmsey Colheita 1994 was one of the best years of the decade in terms of quality. Due to the warm and dry weather over the summer months, the harvest had an early start. Yields were very good and the quality level of Malmsey outstanding. There has been two bottlings of this wine. The first Colheita, bottled in 2000 as the Blandy’s Harvest 1994. The remaining casks continued to age in the warm lofts of the Lodges in Funchal. In 2010, a further single cask was bottled and this is the wine we taste today. Only 2,832 bottles of the single cask were released.
This wine provided a terrific start to the tasting. Light tawny in color with very little lightening on the rim; some orange glints. A slight harshness on the nose. Flavors of almond paste, crème brûlée, and orange peel cascade on the palate. Excellent mouthfeel. Quite sweet and rich, with medium levels of acidity and very good length. Nice lifted citrus zest notes. Lovely sensation of freshness on the back end. 90 points
1985 Malmsey Matured in 650 liters seasoned American oak casks at the Blandy’s Wine Lodge for 24 years. A small year, producing delicate wines with citrus tones. Only two casks were bottled, producing 1,420 bottles.
Light tawny in color, similar to the 1994. Very rich with a clean sweetness about it. Loads of orange peel, dried fruits and caramel. The balance is admirable. For a medium weight wine, this shows good authority, grip and length. Superb showing for such a relative youngster. 92 points
1976 Terrantez Terrantez is a rare grape variety, originally from the Dão region, where it is also known as Folgasão. In Noël Cossart’s book – Madeira, The Island Vineyard – he refers to this grape variety as “… unprolific and prone to diseases (…) The wines have therefore always been rare and considered a delicacy. “. He also identifies the potential vintages the Company was aging in wood, in which this Terrantez was included. “I was very pleased to see stocks of this splendid variety building up. (…)” – he writes. This wine aged for 26 years in the warm lofts of the Blandy’s Wine Lodges in 1000 liters seasoned American oak casks.
Quite a step up in color, with a darker tawny center and a garnet rim. The nose was a bit reticent, but the palate was expressive. Classic nut skin flavors with medium sweetness and acids. Quite fruity, with apricots and peaches. Hint of almonds on the slightly warm finish. A lovely wine. 92 points
1966 Sercial Produced during the Graham Blandy’s management of the family firm. Bottled in 2004, this Sercial aged for 28 years in seasoned American oak casks at the Blandy’s Wine Lodges.
A fantastic wine that showcased a slightly racier character than a bottle I sampled about two months ago. I thought I detected a hint of bottle stink at first, but this dissipated. Nutty, dry and bracing; wonderful length. It was tough to transition from a sweeter wine to this one, but the fact that this wine held its own speaks volumes. Dried fruits and a piercing squirt of lemony zest. Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea due to its dryness, but this is my style of mouth watering Sercial. Wonderful.
1954 Bastardo Bastardo is a rare grape variety. Can also be known as Bastardinho. In Noël Cossart’s book, he refers to this vintage as “Generally very fine wine, Bual, Malmsey and Bastardo Especially Good”, and that the Bastardo grapes are “shy bearers and vulnerable to pests, so were allowed to languish after phylloxera. ”This rare vintage Bastardo has aged for 40 years in seasoned American oak casks at the Blandy’s Wine lodges. The last Bastardo Vintage in the Company private collection.
Extremely dark in color, one of the darkest in the tasting, with a glint of green on the rim. Quite perfumed, with pecan pie, burnt sugar and pralines. Substantial richness with good, but not grand, acidity. A medium length finish with tangy sweetness that reminds me a bit of a middleweight Malmsey. Bastardo, in general, can be an acquired taste, but this one is quite successful. 92 points
1954 Malmsey Noël Cossart refers to this vintage as “Generally very fine wine, Bual, Malmsey and Bastardo Especially Good”, writing he was convinced that, “… in time, they will rival the great Malmsey vintages of 1808 and 1880.” Having been bottled in 1975, only a few remaining bottles remain in the company private collection.
Darkish tawny in color with greenish tinge on the rim. Interesting floral aromas – like a women’s perfume. Complicating flavors of tea, toffee and cocoa powder. Rich, luscious, concentrated and palate enveloping. The sweetness is countered by pleasing tea leaf bitterness. Ample breadth and length; a generous, giving and persistent wine. 94 points
1950 Sercial “Generally very fine, Sercial especially.” is how Noël Cossart defines this vintage from the precipitously steep southwest facing vineyards of Jardim da Serra, where the best Sercial on the island comes from.
This was relatively light in color with exquisite dried floral, honey and tea flavors. Extremely lively acidity with a zesty lemon/lime bite. The vise-like grip was long and forceful; continues to linger long after it was spit out. I was shaking my head in astonishment at how good the Sercials were showing at this tasting – especially since they were interspersed between sweeter wines. This is an outstanding example of the varietal. 95 points
1948 Bual The 1948 vintage was generally considered very good, especially for Bual and Terrantez. This vintage was bottled in the first year Madeira resumed exporting wine.
World War II created a shortage of fortifying brandy which prevented the vinification of Madeira; this was one of the first wines made after the conflict. Medium tawny in color with a greenish rim. Concentrated, rich and loaded with fruitcake, spice and walnuts. Good balance, energy and lift. Extremely appealing… Excellent Bual. 93 points
1920 Bual This is an exceptional vintage for Bual. At the time referred to “…the finest the century has produced…”.
Epic wines announce themselves the moment they touch your tongue, so it was with this beauty – completely overwhelming me on contact. Medium tawny with light green glints on the rim. Fabulous impact on entry with an intensive mouthfilling texture; coats the mouth, teeth, gums, everything it touches, yet this retains superb lift and cut. Quite fragrant and flavorful with honey cake, molasses, tea and citrus. Ridiculous length. This brought back fond memories of the 1920 Cossart Gordon Bual which I thought was just as profound; being both Madeira Wine Company brands, could they be the same wine? 99 points
1910 Sercial “All wines excellent, especially Sercial, Bual and Verdelho.”, “…it would be hard to find modern Sercials with such superb character and elegance.” says Noël Cossart. Having spent 74 years aging in seasoned American oak casks, the freshness of this wine is remarkable. First bottled in 1984, recorked in 2003.
The 1920 Bual was a tough act to follow, especially for a dry Sercial, but this wine was equal to the task. Very elegant, high toned, and precise. Scents of antique wood, tanned leather and tea. Energetic, long and bone dry. Pressed dried flowers, pleasingly bitter tea leaf and wood spices linger on the finish. The Sercials continue their superb showing at this tasting. Lots of “wood” flavor components, without being overtly “woody”, if that makes any sense. Top notch. 94 points
1899 Terrantez Post phylloxera, this wine was harvested right before the end of the XXth century. There are no written records of this vintage. This Terrantez started aging under the management of John Burden Blandy. This vintage matured for 22 years in seasoned American oak casks, having been re-bottled in 1986.
The infamous 1899 vintage, for which only Terrantez seems to have been made. I questioned winemaker Francisco Albuquerque about this oddity and his thoughts about the possibility that all the 1899 Terrantez bottlings might have originated from the same source (as another noted Madeira expert had speculated to me in the past). Alas, Francisco could not conjecture about the vintage due to the lack of records. This wine was extremely dark, almost a mahogany center, with a light green rim. Quite sweet for a Terrantez. Caramel cream, molasses and almonds. Very concentrated, lush and punchy, with excellent persistence. Balancing acidity keeps the richness in check. This reminded quite a bit of the 1899 Welsh Terrantez (another Madeira Wine Company bottling), with its sweeter and richer texture than one would expect from Terrantez. Atypical perhaps, but delicious and balanced. A winner in my book. 93 points
1870 Terrantez John Burden Blandy returns to Madeira from South Africa to take over the family business from his father, Charles Ridpath Blandy. Henry Vizetelly writes in his accounts on Madeira, where he mentions “This wine has aged for 51 years in American oak casks in the wine lodges and it was bottled for the first time in 1921…” Re-bottled in 1986. This wine is pre-phylloxera.
Dark in color and a bit cloudy. Some musty bottle stink, slightly lactic and bitter. This wasn’t a bad wine, but I couldn’t help thinking my sample was unrepresentative – as others were raving about the wine. There was more than one bottle opened, so perhaps I had an off bottle, or maybe it was my glassware? I need to revisit this (… right, as if that will ever happen...) Not Rated
1863 Bual “Small, generally fine wine, especially Malmsey and Bual from Cama de Lobos”, “…a magnificent specimen of a true Bual from Campanário…” “It was a small harvest, but it was an excellent year for Malmsey and Boal, the grapes that make the sweeter wine styles from around Cama (now Câmara) the Lobos on the south side of the island.” – Charles Ridpath Blandy. Although small, the quality of the harvest was so good that Charles Blandy requested some of the barrels to be kept aside for his private collection. Pre-phylloxera, this wine was aged for 50 years in seasoned American oak casks in the adegas de São Francisco in Funchal, and re-bottled in 1986. Only a few bottles remain in the company’s private collection.
An embarrassment of riches. This darkly colored wine offered a distilled concentration of fruitcake, baking spices, caramel, crème brûlée and walnut skins. Monumental intensity and a finish that never quite does. You can revisit the flavors minutes after sampling by merely licking your gums. A meal in a glass. Profound. 98 points
1822 Verdelho In his book – Madeira, The Island Vineyard – considered to be the reference in term of Madeira wine books, Noël Cossart describes the vintage as “Generally Excellent”. Blandy's Grabham Verdelho 1822 was part of the Grabham collection. Matured for 78 years in seasoned American oak casks, this wine was rebottled in 1986. Only a few bottles remain.
Medium dark tawny/cola in color with a tan/green edge. A bit spirity, but in a surprisingly pleasing way – like a complex cognac. Rupert Symington mentioned Calvados, which I thought was spot on, after which I immediately registered dried apple and spice notes. Dense, flavorful and mouthwatering. Authoritative acidity and tenacious length. Superb. 97 points
1811 Bual Solera This Solera has been founded to commemorate the establishment of Blandy's Madeira, and initially contained vintages dating back to 1788. The 1811 Bual Solera was matured in seasoned American oak casks for 89 years, having been re-bottled in 1986.
According to a Michael Broadbent note, this was blended in 1961 (perhaps to commemorate Blandy's 150th anniversary?). An interesting orange/amber/gold/reddish color, with a relatively wide band of greenish tints on the edge. Lively high notes of citrus/floral perfume, apricots and tea, combined with solid bass notes of tanned leather and loamy earth. For such an old wine, the orange-like color and fresh fruit flavors (rather than dried fruits) threw me for a loop. A complete Madeira with extroverted aromatics, complex flavors, admirable concentration, precise acids, youthful vigor and fantastic length. Wow, a true privilege to taste this profound Madeira. 98 points
I do not believe I have ever been to a Madeira tasting – or for that matter any wine tasting – where the quality level was so consistently high. Disregarding the 1870 Terrantez, which I felt was unrepresentative in my glass, an average score of about 94 points across the entire tasting, which included some relatively young wines, is astonishingly impressive.
I left this event associating Blandy’s Madeiras with richness, density and concentration. There was perhaps a bit more sweetness on some wines than I would have expected, but the abundant weight and lushness was expertly balanced by the framing acids. As I rode the train back home, I fantasized about purchasing just about every Madeira tasted that night... if only I could afford to.
A memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experience – much like “The Great Comet” of 1811