This may sound crazy to some of you, but others will certainly understand if not applaud. There are a few traditional grape varieties that are venerable Madeira warriors, which are now all but extinct. Nothing against Moscatel and Bastardo, but my favorite Madeira grape is Terrantez, bar none. Many of the greatest bottlings I have tasted came from this ancient noble variety. Sadly, there is very little of it left on the island. I am not talking about old bottles of Terrantez; I am pining over the white grapes themselves. So given the opportunity to lobby a few of the Madeira shippers, I asked every single winemaker and owner I came in contact with: ‘why isn’t more being done to save Terrantez?’
From what I was told by the shippers, there are only 500 kilos (for Americans that translates to a total of 1100 pounds) of Terrantez grapes harvested on the entire island today. Without the continuance of these grapes in the islands’ vineyards, the entire species (which was introduced around the end of the 17th century) may also wind up on the list of extinct indigenous grapes. Unfortunately, what I heard from those who actually sympathized and shared in my “cause” was not very encouraging.
Some folks squarely put the blame on the shoulders of the governmental regulatory group, the Madeira Wine Institute. Fair enough, given that the IVM is responsible for -- what, where and how much grapes and/or vines get planted. I reckoned that an American journalist was not going to have much impact, especially given that I was not going to have time to meet with the IVM. But it was unacceptable just to let this topic die quietly, (which I contemplated often) while I was walking amongst the vineyards. So close, yet so far!
By the end of my visit, even I was tired of hearing myself press on about the mistake that was being made by allowing Terrantez to disappear from Madeira’s horizon. A few key individuals were very open minded about this discussion and willing to cut to the chase. I appreciated their candor. Certainly not all of the causation for the demise of Terrantez, can be laid at the feet of those in charge of the Madeira Wine Institute.
First of all, Terrantez is a tough grape due to its very thin skin which is quite susceptible to rot and Oidium (a powdery mildew). Given the heat and humidity which is a constant on this sub-tropical island, it is not easy to avoid Oidium. In fact, the Terrantez grape like many other varieties suffered the double whammy of a massive Oidium outbreak in 1852, followed by the even worse root louse epidemic that arrived on the island in 1872, known as Phylloxera. The majority of Terrantez vines, like much of the Madeira trade itself, seemed to be completely devastated by this one – two combination punch.
The trade recovered decades later, but most unfortunately, Terrantez never really did. There was a period of time where Terrantez was actually believed to be extinct … and it practically was! It reappeared in the early to mid-1950s. As an aside: recently, Mannie Berk of the Rare Wine Co. (and his European counterpart, Madeira specialist Patrick Grubb, MW) learned of a half dozen bottles or so, of 1950 Fajã dos Padres Vineyard Terrantez that was released by the Fernandes family that owned the vineyard. It is gorgeous juice and coming from one of the greatest vineyard sites on earth, this nectar was simply, ethereal and unique. But I digress!
Due to the ease at which it spoils, most growers have not wanted to replant Terrantez in their vineyards. It is very costly to do so, as well as heart and wallet breaking when attempts fail. The island also has a unique network of irrigation channels known as Levadas, which stretch across more than 2000 kilometers, and the evaporation does not help the problem. It actually raises the cost of cultivation which is already extremely high for Terrantez. Another cost which makes Terrantez impractical from a financial sense is that without a winter season, the modest temperatures create the need (and an extra expense) to spray to prevent mildew and Oidium all year round. The same lack of winter results in vines that never get a chance to fully shut down and take a break. Combined, these issues further exacerbate the dismal situation.
If that was not enough, another significant issue with Terrantez, is that it is such a low yielding grape that it makes it economically infeasible to continue with. Henriques & Henriques own the largest quantity of Terrantez vines on the island, which only amounts to 600 - 700 vines. In 2002 or 2003 there was only something like 180 liters of Terrantez Madeira produced on the entire island.
I wish I had answers and welcome any viticultural experts or those familiar with the plight of the Terrantez grape to add their comments here.