The Great New York Madeira Tasting

It was the dead of winter and after months of planning; the big night finally arrived in New York City. The scene was set, as was the table at TRIOMPHE RESTAURANT, in the city’s theater district. Fifteen of us came from around the country to share in some magnificent examples of old and ultra-rare Madeira, just two weeks after the Madeira Road Show kicked off in Seattle, WA. For all of us near and far that came together, many having just met for the very first time, this would be an evening of profligacy that none of us would soon forget.

My friend Chris Wilford who had been the Sommelier at Triomphe and consults for a number of other top restaurants around the city, (he is now a wine salesman too) helped me in conveying the details for an event that was to take place 3,000 miles away and reserving the swank private room in this fine dining establishment. Without Chris’ help, there is no way that this Madeira party would have seemed as close to perfection as it was.

I had only dined at Triomphe on one previous occasion and was enamored with the simple elegance of their private room, as well as Executive Chef Steven Zobel’s culinary talent. The set up required a spacious room in which we could have a large enough square table to not only comfortably seat four on each side, but allow for lots of stemware and easy dialogue between all participants. This refined room, replete with dark wooden beams was adorned with tasteful wall sconces and stylish, yet understated artwork. It felt cozy and warm without being snug and the beautiful hardwood bar area provided the extra room we needed to stage our bottles and decanters of Madeira and dinner wines.

We started off with a round-the-table introduction and learned that only 1/3 of the participants were actually residents of NY/LI. I then had the pleasure to present our Guest of Honor, the Maven of Madeira … Mannie Berk, proprietor of The Rare Wine Company ( Although I would provide some color commentary during the Madeira tasting, (more like a seminar) it was the soft spoken, confident Mr. Berk that shared the real pearls.

For those that don’t know him, Mannie is personally responsible for spearheading Madeira’s renaissance in the USA over the past two decades (RWC 1989). His participation in this event was significant when I originally began planning the Madeira Road Show series. Just about all of the best private Madeira tastings I have attended in the USA have included Mr. Berk, the scholarly historian, collector and passionate purveyor of the island’s nectar. One of these days I will be fortunate enough to simultaneously introduce Peter Reutter and Mannie Berk, while we hold another one of these educational and ‘not-for-profit’ Madeira events. (Dr. Peter Reutter from Germany is known for his great website and was the Guest of honor at the recent Seattle tasting).

It might seem incredibly tedious to some, considering that we spent nearly five hours tasting, writing notes and discussing each and every one of the fourteen ancient beauties that were shared. Nonetheless, when you have eight bottles from the 19th century and multiple bottlings from each of the four predominant noble Madeira grapes, not to mention a pair of rare Terrantez … there is really no good reason to rush. Dinner and the wines we brought to accompany each course were almost an afterthought. Well not actually, but eating was the last thing on my mind until my glasses were slowly but surely completed.

Kudos goes to Exec Chef Steven for adroitly executing a scintillating menu and the practically invisible and seamless service that we received from the skilled Triomphe staff. More details to follow and then, on to the Madeira!


1. Chris Wilford – NYC (Muito obrigado!)
2. Jim Silverman – Pittsburgh, PA
3. Christopher Klingenstein – Hart Davis Hart Wine Co., Chicago, IL
4. Jonathan Reed – Philadelphia, PA
5. Kevin Mendik – Waban, MA
6. Craig Ganzer – Zachy’s, NY
7. Madeline Celletti – Boston, MA
8. Daniel Tisch – NYC
9. Marco DeFreitas – near New Haven, CT
10. Doug Kardash – previously with K & L
11. Pey-Wen Ting – NJ
12. Frank DeSalvo – LI, NY
13. Mannie Berk – The Rare Wine Company
14. Jerry Nissenbaum – Boston, MA
15. Roy Hersh – Sammamish, WA

1852 Naval Reserve Sercial Vintage Madeira – Although this was not the best bottle of the night, it certainly was going to be the most unique. I bought this from a family on LI where it had sat for 3 decades, after the father had been gifted a few bottles by a wealthy wine collector whom he had done a favor for. The bottle was wrapped in its original brown paper and with the label still intact which showed the vintage as 1852 and also read: “Selected by General Sherman on his visit at Madeira, 1871.” It had clearly been recorked at some point in its journey. There were three bottles in all and two were labeled as Sercial, this one was just “believed to be” Sercial. In NYC even after 5 days of decanting and washing the inside of the Naval Reserve bottle to the best of my ability, transferring the wine back into the bottle was probably not the best idea, without having cheesecloth with me. General Sherman must have kept that bottle in a darn foxhole or something the way the sedimentary innards peeled off the sides of the bottle. Therefore there was a slight bit of dregs in the wine, which we all got a tiny share of. Most likely the production of Blandy’s and it apparently saw minimal time in cask. Coincidentally, this was from the same year as the Oidium outbreak on the island. The history of this bottle was not to be lost on the group, as when I originally spoke to Mannie Berk about these bottles, he noted (and repeated for us at the tasting) that it was ironic that General Sherman had actually been the cause for lots of Madeira being destroyed throughout his devastation of the South during the US Civil War.

From my viewpoint, mentioned at the time ... this bottle of Naval Reserve, which was "believed to be Sercial" but not labeled with a varietal name, was profoundly like a Verdelho. It certainly could have been a Sercial though, as it continued to become more concentrated in the bottle.

The wine possessed a light maple syrup color and an orange hue with a distinctive green edge. The searing acidity seemed to meld over the course of the evening and this light bodied nectar offered up pecan, marmalade, pipe tobacco and pine resin aromas which were ethereal. Add to that a mélange of caramel, nectarine, black tea and just a perfect amount of VA for me which lent elegance to the delicate flavors here. As the night wore on, this wine mellowed into a beautiful and seamlessly lithe Verdelho. I had no idea of what to expect when opening this bottle and was very pleasantly surprised by its fine and lively showing. 94 points (1-20-07)

1898 Barbeito Sercial Vintage Madeira – A brick orangeish color fading to a light tawny hue with a yellow rim. Scents of prominent VA, grapefruit, mahogany and spice combine to provide disparate fragrances, yet deficient of any real charm as they don’t quite seem to work in unison. The palate lacks verve, with slightly underwhelming levels of acidity and a shorter finish than I typically enjoy from more interesting Sercial bottlings. This medium-bodied Barbeito presented lime zest and appealing dried date flavors, with a praline influenced aftertaste and velvety mouth pleasing texture which was the best part of this bottling. It paled in comparison to the 1852 Naval Reserve Sercial that preceded it, yet it was still attractive in its own right. I liked the bottle we had in Seattle a couple of weeks ago, slightly more than this one. 89 points (1-20-07)

1850 D’Oliveiras Verdelho Vintage Madeira – There is still some of this Verdelho in cask today at D’Oliveiras and it is their oldest Madeira still in wood. Dark amber with a negligible amount of ruby in the center and a greenish yellow rim. A rather sweet and intricate nose contributes a hint of beef bouillon, torch scorched caramel, cedar and marzipan notes which were amazing and ever changing in the glass. The medium body of this wine led to a very finely focused Verdelho with zippy acidity and enough VA to keep me happy; both of which countered the elegant flavors of nectarine, crème Anglais and a toasty almond flavor that seemed off-dry on the clean and admirable aftertaste. A very fine Verdelho and one that I would love to own. I remember this fondly from my last sips of it a few weeks ago in Seattle. This is truly a great Verdelho that is like a laser guided missilem zeroed in on the palate. 97 points (1-20-07)

1902 Barbeito Verdelho “Pico dos Barcelos” Vintage Madeira – From an inland vineyard in a mountainous region comes this impeccably concentrated Verdelho. Dark cola color with a yellowish-orange hue on the meniscus. This was my first time trying this wonderful Barbeito bottling and it really stood out as one of the finest Madeiras of the NYC tasting, which is saying a lot. I believe it was Marco DeFreitas who mentioned that this was the wine served at Ricardo DeFreitas’ mother’s wedding. The latter gentleman is the current Managing Director of the family’s operation and the grandson of the Barbeitos founder. I recently spent a wonderful day with Ricardo during the 2007 Fortification Tour. Expansive fragrances of coffee, orange peel, toffee and prominent notes of vanilla extract come to the fore along with a gentle wave of VA that added the extra oomph that I love. The palate is supported by some of the most intense, edgy and well defined acidity, I’ve experienced in any Madeira. Wow! A compendium of flavors such as dried peaches, a Cointreau inspired essence along with tasty roasted flavors and a cedar backdrop, made for an exhilarating swallow. What a potent combo with an unreal persistent finish that faded into a lush butterscotch aftertaste. It simply lingered for minutes at a time. If you are not sure if Verdelho is a style you’d like, this sensational example would quickly help you make up your mind! 98 points (1-20-07)

1905 D’Oliveiras Verdelho Vintage Madeira – Dark coffee color with a golden-orange meniscus. The smoky balsamic and roasted chestnut notes along with honey, molasses, and dried figs; swirled and changed in the glass to provide a duality of sweet and saltiness in this moving-target-of-a-bouquet. Double blind I’d have guessed Boal from the level of residual sugar it delivered. Medium-bodied initially, it put on weight over the nearly five hours it was in my glass. I really enjoyed the mix of pralines, orange liqueur and dates that were very tasty but could not keep in step with the two preceding Verdelho bottlings. Nevertheless, this wine was more about the texture, as it was not only smooth to swallow but akin to intricately woven silk in the mouth, similar to what great Burgs can deliver. It got even better as the night wore on and my score reflects my impressions as this continued to show more focus and greater depth of flavors. Maybe it was not decanted long enough before our NYC tasting? I’m glad to have some in the cellar. 95 points (1-20-07)

Our first flight was filled with four (of five) gorgeous examples of the drier spectrum of Madeira. It made for a sensational and inspirational beginning of a night to remember.

Flight 2

1903 D’Oliveiras Bual Vintage Madeira – Dark coffee color with greenish tinge on the rim. An insane nose of apricot, saline, orange blossom, aniseed and plenty of beef bouillon with a measure of VA tossed into the mix to add complexity to the aromatic profile. All I could picture was this bottle and sharing body shots with Scarlett Johansson as this sensuous middle weight nectar slid down so effortlessly. This Bual is actually lighter than it portrays after a few sips and defines near perfect symmetry, as the mouthwatering attack of acidity came in waves to balance the onslaught that took place in my mouth. The D’Oliveiras delivered honey, thick orange marmalade, dried figs and sublime sea saltiness to provide the full range of palate pleasure while the lengthy finish led to a slightly warming butterscotch imbued afterburner. Extraordinarily youthful presence, this is a “must have” Madeira in the cellar. It was fun to compare it to the surreal 1908 Bual that followed, while this bottle showed slightly better than the one we had in Seattle 2 weeks earlier. 97+ points (1-20-07)

1908 D’Oliveiras Bual Vintage Madeira – Extremely dark chocolate color with a yellowish-amber rim, slightly cloudy and by far the darkest of the flight. A mélange of smoky notes, molasses, brown sugar, clove and figs rounds out the scents in this scintillating D’Oliveiras. Although I absolutely loved the finesse and decadence of the 1903 Bual that came before it, this was more opulent and viscous and appealed to my occasional craving for pure unctuous and sweet Madeira. The 1908 had a crazy, complex mid-palate that was like a kaleidoscope of ever changing flavors with stunning purity. Powerful and with great delineation and a solid spine of acidity, it is hard not to love the vanilla extract imbued bread pudding with a crust akin to crème brulee, which served to win me over. The seductive and harmonious mouth coating aftertaste of golden raisins and figs can be summed up in one word, wow! I wish my friend Eric LeVine had been here, so I could have heard him exclaim, “oh my god” as he tends to do with hedonistic wines of this ilk. 98+ points (1-20-07)

1832 Acciaioly Terrantez Vintage Madeira – Dark amber with a light bricking, yellowish edge and a bit cloudy. If I remember correctly this bottle was only decanted just a couple of hours in advance and would have shown better had it seen more air-time. Initially it possessed a medicinal edge which dissipated while in glass, then showed a minty/eucalyptus and apricot scent that was quite different for a Terrantez. It delivered a medium body and was almost overly acidic, slightly simple and with a mildly bitter edge within the mid-palate. Espresso bean, clove, tobacco leaf, and quite herbal on the palate with plenty of acidity and a touch too much heat, Originally bottled in the 1920s, then rebottled 20 years ago and put in demijons. It was racked into bottles after aeration and sold at Christie’s in 1989. This bottle clearly suffered from being served after the brighter fruit of the big Boals that came before it and its short decanting regimen. 91 points (1-20-07)

1899 Welsh Brothers Terrantez Vintage Madeira – By 1913, the Welsh Brothers were out of business and the name existed as just a brand for the Madeira Wine Company. The acronym AO-SM was stenciled on the bottle which stands for Annibel Ontivares San Martinho, and was probably bottled by D’Oliveiras, although the branding on the capsule read MWC. So who knows? This 1899 looked like an older bottling from what I could tell. Initially it did not show very well although it had been decanted a full day ahead, but seemed to need more air time. Medium dark coffee color with a wide yellowish-orange rim. Some bottle stink remained early on and showed some unpleasantness before heading into the realm of vitamin pill. After a short while that note disappeared too, as the Terrantez opened further to highlight a fragrant nectarine scent as well as tar and cedar. Clearly sweeter than is typical of this grape with some lush dried fruits, raisin and prune flavors all dark, sweet and brooding. It was better a few hours later, but remained a bit flabby, albeit it possessed a super soft symmetry in the mouth. 89 points (1-20-07)

Our second flight started out like gangbuster with two scintillating Boals that were standouts. The pair of Terrantez was far less exciting and a slight letdown, due to high expectations.

Flight 3

1834 Barbeito Malvazia Vintage Madeira – Fortunately there is still a decent supply of this left on the island which was good to see when visiting in mid-May. I had the ‘34 two weeks before the NY tasting, (although it was a flawed bottle) at the event in Seattle and have consumed more of it than any other Madeira, including a great bottle at my brother’s wedding. Normally I am jaded by having consumed some at nearly every Madeira event I’ve attended, but this was probably the most vibrant ’34 Barbeito bottling that I’ve tasted in a very long time. I have a feeling that the “agitation” and decanting it received added lots of oxygen which had a positive effect on its showing, even though it was a recent bottling. It exhibited a dark chocolate color and more so than usual, with an amber-greenish hue. The intense bouquet permeated my head and supplied a scintillating mélange of salty beef bouillon, peaches, caramel and figs. Voluptuous and viscous in the mouth, with zippy acidity and in perfect harmony. Multi-layered flavors swept over my palate, delighting with dates, dried peaches and pralines, with an elegantly smooth texture and hints of liquid butterscotch on the sexy aftertaste. This was a memorable Malvasia and the highest I’ve scored this Madeira in ages. 96 points (1-20-07)

1862 Blandy’s Malvasia Vintage Madeira – According to Mannie this has apparently been in bottle for about fifty years or more. Dark cola colored with a yellowish tinge. Intricately imbued with fragrant minty pine resin, grapefruit peel, dates and toasted almonds. Just an amazing aromatic experience and the more old Blandy’s I try, I am finding that a “hallmark” of their wines. The 1862 is rich and sumptuous on the palate, complemented by a solid core of acidity and flavors of sweet figs, walnuts and crème brulee. Quite sweet in style but the acidity was able to handle that and overall, I found this to be quite a well balanced bottle. I almost forgot to mention, this Malvasia delivered a most impressively long and dry finish. 94 points (1-20-07)

1900 Barbeito Malvasia Vintage Madeira – Dark chocolate color that fades to a yellow tinge and a clear meniscus. Light and lush aromas of golden raisins, walnuts, peaches and dried apricots make up what amounts to a Christmas fruit cake and the fragrance was the best component of the wine for me. What a difference from the bottle two weeks ago. This one provides rich, sweet and decadent summer fruits and dates with a solid mid-palate, but lacks the in-your-face acidity I need to find harmony in Madeira with this level of RS. There was a distinct espresso nuance on the finish that seemed out of place and lingered for about a half minute or so. A good but not great bottle of this Malvasia, which showed significantly better than the bottle at the Seattle tasting. Others seemed to like this one more than I did. I remember an even better ’00 Barbeito bottle, opened when I asked my fiancée to marry me. 91 points (1-20-07)

1901 Barbeito Malvasia Vintage Madeira – Bottled in 2000, this wine revealed a medium dark molasses color with an amber-orange edge. The bouquet didn’t come close to matching the complexity of the 1900 Barb-Mal that preceded it. Nonetheless, there was better overall balance and as the acidity level was in synch with the off-dry style here, it made for a more enjoyable sipper. Medium to full-bodied and smooth, with more of a caramel, praline and toffee profile with a genteel feminine approach, compared to the 1900. It was fun comparing consecutive years of the Barbeito Malvasia, something most of us have never done before. If only you could take the essence of the 1900 with the flavors of 1901, you’d have yourself a stealth bomber. 92 points (1-20-07)

1907 D’Oliveiras Malvasia Vintage Madeira – Bottled 20-30 years ago. Medium-dark cola color with a golden edge. Initially funky, later on the nose cleared and there was a sweet and confected scent with some coffee and caramel notes. I thought this bottle was off at first but a few hours later, I enjoyed this wine significantly more. Medium-bodied and in possession of enough acidity to keep things interesting and focused. Lots of caramel here along with candied hazelnuts and a fruit compote element that added to the mix of fine flavors. The aftertaste was velvety and honeyed, maybe a drop too sweet for my liking, but the great texture could not be overlooked as it really stood out as one for the highlight reels. On any other occasion, alone this would have been a great treat and was hurt by comparisons to others in the lineup. 93 points (1-20-07)

Our third and final flight took off fast, proffering the dentist’s dream grape Malvasia. We shared some outstanding examples of the sweeter side of Madeira’s spectrum. As is often the case after 5 hours with Madeira… we’d worked up quite an appetite.

49 W 44th St
New York, NY 10036
(212) 453-4233

1st course: pan seared sea scallops with porcini mushrooms foie gras butter

2nd course: peppered breast of squab with raspberries and balsamic vinegar

3rd course: pan roasted free range chicken breast with artichokes, jalapenos, bacon lardoons and tomato cream

4th course: seared coriander crusted Australian lamb rack with foie gras stuffed prunes, sautéed spinach and Port wine reduction

5th course: cheese course

6th course: assorted dessert trays

Dinner Wines
1995 Taittinger Comtes De Champagne (Magnum)
1996 Sauzet Puligny Montrachet “Folatieres”
1971 Prinz von Hessen Johannisberger Klaus Auslese
1979 Yverdon Cabernet Napa
1978 Ridge Monte Bello
1999 Ponsot Clos de la Roche V.V.
1995 Ciacci Piccolomini “Vigna di Pianrosso” Magnum
1988 Mouton Rothschild
1990 Chateau Angelus
2002 Turley Hayne Vineyard Petite Syrah
1996 Quinta Do Crasto – Douro Touriga Nacional
2004 Clos Mogador

At the end of our sublime dinner, it was obvious we were in need of more Madeira. It was time to have something completely different. I took the remaining quantities of all bottles and made a custom cuvee for the group, so nobody would miss out on any special wines. Aromatically, this was a crazy concoction and remarkably complex. There was a solid dose of acid present and all kinds of fruit and nut flavors shaping up. The group actually really enjoyed this, although I am sure that some thought this was an act of heresy! It was better than a few of the bottles we had tonight and was in the Boal range in terms of sweetness. For grins, 93+ points.

I truly appreciate the efforts of all the participants that came from other states as well as the NY locals and for their generous sharing of some extraordinary bottles of Madeira. The memory lingers on six months later and I had to open a bottle while putting this article together. I hope that I get to see these fine folks again as the group dynamic turned out wonderfully and it seemed that everyone learned a lot and got along quite well. To Mannie, Chris W., Chef Zobel and the staff at Triomphe, thank you all for sharing in one of the great Madeira events of 2007!

By | 2016-11-18T10:24:29+00:00 July 21st, 2007|Categories: Madeira|0 Comments

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