On Monday 8th December the WING group met to taste Madeira, guided by Kim.

I expect you may know the story of Madeira, but here’s a re-cap…

Madeira is a fortified Portuguese wine made on the island of Madeira. Madeira is produced in a variety of styles ranging from dry wines which can be consumed on their own as an aperitif, to sweet wines more usually consumed with dessert.

The discovery of Madeira wine happened – in the 16th Century – when the unsold wine aboard in vessels sailing from Madeira to the West, was shipped back to Funchal to be returned to its owners. It was then noticed that quality improved, and as such it was sold as “Round Trip Wine” (vinho da roda) and it was worth its weight in gold. This voyage of many days of warm weather gave in effect a gentle ageing to the wine .

Madeira nowadays is fortified with Portugese grape brandy to 20% alcohol, usually leaving some residual sugar in the wine. Shortly after fermentation is complete the wine is heated to approximately 115 degrees and held for six months. It is then alternately heated and cooled for six-month intervals while slowly maturing in oak barrels. Barrels are generally large and old so as to not impart any oak flavour or tannin and to promote gradual oxidation.

There are five key grape varieties. The first is Tinta Negra Mole, a red grape that is Madeira’s workhorse variety, but which has gained an (not entirely fair or unfair) reputation for poor quality. Then there are the four classic grapes: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malvasia (Malmsey). These typically make wines with sweetness varying in that order (Sercial is quite dry and Malmsey very sweet). However, these four only constitute around 10% of plantings on the island. Occasionally one sees Terrantez, Bastardo and Moscatel varieties, although these are now increasingly rare. (For a note on a Terrantez, see the July 25th post, below…).

Kim took us through the four noble grapes in their 10-year-old form and then 15-year old Bual and Malvasia, accompanied by a host of seasonal snacks – from olives, savoury pastries to chocolate and mince pies….

Here are my notes (all the wines were in half litres and cost £17-£19 [for the 10 year-old], or £22-£25 [for the 15 year old]; they are all either 19 or 20% abv):

Sercial is fermented dry, with very little residual sugar [0.5 to 1.5° on the Baumé scale (°Baumé is roughly equivalent to % of potential extra alcohol or 15 g/l residual sugar)]. This style of wine is usually characterised with high-toned colours, almond flavours, and high acidity. For a long time Sercial was thought to be related to Riesling, originating from the Rhine. However there is no evidence for this and it is DNA-related to Trincadeira (from the Alentejo). The oldest versions are traced to Bucelas, near Lisbon where it was (and is) grown under the name Esgana Cao (literally “dog strangler” in reference to its intense acidity). There are only 20ha on Madeira – mostly on the Northern coast or high above the Southern…  There are 70ha still in Bucelas and a small vineyard of it at Mas de Duamas Gassac in the Languedoc.

10 Year Old Sercial (Henriques & Henriques)
Dried fruit and sherry-ish nose, floral hints – citrus and elderflower – very evocative and sensual… Palate has dashing acidity with a round warmth. Very supple, mouth-watering and long. You can see why people thought of Riesling – the combination of sweetness, dashing zingy acidity and succulence all balanced – just lovely…

Verdelho has its fermentation halted a little earlier than Sercial, when its sugars are between 1.5 and 2.5° Baumé. This style of wine is characterized by smokey notes and high acidity. Verdelho is a familiar grape that may actually originate in Madeira where is recorded in the 16th Century. There are 47ha on Madeira mainly in cooler northern sites. There are 93ha in mainland Portugal, a little in the Loire and 1,700 ha in Australia!

10 Year Old Verdelho (Henriques & Henriques)
Quieter nose, plate has a warm, baking spice note, dried fruit – acidity and sweetness a little separated. Lovely date finish, but not as complete or satisfying as the Sercial.

Bual (originally called Boal) has its fermentation halted when its sugars are between 2.5 to 3.5° Baumé. This style of wine is characterized by its dark colour, medium-rich texture, and raisin flavours.  This grape appears to have originated in the Douro. The mainland grape has been officially renamed (since 2008) as Malvasia Fina and is the main grape in white Dao, it is found across Portugal from the Algarve, through Douro and Porto and many other areas. There are a total of 2,217 ha on mainland Portugal, but only 20 ha on Madeira, where it is still called Boal, most on the South Coast.

10 Year Old Bual (Blandy’s)
Much darker colour, slightly raw Xmas Pud nose, nuts and raisins and orange marmalade – recurring on the palate. Very intense palate with dark dried fruit and some exotic hints. Well integrated and seems to be a persuasive big brother to the Sercial…

15 Year Old Bual (Henriques & Henriques)
Very warm, porty nose with caramel and dried red fruit. Palate is warm, spirit and spicy with a caramel finish. Impressive and works wonderfully well with (good) milk chocolate…

Malvasia (also known as Malmsey or Malvazia) has its fermentation halted when its sugars are between 3.5 and 6.5° Baumé. This style of wine is characterised by its dark colour, rich texture, and coffee-caramel flavours. Like other Madeiras made from the noble grape varieties, the Malvasia grape used in Malmsey production has naturally high levels of acidity in the wine, which balances with the high sugar levels so the wines do not taste cloyingly sweet.

For a long time Malmsey was thought to be a Malvasia type originating in Greece or perhaps Sicily. However there are at least 18 distinct Malvasia varieties, only some of which are related to others. The Madeira Malvasia has historically been Malvasia Candida, an aromatic variety found across Italy and in Greece, mainly Crete. Recently, since 1990, it is being supplanted by a new variety: Malvasia Branca de São Jorge, originally bred in Portugal about 1970. We can only guess, but there are probably about 20ha of each right now.

10 Year Old Malvasia (Henriques & Henriques)
Big aromatic nose – hints of coffee, raisin, chocolate and fig… Palate has dashing acidity again, mainly citric counterpoint to the dried fruit – Xmas cake flavours… Impressive

15 Year Old Malvasia (Henriques & Henriques)
Similar nose but with hints of cedar and a volatile – furniture polish note… Better integrated and less intense than the 10-year-old, but the smoothness smooths out a little of the character…. Works well with ginger dark chocolate and mince pies – but might show its quality best as a digestif….

A very interesting tasting and for me the star was the Sercial… I was also impressed by the Buals, and the 10 year-old Malvasia. I thought the 15 year old Malvasia no better, and the Verdelho disappointing… Perhaps, critically, the 4 successes were of similar (17/20) quality but the Sercial is so distinctive and useful… the sweeter wines have to compete with Tawny Port…

Thanks so much Kim……