January 15 2013 issue

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PAGES (76-83) January 15 2013

Madeira: The Wine of Patience Jason Tesauro and Phineas Mollod

Jutting from an abyssal Atlantic plain three and a half miles deep, the Portuguese island of Madeira is the craggy, lush jewel of a tiny archipelago. The name means "island of woods"; as early as the 15th century, Madeira’s boundless forests intrigued marauding pirates and seafarers like Prince Henry the Navigator. Nearer to Casablanca, Morocco, than to mainland Portugal, the island is best reached by plane from Lisbon. After a flight over 600 miles of flat, blue ocean, the so-called Emerald Isle reveals itself amid imposing basaltic cliffs and stiff crosswinds before the harrowing descent into Funchal Airport on what was once the world’s shortest runway. "I’ve been on flights that had to make three attempts before successfully landing," says Mannie Berk, founder of The Rare Wine Co., the largest importer of Madeira to the United States and holder of old and rare wines outside the island. But those who brave the voyage are richly rewarded.

Madeira’s story is rife with grandiose tales of a seven-year fire, Columbus’s island palace, and mythical Atlantis. As the last port before many a long trip around the Horn of Africa or across the Atlantic, Madeira became a hub for traders who swapped durable goods for wine. This is how pipes of the local product traveled all the way to America, where they became an 18th-century sensation—our Founding Fathers toasted the signing of the Constitution with snorts of Madeira (and the 1795 Barbeito Terrantez is still on the market, should you care to commemorate the event). Today, Madeira is a niche region. Producing just over 3 million liters of wine annually (compared to 95 million in Porto) and unequipped for much enotourism, it has room to grow, but little reason to take shortcuts. "Ours is the opposite of table wine," says Luís D’Oliveira, owner of Pereira D’Oliveira. "We are never in a hurry to sell."

Indeed, "from Prohibition until the 1980s, Madeira was virtually extinct in the United States," observes Bartholomew Broadbent, CEO of Broadbent Selections. As Chris Blandy, CEO of the Madeira Wine Company (a subsidiary of the Blandy Group), quotes Port vintner James Symington in a chestnut often repeated around the lodge, "Madeira is like a Ferrari: everyone knows the name, but very few have sampled it."

Aiming to change all that, Broadbent organized a Madeira tasting for 400 people in San Francisco in 1989—and soon after, he says, "Napa’s Tra Vigne had three by the glass and every good Bay Area restaurant had at least one. I spent the next 10 years of my life promoting Port and Madeira almost exclusively; now, whereas Port is very flat, there is increasing interest in Madeira because it has more practical usage and a fantastic story." Sommeliers—who are, notoriously, always on the lookout for the next big thing—thus find themselves returning to a wine that’s been sipped for centuries. More than a mere historical curiosity or a one-note dessert accompaniment, Madeira (pronounced mah-DAYR-uh, not mah-DEE-ruh, in Portuguese) is a wine of vitality and relevance to the patient consumer, with astounding range and texture.

TERROIR AND VITICULTURE

The best wine I will make in my life will not be enjoyed until I am dead.
—Justino’s winemaker Juan Teixeira

Madeira is tough on winemakers. The topography is uneven (grapes grow only near the coasts, at up to 1,975 feet in altitude); the most desirable grapes are the hardest to cultivate; the plots are tiny (more than 5 acres constitutes a large holding); and all equipment must be transported from the mainland. Some 3,000 farmers work a mere 990 acres—or about .2% of the vineyard acreage of Bordeaux. Systems of levadas (irrigation channels) prevent flooding and shuttle water from the higher elevations down to the coasts. Tour the island via its immaculate motorways and modern tunnels bored through the undulating mountains, and you’ll see vineyards fighting for space with shiny new homes and banana groves. Viticulture is practiced by hand, mainly on poios, as the terraces built atop steep bedrock are called. Although the soil, with its naturally high tartaric and malic acids, is willing, the winegrower must be intrepid: some plots are accessible only by ladders or rough-hewn stone steps. "Many growers walk 15 minutes with 50 kilos on their back just to reach the road," says Justino’s winemaker Juan Teixeira.

Cultivation is but a side business for most; in fact, the younger generation was leaving the industry in droves until the recent financial crisis compelled many to return. A single producer may buy grapes from hundreds of growers—Justino’s purchases about 5,500 pounds from each of 900 growers annually—who are paid 1 euro per kilogram (2.2 pounds) for grapes coming in at 9% alcohol (more if riper), as certified by the Instituto do Vinho da Madeira. Not least for being so hard earned, Madeira’s exciting personality is almost a foregone conclusion. "The grapes grown here, the volcanic soil, the human experience: even if you copy the technology, you will not equal the wine," Teixeira proclaims.

GRAPE VARIETIES

The principal grapes are four whites—Sercial, Verdelho, Boal (commonly anglicized as Bual), Malvasia (Malmsey)—and one red, Tinta Negra Mole, the most widely planted variety on the island and the one commonly used to make inexpensive blends and cooking wines. Sercial (also known as Esgana Cão, or "dog strangler," because of its acidity), is the driest, lightest white variety and thus ideal for aperitifs; after nearly two decades in cask, however, its jagged tartness is tamed and it becomes a breathtaking wine of uncommon brightness. Verdelho produces a medium-dry wine, slightly darker than Sercial—smooth, elegant, and versatile, perfect for pairing with seafood and lighter meats. Moving up the richness scale but downward in vineyard elevation, Bual is the prototypical medium-sweet, full-bodied Madeira, darkest of the white varieties; it softens dramatically after decades in wood. Malmsey is the sweetest Madeira, with classic vanilla and caramel overtones that make it a peerless dessert wine, though it finishes dry. The last two grapes are generally referred to by their anglicized names in the American market, but for purists, "Boal is with an o: ‘BWAL,’ not ‘‘BOO-ahl,’" maintains Vinhos Barbeito wine director Ricardo Freitas, "and Malmsey does not exist in Portuguese."

The medium-dry red Bastardo (known elsewhere as Trousseau) and sweet, low-acid white Moscatel are found in limited quantities, as is Terrantez (no relation to Argentina’s Torrontés), an off-dry white that, with age, can produce a beguiling wine with a delicate, bitter finish. Beyond the beauty and unexpected acidity of the sweeter varieties, the palate-busting drier styles—Sercial, Verdelho, and Terrantez—routinely astonished us with their verve and complexity.

WINEMAKING METHODS

After the crush, the juice is permitted to ferment for as long as a week before a neutral grape spirit (aguardente) is added to halt fermentation at the desired level of sweetness, bringing the wine up to 18-19% alcohol (see "A Madeira Glossary" in Gallery). The exact duration depends on the variety as well as its ripeness; the sweeter the grape, the shorter the fermentation.

The Tinta Negra grapes used for blended Madeiras are placed in estufas—stainless-steel or concrete tanks heated to around 122ºF to mimic the "curing" process of antiquity, when barrels made the hot and turbid voyage around the equator by ship. "Estufagem is not for outstanding quality, but great value," says Teixeira. Following a period of rest, the wine is stored in neutral American- or French-oak casks for at least three years.

Following fortification, the best grapes are slated for the canteiro method. They are stored in old, 650-liter oak barrels in warm warehouses, where they gradually oxidize, evaporate, and concentrate, developing complex flavors and heightened alcohol levels over a period of years. As a general rule, three months of aging by estufa is roughly equivalent to five years by canteiro. A combination of many variables—the grape varieties, the vagaries of the aging process, the climate in the warehouse, the age of the casks, luck—determines whether the maturing Madeiras will be used in non-vintage blends (such as a Bual 10 Year Old) or left to develop for decades. When a wine has been deemed to reach optimal balance and concentration in wood, it is moved to stainless-steel tanks or glass demijohns and preserved in stasis.

FIVE DAYS, FOUR HOUSES

The old vintages are like currency in the bank. My uncle had more wine than money, but he was happy that way.
—Pereira D’Oliveira owner Luís D’Oliveira

During our five days on the island, we saw Madeira through four lenses, each affording its own perspective: D’Oliveira (which we dubbed "the classic"), Vinhos Barbeito ("the innovator"), Justino’s ("the entryway"), and Blandy’s ("the gentle giant").

Step into the D’Oliveira lodge from a cobblestone street in Funchal and watch Madeira’s past come to life in the form of creaky floorboards, high rafters, the toffee aromas of mellowing casks, and the cordial manner of its traditionalist owner. Blessed with the finest stock of old vintages on the island, D’Oliveira focuses on quintessentially warm and supple wines meant for the next generation—some requiring 20, 40, 50, or even 100 years to mature. Sampling a flight of library selections dating from the Iraq War back to the Civil War, we were humbled by an 1863 Sercial and a 1908 Boal that was harvested the year the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series.

As we drove up tortuous mountain roads in search of Barbeito’s offices, our GPS was frequently tested by wrong turns with signs understandable in any language: "Impasse." Whooshing through a sun shower and a slight chill—Madeira can offer three seasons’ worth of weather in one day—we dropped the map and followed an immaculate rainbow to Barbeito’s hilltop winery and its ebullient wine director. As Freitas extolled his exciting young blends, single-vineyard wines, and single-cask releases—not to mention his nod to the past, the Historic Series—he revealed his intense viticultural curiosity, further demonstrated by a small test plot. He has invested in a mechanical lagar that mimics the traditional foot-stomping method of yore to produce darker, more textured juice. In his lab, Freitas samples 20-30 casks per week, because making a successful vintage Madeira involves more than simply storing wine in a hot room for a few decades; if the wine oxidizes too quickly, the sugar concentrates faster than the acidity develops, yielding flabby, pruney wines. Based on his tastings, Freitas moves the faster-maturing juice to lower ground or a cooler part of the warehouse and transfers tighter samples to sunnier spots. We were astounded by the emerging brightness of his 2010 Malvasia and the Fino-like wonder of the young Bastardo trials. "I use all the traditional techniques without compromise," he says, "but I use technology to improve on tradition, reduce production time, and lessen losses."

FAST FORWARD TO THE PAST

I am a traditionalist. I’ve spent my whole career preserving the great winemaking cultures and making sure they’re not swallowed up in modern trends.
—The Rare Wine Co. founder Mannie Berk

In its infancy, Madeira was unfortified. Benjamin Franklin was an early advocate of fortification, which became standard practice only in the mid-18th century, but even then, the wines were consumed early. In recent years, Freitas has worked to make young reserves and blends sexy again, finding them a place on the dinner table. Teixeira agrees: "Why should I wait 40 years if they’re beautiful now? My job is to increase the quality of younger wines." Justino’s, the island’s largest producer, lacks deep stores, but its young offerings, like the 5 Years Old Fine Rich Reserve, are as approachable as its winemaker, who notes that "complexity comes with age, but structure comes now." Bottlings such as the 1999 Justino’s Colheita from Tinta Negra evince the potential of youthful wines made well.

Our final tasting was at the esteemed house of Blandy’s, which recently celebrated its bicentennial. There, the new CEO—Funchal-born, British-educated, 33-year-old Chris Blandy, representing the eighth generation—greeted us at the old lodge. He not only embraces Madeira’s viticultural heritage but enthusiastically markets young blends alongside a mind-blowing library of vintages. The Blandy Group is a diversified enterprise with holdings in hotels, travel, media, milling, and shipping. Given the tribulations the Blandy family experienced throughout the 20th century, from an oidium outbreak at its turn to Prohibition to the Portuguese revolution in the 1970s, its recent acquisition of other famous old producers—Cossart Gordon, Leacock’s, and Miles—could prove a wise venture. As Blandy explains, "Our five-year program includes leasing land via 20-year contracts to preserve the future of noble white varieties." The European Union also promotes the island’s winemaking heritage by offering finanical incentives to quality-minded producers through its Program of Options for the Remoteness and Insularity of Madeira and the Azores.

MADEIRA RENAISSANCE

Madeira, virtually the official wine of the Age of Enlightenment, is on the brink of a renaissance. "There’s vastly more interest than there was five or 10 years ago," says Berk. "A lot of it is being driven by sommeliers and chefs who’ve gotten excited about Sercials and Verdelhos. The South has been a particular hot spot, because Madeira’s historical links to Charleston, Savannah, and Atlanta dovetail so nicely with the growing interest in Southern food culture."

Madeira has certainly earned a place on our dinner table, near the writing desk, and alongside liqueurs in the den; a daily sip hearkens back to the British ritual of "elevenses." In this age of indie production, Madeira remains a boutique commodity, yet one that resonates across generations. Sommeliers and consumers alike would do well to discover Madeira’s modern incarnations while rediscovering what our Founders knew ages ago.

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