Madeira is fortifying its fuddy-duddy image with a spirited campaign,
says Peter Grogan
João Branco rises early on harvest day. At 70, he’s as spry as men half his age and moves nimbly down the mountainside to the little terrace where he tends his beloved Verdelho vines. Three hours later, he is at the unloading bay of the Madeira Wine Company in Funchal, having delivered his entire crop to winemaker Francisco Machado Albuquerque. All 60 kilos of it.
He may supply the smallest quantity of the 800 or so growers who provide the company’s raw materials, but even the largest manages only 35 tonnes, and this diversity – not just of growers but of vine varieties and micro-climates – is reflected in the company’s output. Albuquerque oversees the making of up to 64 different wines – and 30 per cent of the island’s total production – in a single year. The company sells vintages dating back to 1908. (A little of the wine’s intense flavour of coffee, nuts and spice goes a long way, which is just as well at £500 a bottle.)
“The soil here is extremely acidic and that is what keeps the sweetness of the wines in balance,” is Albuquerque’s viticultural analysis. Or, more poetically: “The whole beauty of the island is expressed in their bouquet.”
So what exactly is Madeira and what distinguishes it from that other great Portuguese export (excluding José Mourinho), port? Both are fortified wines, meaning that the fermentation process is stopped by the addition of grape spirit, which at 96 per cent alcohol would stop anything in its tracks. This helps to preserve some of the fruit’s sweetness.
Uniquely, Madeira is then heated to around 45C; the best wines are warmed naturally by the sun, in oak barrels stored in the rafters of the wine lodges; the three-year-olds are heated more pragmatically in purpose-built tanks. It is then that the wines develop their characteristic, rich tang of dried fruits, nuts and caramel. “Unlike port, there are virtually no primary fruit flavours remaining when the wines are released for sale,” says Jacques Faro da Silva, the Madeira Wine Company’s general manager. “Everything has evolved by then.”
The heating process also allows these wines to age more or less indefinitely. Even the contents of a bottle left uncorked will suffer no deterioration for at least a year.
The company’s biggest-selling wine is Duke of Clarence Rich Madeira, made from red Tinta Negra Mole grapes and sold under the Blandy’s label, one of the five original family firms that now form the company. Widely available for about £10, it’s an excellent introduction to Madeira. The wine is deep and dark with plenty of coffee and raisin sweetness and enough of that acidity to keep it from cloying.
Historically, the wine has a rather fuddy-duddy image, which the Madeira Wine Company (now part of the Symington port dynasty) is keen to change. The launch in UK supermarkets of Alvada, a smartly packaged blend of five-year-old wines with a shocking pink label, has been a success.
Unusually, it’s made from two of the four “noble” white grapes varieties, Bual (for flavours of almonds and apricots) and Malmsey (for sweetness, richness and depth) and is delicious with chocolate.
Moving up the quality scale, we come to the “special reserve” and “extra reserve” wines – blends of different vintages with a minimum of, respectively, 10 and 15 years maturation in oak casks. Each is made from a single grape variety – the other two are Sercial (sometimes known by its less noble soubriquet of “dog-strangler”, in reference to the extreme acidity of the young wine) and Verdelho, a grape widely used in Australian whites.
These two make the drier, lighter wines with crisp, citrus-peel aromas and figgy, marmaladey flavours. Although Madeira is thought to have an affinity with nuts and dried fruit, Sercial goes surprisingly well with sushi.
However, the greatest treasures of this island are the “vintage” wines, made from grapes from a single year’s harvest and aged for a minimum of 20 years.
They emerge with all those nutty, coffee and dried-fruit flavours deliciously intensified by the effects of evaporation. This “angels’ share” can be as much as six per cent per year so after 20 years there’s not much left.
“Wine is the biggest industry on the island after tourism,” says the secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources, Manuel Antonio Correia. “And the vineyards create some of the landscapes that the tourists love, so everything is in harmony.”
I’m sure old João Branco, toiling up his vertiginous hillside, would agree – once he got his breath back.
Prices for 10-year-old wines start at about £12; 15-year-olds cost from £15-£25. Waitrose has a good selection of Madeiras, as does Berry Bros & Rudd (0870 900 4300) and Tanners (01743 234455). Vintage wines start at about £50.
Jonathan Ray returns next week.
Wines of the week
2001 Duque de Viseu, 12.5% vol, Portugal (£5.49; Majestic and Waitrose, with 20% off at Waitrose today and tomorrow). Black cherries, bitter chocolate, smooth oak and decent bottle-age aren’t usually on the menu for this price. If you can catch the discount, it’s a steal – if there’s a better red at the price, I’d like to know.
2004 Fox Creek Verdelho, 13.5% vol, Australia (£7.99; Oddbins). Verdelho (pronounced “verdel-yo”) is about the only Portuguese grape variety to have emigrated successfully. This is a great introduction: big and rich, with a zesty nose of limes and creamy pineapple flavours.
2002 Quinta de la Rosa, 13.5% vol, Portugal (£10.95, or £9.85 by the case; Berry Bros. 0870 900 4300). Expensive, toasty oak and expansive, brambly fruit flavours, with plenty of structure and balance. A lot of wine for the money.
2003 Quinta do Crasto, 14% vol, Portugal (£6.99; Adnams 01502 727222). Made from the grape varieties used for port, this has some of the same blackberry fruit and lingering spicy tannins and it’s cheaper in Southwold than in Setúbal. A char-grilled steak would be a perfect accompaniment.