Extract: Madeira (2nd edition) by Richard Mayson

22 July 2022 by in Classic Wine Library, Extracts, Wine and spirits

Nearly every Madeira wine worshipper has come to it after having had a Damascene moment. I recall my own quite vividly. I had only been in the wine trade for two years when I attended a pre-sale tasting in October 1986 at Christie’s in London for an auction held to commemorate the six-hundredth anniversary of the Treaty of Windsor. Having been told how to spot Madeira in a blind tasting by my elders in the trade (the buzz-word in those days was a rather unattractive ‘synthetic cheese ball’ character), I suddenly found that there was a great deal more excitement to be found in older Madeiras. I was an immediate convert, but the experience left me mystified and struggling for the correct vocabulary to describe the wines. Some of the spellbindingly complex Madeira wines that I taste today still leave me lost for words.

A large part of the appreciation of any great wine lies in its depth and mystery, and there are few wines as magical or mysterious as old Madeira. Madeira’s vintages are not nearly as well documented as Port vintages. Until recently, few records of climatic conditions were kept and even fewer of the insightful socio-economic observations that pepper the vintage reports and visitors’ books of the Port shippers. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, unlike Port, there is little or no consensus among shippers as to what constitutes, in Port terminology, a ‘declared’ vintage. In any one year there is a wide variation of aspect and altitude to consider as well as the performance of individual grape varieties grown on tiny plots. One shipper may hit on a great Verdelho; another may not. Although terse and succinct, the notes left by the late Noel Cossart and published in his book Madeira, The Island Vineyard reflect this. His notes on individual vintages go back to 1774 but they are no more than one-line entries with remarks like ‘Sercial fine’ or the occasional ‘Cama de Lobos and São Martinho good’.

It has to be said that modern records are much more detailed (and the main shippers now file quite detailed vintage reports) but when it comes to older vintages much of the information has been lost in the mists of time. At the Madeira Wine Company, for example, there is a whole room full of archives dating back over 200 years. The Blandys have employed an archivist to work through them but it will be many years before they are able to piece together the history and pedigree of many of their historic wines. (Indeed some of their archives were accidentally destroyed so there will be wines that remain a mystery to them as well.) Without the sequential pattern and weight of the unanimous or majority declaration of vintage Port, great vintage Madeira is much more sporadic and random in nature. In short, it is much more difficult to generalise about vintage Madeira than it is, say, for Port or Bordeaux. This, in my opinion, adds greatly to the magic and occasional sense of awe about individual wines.

With Madeira’s inbuilt longevity, some remarkable wines are still available in limited quantities today. Small stocks are still held by Madeira families and are drip-fed onto the market. Others appear from country house cellars elsewhere in the world and come to auction, usually in good condition given Madeira’s near indestructibility. Some shippers on the island also hold substantial stocks of older wine which they release from time to time, often to coincide with significant anniversaries.

Name and identity
The means of naming and identifying a bottle of Madeira has evolved throughout its history. Consequently the titles affixed to some of the famous old wines defy convention and the rules laid down today. Where the shipper and/or grape variety is unknown, the wine may be designated by its geographic origin (e.g. São Martinho, or very occasionally the quinta), the name of a ship on which it was transported (e.g. Hurricane, Southern Cross), the country to which the wine was sent (e.g. East India Madeira) or sometimes the name of the customer or collector. Some customers amassed significant collections that have become famous in their own right and which are profiled throughout this chapter.

Madeira is a small island and the same surnames often crop up in different contexts with bewildering frequency. Alongside the historic family brand names that have made Madeira (the islands and the wines) internationally famous, families like Abudarham, Acciaioli, Araújo, Borges, Favila, Ferraz, Freitas, Henriques and Lomelino continually crop up in the history of Madeira wine. Many of these families were traders and stockholders in their own right, and their wines were absorbed by larger shippers through mergers and acquisitions and then frequently rebranded.

One of the frustrations about tasting older Madeira is that there is rarely an accurate record of the bottling date. It is quite possible, indeed probable, for the same wine to have been bottled on a number of different occasions throughout its history. Most shippers now display the date of bottling but this has only been mandatory since 2015. This still leaves generations of older wines without any indication whatsoever of the date of bottling. This gives the prospect of two bottles of ostensibly the same wine being very different, one having been bottled, say, twenty years later than the other. Again I look on this absence of information as part of the mystery and academic fascination of Madeira!

Soleras are another challenge. Until 1998 there was no enforceable definition of what constituted a solera Madeira. In his book, Madeira, the Island Vineyard, Noel Cossart devotes an entire chapter to historic soleras and explains at the outset that these are based on the lote system rather than the system of fractional blending that is used to such great effect in Jerez. Cossart dates Madeira’s soleras to the mid-nineteenth century when shippers, facing acute shortages due to oidium and phylloxera, were forced into blending wines from different years (rather in the same way that the Port shippers were forced to blend wines from different quintas to make a house vintage Port). There are, however, a number of soleras which pre-date this. Noel Cossart goes on to offer a logical definition of how a dated solera in Madeira used to work: ‘The date indicates the year in which the original wine was actually vintaged. This is called the vinho madre or matriz (mother wine). When the decision is made to turn a vintage into a solera, as it becomes ullaged, the matriz is topped up from a back-up lote of old wine of the same style, and in turn the back-up is replenished with a blend to suit the style. Usually the solera is topped up either when ten per cent down or annually, which ever occurs first, but the figure varies from ten per cent to twenty five per cent.’ No doubt this is how a solera should work, but there have been many disreputable soleras and Cossart singles out those sold pre-war to unsuspecting passengers on liners from bambotes, the so-called ‘bum-boats’ that used to be rowed out to ships in Funchal Bay. I suspect these were not the only ones and a number of shippers also pushed the boundaries of credibility. But the fact remains that a good solera, no matter how it is put together, is often a wonderful wine with balance and poise like no other. With shippers no longer supporting the redefined solera category, an increasing number of wines are bottled with an indication of age (up to ‘more than fifty-year-old’).

Fakes: buyer beware
With the steep increase in the price of old wines in recent years there has been a worrying increase in the amount of counterfeit Madeira coming to the market. It pays to buy old Madeira wines from a reputable source, be it at auction or through a knowledgeable private merchant. You need to be absolutely certain about the provenance of a wine, just as you would if you were buying a valuable work of art. The extent to which fraudsters will go was brought home to me at a recent tasting where a wine purporting to be an 1869 Sercial from one of the major shippers was nothing of the sort. The wine was cloudy, stewed, thin and flat. Close inspection found the bottle to be relatively new, the label had been copied and under the capsule were the remains of a relatively new paper seal of origin. It was almost certainly a five- or ten-year-old dry Madeira from the 1960s or 1970s. The bottle had been bought off eBay!

Corks and recorking
It is a frustrating fact of life that most Madeiras were bottled with short corks, often of poor quality. Due to the shortage of cork on the island (cork trees do not grow on Madeira), many of these were recycled. Francisco Albuquerque, winemaker at the Madeira Wine Company, remembers boiling up previously used corks to sterilise them as a child. Given the prolonged ageing for Madeira in cask and demijohn, the cork was thought to be of little significance serving merely as a barrier to foreign objects in the outside world. As Madeira is stored with the bottles standing upright, the corks dry out quickly and usually crumble as soon as they are penetrated by a corkscrew. Any bottle of venerable Madeira being cellared for any length of time should therefore be recorked roughly every twenty to thirty years. In the case of a few well-cellared wines, the date of recorking is recorded on the bottle (e.g. 1870 São Martinho, bottled 1893, recorked 1953, recorked 1960, rebottled and recorked July 1996). This, however, is the exception rather than the rule. When a wine is recorked I always wonder if there is a temptation to taste a little of the original wine and replace or refresh it with something younger. It may be my suspicious mind at work but, again, perhaps this is just part of the mystery of uncorking an old bottle of Madeira. Since 1990, vintage wines from the Madeira Wine Company tend to have longer, top quality corks.

Serving and tasting old Madeira: a personal perspective
All older Madeiras benefit from decanting well in advance of serving. A glass bottle, stoppered with a cork (albeit often a poor one) is a reductive environment for wine to age in. So-called ‘bottle stink’ can develop, which takes time to dissipate. Noel Cossart recommends decanting four to eight hours before serving, but from experience I take the view that to enjoy it to the full, an old Madeira should be decanted at least a day before drinking. Cossart adds the sensible caveat that ‘the period for allowing an old wine to breathe cannot be overdone in the case of Madeira’. It is likely that there will be a certain amount of sediment at the bottom of the bottle, so pour the wine slowly and carefully into a decanter, separate the sediment back, rinse out the bottle and pour the clean wine back in again. Don’t dispose of the murky wine or sediment – hold it back for cooking! Even once a wine has been decanted, it is striking how it can change in the glass. At the Blandy’s bicentennial tasting held in London in 2011, the wines were decanted off their natural deposit three months previously and rebottled. Served immediately prior to the start of the tasting, they changed and improved noticeably over a period of two to three hours. One wine (Blandy’s 1954 Malmsey) which had been showing quite badly at an earlier tasting in San Francisco was much better in London and scored my highest mark. The extended decanting process had helped to rid the wine of the bottle stink that marred the nose in San Francisco three months earlier.

The question of length of time that you can leave a bottle of old Madeira opened and on ullage for is one that I have never really satisfactorily answered for myself. I regularly uncork old bottles, serve perhaps half at a dinner then put them back in the cellar to help myself to a glass when I feel like it. The bottles sometimes sit there for years, seemingly to no ill effect. Cossart offers no advice on this but Francisco Albuquerque, winemaker for the Madeira Wine Company, believes that ‘you can keep a bottle of Madeira open for five years if you store it in the dark’. This will give heart to Madeira wine drinkers the world over, myself included: you can uncork one of these rare (and expensive) bottles and come back to experience its unique qualities many times over. That is something you just can’t do with fine (and equally expensive) claret, Burgundy or vintage Port!

Tasting Madeira
Madeira wine requires a completely different tasting vocabulary from that used to describe other wines. Volatile (vinegary) and oxidative characteristics, which would be described as faults in most other wines, are positive facets in Madeira provided they are in proportion and under control.

There is a three-stage procedure in appreciating any wine, starting with its appearance. In a well-lit room, tilt the glass back against a white background. A menu card or napkin will do. Madeira should be clear and bright with a range of colours from straw yellow for a young dry wine made from white grapes through gold, orange and amber to chestnut brown and deep mahogany for the oldest and richest of wines. In some cases an abnormally deep brown colour (especially in a younger wine) may denote the addition of caramel. Wines made from the Tinta Negra grape may show a glint of red that tends to subside with age. It is not uncommon for older wines, purporting to be one of the traditional white varietals, to have a red glint. Here you just have to suspend your disbelief! Older Madeiras display an olive-green hue which is most evident on the rim. I don’t take a great deal of notice of so-called ‘legs’ in a glass of wine but the viscosity of the wine can be seen from the ‘legs’, ‘tears’ or ‘arches’ that the wine forms on the side of the glass.

The second stage in appreciating a wine is to swirl the glass around gently in order to release the aromas. The range of aromas found in Madeira is vast and generally gains in breadth, depth, complexity and pungency with the age of the wine. Do not expect the primary fruit character of a young red or white wine. Most of Madeira’s characteristics are secondary or tertiary, resulting from either estufagem and/or ageing in canteiro. Rather than being fresh or ‘primary’ the fruit character in a young Madeira tends to be dried, candied or crystallised in style: apricots, dates, figs, raisins, lime, orange peel or marmalade. On top of this there may be a savoury, toasty or nutty character from the ageing process in cask. However, sometimes this can be an earthy, fungus or mushroom-like aroma, either due to dirty wood or bottle stink where a wine has been inadequately decanted. Because of the heating process (either natural or artificial), expect to find a slightly singed element, but to my mind a good wine should not smell burnt, cooked, stewed or soupy. In some Madeiras the spirit can be evident, especially in three-year-old wines when the alcohol may not have had time to meld into the blend. The volatile element in a Madeira helps to lift the aromas from the glass and terms like ‘lifted’ and ‘high-toned’ (the latter a favourite expression of the late Michael Broadbent) are commonplace in my notes. Floral aromas, resin and occasionally varnish or carpenter’s shop or furniture polish can be found, especially in older wines. This is not necessarily a pejorative expression if the wine is stable and in balance.

Tasting the wine on the palate is the third stage, which usually serves to confirm much of the information gleaned from the appearance and aroma. Take a sip rather than a gulp, taking in a little air at the same time. Leave the wine in your mouth for a few seconds to appreciate the texture (mouthfeel) as well as the flavour. After swallowing (or spitting at a professional tasting), breathe out gently through the nose. One of the defining characteristics of nearly all Madeira is the high level of natural acidity. It is this that gives Madeira its freshness and provides the counterpoint to the natural richness in the wine. Some dry wines can appear lean and overwhelmingly acidic but, at the opposite end of the spectrum, a rich or sweet Madeira should never be flat or cloying. A wine made from one of the classic white grapes (Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, Malvasia, Terrantez) should reflect generally the variety from which it is made (although any varietal fruit may be very well hidden). The variety normally manifests itself in terms of sweetness (although it is possible to find a relatively sweet Verdelho or a dry Malvasia) as well as in terms of the integrity and individuality of the grape itself. The longer a wine has spent in wood before bottling, the more powerful and concentrated it becomes. This manifests itself on the palate in terms of mouthfeel/texture and length of flavour. The older and more distinguished the wine the greater the intensity of flavour, which will continue on the palate long after the wine has been consumed. It is not uncommon to be able to taste the vestige of a great Madeira a day after having drunk the last drop!

As with all wine, a truly great Madeira is denoted by its balance: between alcohol, acidity, concentration and richness. This can sometimes be summed up in one word: poise. There is much more to a great Madeira wine than this, some of which is quite impossible to describe. I tend to keep my notes concise and to the point, without lapsing into the purple prose to which wine writers are prone. But there are wines that occasionally leave me speechless.

Extract from Madeira © Richard Mayson (Infinite Ideas, 2022)
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