Accidental wine

I recently spent a day in the city of Funchal on the island of Madeira. The island of Madeira is the largest in a small archipelago called Madeira which is an autonomous region of Portugal located some 300 miles off the coast of Morocco.

From what I saw and experienced on a short visit to this place it is clearly a place to revisit for a more lengthy stay. The island is visually stunning with lush gardens, steep mountainous terraces everywhere, traditional Portuguese architecture and food, friendly people, an hospitable climate and countless historic and natural sites to visit.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Madeira is an incredible system of walking paths which follow the path of a system of engineered aqueducts (called levadas). These aqueducts cover the island and collect and transport rainwater for agricultural use and power generation. The aqueducts and walkways crisscross the island and cover a distance of over 2000 km on an island that measures 57 km long and 22 km wide at the widest point. Hikers of all levels of skill and experience come to Madeira from all over the world for a unique and challenging way to enjoy a close-up perspective on this beautiful paradise.

Madeira is famous as the birthplace of Cristiano Rinaldo, one of the greatest soccer players of our time. It also famous for its embroidery, its tourism and its annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display – apparently the biggest and most spectacular in the world.

This is the long way of introducing something that has been of historic and economic importance to Madeira – but today much less so – Madeira wine. This is a fortified wine which has been made for centuries but which developed its unique character by accident.

Because of its location Madeira was an important port of call in the 16th to 18th centuries for trading and exploration ships travelling to and from the new world. Supplies would be loaded at Madeira for long trans-Atlantic journeys and these supplies would include wine. To ensure the wine did not spoil it would be fortified with neutral grape spirits which both preserved the wine but also increased the level of alcohol.

The accidental part of this story occurred when one consignment of wine which had been shipped to the Caribbean for sale was returned to Madeira. When the casks were opened the wine was discovered to have taken on a pleasing, complex, oxidized character. The wine had been exposed to intense heat on the out – and back journeys and had oxidized in the process. The wine was rich and sweet and showed flavours of marmalade, dried fruit and roasted walnuts.

This discovery resulted in frequent shipments of wine specifically for the purpose of letting them madeirize on a return journey to from and to Madeira. Over time this practice was replaced by an artificial way to replicate the heat effects of a trans-oceanic voyage. This process, called estufagem, saw the wine placed in large, old casks which would be placed in racks in full exposure to the sun, where they would rest for months if not years, cooking and oxidizing in the process.

In the 18th century Madeira became a widely popular wine, especially in the new world where it is rumoured to have been the celebration wine consumed at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Shipments to England, Russia, Brazil and North Africa expanded the market for Madeira wine until disease struck – phylloxera and powdery mildew – resulting in a collapse of the wine industry which took until the late 20th century to restore to a modest level of sustainability. Madeira wine became more known as a cooking wine in the meantime, until major replantings of noble grapes enabled dramatic improvements in quality.

Several grape varieties are used to make Madeira in different styles/levels of sweetness. In order, from dry to sweet, the main varieties are Sercial (dry with relatively high acid), Verdelho (a white grape which makes a smoky style wine in a fino style), Bual (sweeter still with rich ripe texture) and Malmsey (the darkest and sweetest at up to 120 g/L of residual sugar). All Madeira wines show fine balance and complexity. Acid levels are high and this has offsets what would otherwise be a cloying texture.

Modern techniques have evolved to complete the estufagem process. The most common is the use of stainless tanks which have heat coils allowing the wine to be cooked at temperatures of up to 55°C for a minimum of 90 days before transfer to large oak barrels for further ageing. Some makers use large casks placed in rooms with steam pipes and others still use the traditional estufagem process ageing the wines in huge oak casks for 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, or more.

The resulting wines are always full of character and can be enjoyed in many ways. They are complex, well-balanced and consistently rich with citrus, nut, smoke and dried fruit aromas and flavours. These wines can last for decades in bottle and are appreciated by collectors for their long-life potential. Once bottled the wines stop evolving but they are stable and unique for their age-worthiness.

Some experts believe that the Madeira wine sector will have difficulty surviving. Why? Consider:

• Today only 450 hectares of DOC vines are cultivated and this land is under constant threat of re-development in an economy that has seen rampant real estate development during the first decade of the 21st century.
• Cultivation of grapes and maintenance of the vines is extremely difficult and expensive on a terrain that is inhospitable to the extreme.
• Consolidation has characterized the industry with one family, the Blandys, acquiring many of the storied names such as Miles and Cossart, all brought under the corprorate umbrella of the Madeira Wine Company. A handful of small producers are still operating (such as the Henriques and Justinos – see more below) but the market for their wines is small and needs rejuvenation if the industry is to stabilize and grow.
• The industry has a history of association with old men, cigars and privilege (think Winston Churchill, a regular visitor to the island of Madeira over his lifetime). The world of wine has moved beyond that tradition and Madeira wine needs to be re-branded as a versatile drink that can be enjoyed as an aperitif, as an accompaniment to many foods or as a digestif – depending on the style of Madeira chosen.

While we were in Funchal we were hosted at the Blandys lodge by the young CEO of the Madeira Wine Company, Christopher Blandy.

Christopher is the latest of some 10 generations of Blandys to head up the firm and he looks to be the man for the times. He is youthful, in his mid-30’s, and he has worked in the wine industry in several countries before joining the firm. He brings a marketing bent to his role, something that will be critical to expanding markets, not just for the Blandy brands but for the industry as whole.

The first wine I purchased when I became old enough to buy at the LCBO was a 20-year old Madeira. I remember vividly the nose and palate of that wine as though I had tasted it only yesterday. This memory was re-kindled at the Blandy tasting and I was reminded of the unique and complex character of these wines and the sheer pleasure they can deliver.

You will see in the May 24 Vintages article above one of my selections this weekend is a Rainwater Madeira. This is a coincidence as I planned to write about Madeira long before I knew this wine would be on offer this weekend. Try it.

You may become a member of the Madeira wine appreciation society: may it grow and prosper.

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2014.


Author: John Switzer

I am wine writer, educator and tour guide. From 2005 to June 2014 I published a bi-weekly newsletter, the Winesights Vintages Newsletter (WVN). This Newsletter was closed in July 2014 when the Government of Canada put in place the onerous administrative requirements of Canada's Anti-Spam Legislation. The legacy of WVN continues on this blog spot where I post wine-related articles as well as reviews of a small selection of best-value wines from each bi-weekly LCBO Vintages release. I hold the WSET Diploma, I am a WSET Certified Educator, I teach in the WSET program at the Independent Wine Education Guild in Toronto where I am the past Director of the WSET Diploma program. Since 2010 I have been a judge at Decanter World Wine Awards on the Rhône panel and I am a member of the Society of Wine Educators.

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