Madeira, Wine for the Ages – part two.

This is the second of a two-part segment entitled, Madeira, Wine for the Ages.

The archipelago.

Let’s talk grape varietals.

Sercial is wonderfully focused and bright with almond-like aromatics and searing acidity and is often transformed with cask aging to something of poise and beauty. Verdelho ripens more easily and can produce smoky and seductive wines of a medium-dry character and bracing acidity that can be remarkable. The medium-sweet Boal achieves better ripeness than either Sercial or Verdelho yet retains its nervous acidity even as it evolves into a beautifully rich, sweet and raisiny elixir of profound grace. And finally, the apex of sweet Madeira, Malmsey, produced from the Malvasia variety and like its noble soul mates, imbued with vivifying acidity is often of a rare intensity and pedigree. When aged in cask, it is responsible for some of the most opulent, concentrated, persistent wines produced. The finest examples can show spectacular endurance, eclipse the century mark and be simply breathtaking!

Lastly, Madeira wines are broadly segmented into blends and vintages. Blends encompass wines of 3, 5, 10 and 15 years old and are delineated as FinestReserveSpecial Reserve and Extra Reserve – the latter two produced from noble varieties employing the canteiro aging process while the former are habitually subjected to estufagem in tank yet can see some minimal cask aging.

Pergola-style trellising system - a timeless remedy to the challenges of humidity in the tropical climate of Madeira island.

Vintage wines include Colheita and Colheita Variety wines which are single vintage wines of high quality aged for a minimum of 5 years with the latter being additionally of a single variety. The pinnacle of this segment is a single harvest wine, crafted from noble varietals and aged in cask for 20 years!

I had a rare opportunity recently to experience a prestigious offering of these wines when six venerable Madeira shippers rolled into San Francisco. Together they represented an impressive spectrum of the island’s wines.

A fine example of Verdelho was Blandy’s 5-year old offering. Its pale, golden brown color harbored a delightful combination of orange peel, dark tobacco and ripe peach which played wonderfully on the palate evoking a sweet rusticity that is so often brilliant with food. The wine was medium-bodied with cleansing acidity, nice balance and a determined finish and can be found for around $19 per bottle.

Etched from volcanic rock - the vineyards of Madeira!

From the house of Henriques & Henriques the Bual 15 anos with its savory nose of leather and sweet tobacco immediately grabbed my attention. Its apricot-amber hue presaged a dark raisin, baked plum and tart orange zest basket of flavors that sang on the palate! The wine exhibited refreshing acidity, lovely balance and an enduring finish that impressed. It retails for approximately $50 per bottle.

In the same stable the Terrantez 20 anos old was truly wonderful! A rich golden-brown color yielded to enveloping aromatics of black figs followed by a panoply of quince, tart nectarines and perfumed, overripe peach. The wine displayed poise and verve combined with true depth and great persistence and glided seamlessly across the palate.

It is somewhat of an investment at around $110 per bottle but truly a powerful wine!

From Vinhos Barbeito I remarked the seductive Boston Boal that blends among others lots that see 60 years of aging and yielded a highly perfumed wine bursting with lush orange peel and intriguing, savory notes of smoked game and leather. These distinctive aromatics joined with walnuts and subtle tart-peach flavors on the palate to create a truly charming wine! Medium weight, a bright acid profile and a harmonious, enduring finish gave this wine great appeal! A very nice value at approximately $45 per bottle.

Then of course, there is invariably one wine that captures everyone’s attention. And so it was here that an old sentinel commanded unwavering deference from all present – the 1912 Verdelho from the house of Periera d’Oliveira. Truth be told, this was the first wine I visited on the advice of a fellow taster who correctly deduced that it would be short-lived. It is a testament to the shippers in attendance that in the shadow of this elder Madeira statesman all the other wines presented paid homage to their shared roots and showed unequivocal integrity of place.

This wine was stunning! Its rich, golden chestnut color bowed in a stately fashion to an intensely perfumed nose of candied walnuts, pungent Corsican honey, moist, Cuban tobacco leaf and maple-syrup-drizzled, poached peaches! On the palate it exploded with a pastry chef’s citrus pantry of candied lemon, orange peel and juicy tangerines. The acidity was searing and raced across the tongue in a sprint to envelop the intense layers of flavor that kept trying to outpace their own structural spine! It was as close to any in bringing tears to my eyes. This wine might be found in Funchal on the island of Madeira and if you do track it down I shudder to think of what it may cost!

Like many, I am convinced that the Beatles were on to something with their mega hit, All you Need is Love. Sadly, it seems that no one ever told them about Madeira!


Slave to the grape – worse fates there have been!


  1. […] Madeira, Wine for the Ages – part two. ( […]

  2. […] Madeira, Wine for the Ages – part two. ( […]

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