The Wines of Madeira Age Gracefully



A review of the Blandy’s 10-year-old Malmsey and the Blandy’s 5-year-old Alvada Madeiras.


By Louis Marmon


Gazette Newspapers   November 30, 2011


madeira bottlesThe wines of Madeira are among the world’s longest lasting, with examples more than 100 years old still exhibiting youthful freshness and balance. Located 400 miles off the coast of Morocco, the island began winemaking in the 1400s when Portugal’s Prince Henry had the sweet Greek Malvasia grapes planted upon the hillsides along with Sicilian sugar cane.


In 1665, the British forbid wine shipments from Europe to their colonies unless they came through English ports. Madeira was considered “African,” which lead to them becoming the preferred indulgence of the British colonies in the Americas and the Far East. By the late 1700s, demand was so great that at one point, nearly 100 ships were anchored at Madeira’s Bay of Funchal waiting for their holds to be filled with casks of wine.


It was quickly realized Madeira benefited from the heat encountered during long voyages. Some casks were deliberately shipped back and forth across the equator to prolong their exposure and enhance their flavor profile. Conflicts on the seas with France in the late 1700s and increasing production shifted the heating into saunas called “estufas.” The lower-quality wines were heated to higher temperatures for short periods of time, while the better ones saw lower heat for a longer time. The very best were heated for years in casks stored in a sunny room rather than placed in the estufa.


Madeira primarily is made from four varietals. Malvasia (or Malmsey) is the most fragrant and has rich caramel and coffee flavors. Next is the medium-bodied Bual that has more noticeable raisin notes, followed by the drier, smokier Verdelho and then the more acidic and almondy Sercial.


Similar to Port, a neutral alcohol is added to Madeiras to stop fermentation and retain some sweetness. The natural acidity of the island’s grapes provides balance and prevents Madeira from becoming cloying. The wines are aged for a minimum of 90 days or for as long as 20 to 100 years before bottling. During this process the wines are deliberately exposed to air to oxidize partially, which allows an opened bottle to remain essentially unchanged and enjoyable for months.


Vintage Madeiras are produced from grapes harvested in a single season, whereas “soleras” are created by fractional blending similar to sherry and dated by the first vintage used to create the wine. Thus an 1870 Sercial solera will contain only a small percentage of the original vintage; the rest of the wines in the blend will be of an older age as well. Current European Union regulations prohibit solera production, but older bottles can be acquired on the island or at auction.


These rare old vintage or solera wine are usually very expensive. For those with an unrestricted budget (or generous friends), trying an old Madeira is a revelation in flavor and a lesson in history. Tasting the 1863 Barbeito Boal was an opportunity to encounter something produced when Lincoln still was president. Honey and coffee aromas slid seductively into gorgeously balanced and rich toffee, caramel, orange peel, dried figs and toasted hazel nut flavors.


More accessible and affordable is the delightful Blandy’s 10-year-old Malmsey ($40) that has coffee and burnt orange aromas along with toasted caramel and dried dark fruit flavors. Also worth trying is the raisin- and honey-scented Blandy’s 5-year-old Alvada ($20) a blend of Malmsey and Bual that has caramel and roasted walnuts accented with toffee, apricots and prunes. Both are perfect accompaniments to holiday desserts.


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