Wine: Madeira’s hidden gems

By Gerard Basset OBE

Often overlooked and considered somewhat old fashioned, the great Madeira wines are absolutely astonishing with rich, distinctive, truly amazing flavours. The best wines are classified as ‘Vintage’. These wines, from a single harvest, are aged for a minimum of 20 years in casks, but sometimes for even longer and the magic is that they go on improving for decades and even centuries. To enjoy an old Madeira wine is to quite literally drink history.

Madeira wines are fortified which, put simply, means that early on the wines have had grape spirit added to them to strengthen them and stop their fermentation and thus leaving natural sweetness into the wines. This practice goes back to the 18th century to protect the wines from deteriorating during their long journeys on ships to whatever destination. Whilst exposed to these often warm conditions on board, the wines changed and improved in character. This observation led the producers on the island to heat the young wines for a few weeks in order to achieve the similar character obtained by the warm storage conditions of old on the ships. Today, most Madeira wines are heated at between 45-50 degrees Celcius in stainless steel tanks for three months; the system is called ‘Estufagem’.

However, the finest examples, among them those which will become ‘Vintage’, are produced using a system called ‘Canteiro’. Rather than artificially heating the wine, it is left in a warmed room simply heated by the sun, a process which is slow and gentler to the wine.The wines styles vary from off-dry to very sweet. The great ‘Vintages’ are named after the grape variety which has been used to produce them. The classic grapes are Sercial, producing the driest style with often a strong almond-like character, then Verdelho, a medium-dry style with plenty of candied fruit aromas, Bual (or Boal) is next, with its characteristic medium-sweet style often with lots of raisin aromas and finally the sweetest style is Malmsey with its great toffee or roasted coffee flavours. There are also some delicious but rare examples made from the Terrantez and Bastardo grape varieties.

Great Madeira wines are of course strong in alcohol and with a lot of sugar, but they are never cloying thanks to both their racy acidity and superb concentration of flavours. In spite of their significant age they can be incredibly fresh with intoxicating aromas of dry fruit, roasted nuts, orange peel, candied fruit, molasses, treacle, Maple syrup, crème brulée, fudge, apricot, dry flowers, beeswax and much more… Just phenomenal!

There is only a very small number of Madeira producers on the island and it is really worth the effort looking for their wines in the shops of Funchal, the beautiful capital city. Several producers have their own shops and I would particularly recommend going to the shop of D’Oliveiras (delicious wines, but also the best Madeira cake) as well as the Madeira Wine Company. Adjacent is a Madeira wine museum, also well worth a visit.

Here in England it is not too difficult to find these wines – the wine departments of ‘Fortnum & Mason’, ‘Harrods’, ‘Selfridges’ or the new fantastic wine specialist ‘Hedonism’ all stock Madeira wines and independent quality fine wine merchants will carry an example or two.Personally, I have been privileged to taste a large number of these legendary wines so here are just a few examples to make you want to go try them.

Barbeito, Sercial, 1978: a text book example of Sercial, vibrant with superb almond and citrus peel aromas, still lively on the palate and so easy to enjoy.

Justino’s, Verdelho, 1954: Quite exuberant on the nose dominated by a smoky, dry flowers and even tea like character coupled with a smooth texture.

Henriques & Henriques, Terrantez, 1954: Extremely appealing both on the nose and the palate with beautiful citrus peel and toffee aromas and a great feel on the palate.

Cossart Gordon, Verdelho, 1934: Plenty of prune, dry raisin and waxy aromas, it is so concentrated but all in perfect harmony.

D’Oliveiras, Boal, 1922: Milk chocolate, fudge, maple syrup and sweet spicy character with an amazing texture and a fabulous tangerine finish that is still incredibly fresh.

Blandy, Boal, 1874: Candied fruit, cocoa, Christmas cake and even old rum flavours with an incredible mouth-feel for a wine of this age. The harmony is unbelievable.

Gerard Basset OBE is the winner of ‘The Best Sommelier in the World 2010’, a Master of Wine and Master Sommelier and co-founder of Hotel TerraVina, a boutique wine hotel in the New Forest.