Tim's Wine

Madeira Diary – Day 4 – The wines

by timswine on Thursday, October 15, 2015

If you are discovering this blog with this post I would recommend that you scroll down and read the first three days of the Madeira diaries, which relate to the island/climate/growing conditions, the Blandy family and the way the wines are made.  This will give you the background information to understand the material of this post.

The most common question that I have been asked since the Madeira experience began is, “so the wines are like Port?” While there are some similarities in the way the wines are made and their alcohol content,  they have little in common. What makes Madeira so unique is the result of the aging process.  Unlike most table wines where the producers try to minimize the effect of oxygen in the aging process, in Madeira it is encouraged.  This causes a concentration of the flavor compounds of the wine and encourages a wide range of exotic aromatic compounds, the result of the wine slowly breaking down.  What protects the wine is an almost inconceivable level of acidity, always over 6 grams per liter, which also limits the need for sulfur in aging or bottling.  (For perspective most Napa Cabs are usually a little more than 4 grams per liter.)

When the Blandy’s winemaker, Francisco Albuquerque begins the blending for each wine, he starts with a pallet of thousands of barrels and tanks of Madeira aging in their lodges.  His mission is to craft blends that are typical of the style of that grape.  For example Sercial wines are typically the driest, Verdelho slightly off dry, Bual finished semi-sweet and Malmsey a fully sweet wine.  There is a lesser style, called Rainwater, which is produced using only Tinta Negra Mole, the lone black grape variety on the island, which is typically pretty dry.  By using barrels of wines from different years he can create consistent blends with dimension and complexity.  If you can imagine, Francisco creates 80+ wines per year, for the Miles, Leacock’s, Cossart-Gordon and Blandy’s brands, all owned by the Madeira Wine Company.

The notes you see here are from a comparative tasting, led by Mr. Albuquerque, to study the differences between the wines.  You will note some similar adjectives between the varieties as well as some that are unique to each wine.

Blandy’s Madeira “Rainwater”

100% Tinta Negra aged at least 3 years with a small amount of old wine to boost the aromatics

75-77 g/l residual sugar (RS), 6 g/l total acidity (TA)

Nose of tumeric, orange marmalade, dried strawberry, slightly maple; bright on the palate, almost crunchy, picks up a nice sense of fruit mid-palate, quite long but sharp edged.

$25 per 750 ml bottle

Blandy’s Madeira “Alvada”

A proprietary bottling of the company, almost equal parts of Bual and Malmsey

120 g/l RS, 7 g/l TA

The nose is almost resinous; juniper, hickory, candied orange peel, dried date, faint gorgonzola dolce; Palate is quite rich and full to start, sweetness fades mid-palate and acidity cleans it up.

$25 per 500 ml bottle

The ten year old series are typically made from a blend of six or seven vintages with the blend exceeding the average age.  All are $38 per 500 ml bottles and are in stock.  There is also a similar series of 5 year old blends that are in stock for $33 per 750 ml bottle. 

Blandy’s Madeira Serial 10 year

45 g/l RS, 7.5 g/l TA

Savory nose of toasted almonds, aged sheep’s milk cheese, dried sage/rosemary/thyme, fresh orange peels.  The palate initially shows sweet but searing acidity cleans it up quick, crunchy/citrus like finish.

Blandy’s Madeira Verdelho 10 year

78 g/l RS, 6.5 g/l TA

Sharp nose of grapefruit rind, bitter orange, coriander, sea salt, new leather, cracked black peppercorns; Palate is surprisingly round and balanced, brief flash of sweetness before the acidity perks up at the finish to dry it out.

Blandy’s Madeira Bual 10 year

95 g/l RS, 6.0 g/l TA

Exotic notes of toasted caraway seeds, Worchestshire sauce, caramel, toasted walnut shells, bit of soy sauce; In the mouth it is nicely plump and broad, high acidity but not as obvious, very long, persistent barely sweet finish.

Blandy’s Madeira Malmsey 10 year

127 g/l RS, 6.0 g/l TA

Obvious streak of green herbs (parsley?) then savory back notes of roasted beef bones, sea salt, dried chantarelle mushrooms, candied orange peel, allspice, green cardamom; In the mouth a more obvious sweetness at first, good balance of acidity but not aggressive, very long and slightly more sweet than others.

The remainder of this list are wines we tasted during several sessions of the trip, mostly with meals.  They are not available for sale, at least not yet.

The Colheita designation was created by the Blandy’s family, at the encouragement of the Symington’s, to represent great wines that are not yet entitled to the vintage designation.  Vintage Madeira must be aged at least 20 years in cask before bottling, Colheita’s by law must be aged for 5 years.

Blandy’s Maderia Sercial Colheita 1998

47 g/l RS, 9 g/l TA

Bright nose of cinnamon broom, dried tobacco,butter brickle ice cream, some dried orange peel; palate is quite keen edged but very concentrated, has a slightly sweet, rounded edge, for a second, then it shears off but very long.

Blandy’s Madeira Verdelho Colheita 1998

77 g/l RS, 6.3 g/l TA

Savory, Maduro cigar wrapper, orange marmalade, candied pecan; palate is quite rich and concentrated, has a very nicely focused edge and very good persistence.

Blandy’s Madeira Bual Colheita 2002

96 g/l RS, 8 g/l TA

The nose is quite savory, orange pekoe tea, cinnamon, allspice and clove, dried dates and black figs, some candied kumquat; searing acidity shoots up then very it fleshes out just a bit, quite long.

Blandy’s Madeira Malmsey Colheita 1996

Extremely rich nose of juniper, vanilla, tangerine skin, green pepper corn; Palate is quite deep but with searing acidity carrying it the whole way, very long, very concentrated.

Blandy’s Madeira Malmsey Colheita 1999

125 g/l RS, 7.5 g/l TA

Quite rich nose of vanilla, toasted oak, marzipan, orange marmalade,(no green); quite vivid, acidity sheers off the sweetness but very long.

The following are a collection of vintage bottlings sampled during our formal tastings (with statistics) and with meals (no statistics.)

Blandy’s Madeira Verdelho 1979

82 g/l RS, 9 g/l TA

Interesting aromas of wall paper paste, brown sugar carrots, aged sheep’s milk cheese, beef bouillon; Palate is quite sweet at first, extraordinary concentration, very long although dries out quite a bit during the long finish.

Blandy’s Madeira Sercial 1975

58 g/l RS, 8 g/l TA

Words could not describe this wine, or at least I forgot to write a tasting note?

Blandy’s Madeira Terrantez 1976

This is a very rare variety on the island, considered by most producers as the finest quality

100+ g/l RS

Nose is deeply salty, beef broth, dried mushroom, toasted caraway seeds, blood orange caramel; Palate is nicely sweet at first, vivid acidity and a mushroomy, earthy quality, very long, still almost dry.

Blandy’s Madeira Terrantez 1977

Exotically sweet nose of vanilla, creme brûlée, cardamon, nutmeg, Maduro cigar wrapper, orange marmalade; Palate is quite rich to start, has vivid acidity but an almost tannic bitterness, (high cisinic acid), sheared finish.

Blandy’s Madeira Bual 1966

76 g/l RS, 10.5 g/l TA

Nose is quite syrupy, blood orange caramel and bitter orange marmalade, Claro cigar wrapper, maple syrup; Palate is quite vivid and tight, very nice concentration but held up quite a bit by acidity.  This one might last forever.

Blandy’s Madeira Bual 1920

Nose is almost citric, beef bouillon, toasted pecan, sea salt, juniper, subtle volatile acidity, treacle syrup, bitter orange peel; Palate is quite concentrated but vivid acidity, almost a streak of tannin, incredible, long, savory finish

Madeira Diary – Day 3 – Grapes, Winemaking & Aging

by timswine on Monday, October 12, 2015

If you are following these posts then you know by now that Madeira is a very special place.  The climate, geography and history alone make Madeira fascinating enough that serious wine fans should want to understand more.  This post will focus on what makes the wine so interesting; how the grapes are grown, the wines are made and then most important, the aging process.

When oidium and then phylloxera wiped out the roughly 50,000 acres of vines on the island between the 1850’s and the 1870’s, only a fraction of them were ever replaced.  The second death blow came between the Russian revolution and American prohibition, which eliminated the two top markets for the wines.  The 20th century saw a steady decline in wine sales and with that, vineyard plantings.  Today there are only about 3000 acres of vines planted on the island.  The average grower dedicates less than two acres to a vineyard planting, most of which are located on steep, terraced hillsides. The largest contiguous planting on the island is only about 100 acres and lies on the north side of the island.

In an effort to maximize the use of land, most growers plant their grapes using pergola trellising.  This is done by training the vines to climb poles and then the canes are dropped across a network of wires so the grapes can hang below the leaf canopy.  This serves two purposes, allowing the owners to plant the soil below with food crops and the leaves protect the grapes from sunburn.  I did see several vineyards using vertical trellising but the training of the canes is far less sophisticated than anything you will see in modern commercial vineyards.

According to the official reports 80%-85% of the vineyards are planted to a black grape variety, Tinta Negra Mole.  This variety is easier to grow and is used for less expensive wines than the higher quality white varieties, Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey.  The reason it is so popular is the white varieties are quite fragile.  With regard to the white varieties, Chris Blandy told us that on many occasions they will examine a crop that is ready to pick on one day, then an evening rain will occur and the grapes can be ruined the next day before the pickers can harvest.  For this reason several other varieties are almost extinct, including Terrantaz, Moscatel and Bastardo.

For the quality producers the grapes are hand harvested and they use a color coded system of 25 kg plastic tubs to identify grapes they will be purchasing.  It is not uncommon that a producer has such as small parcel that their whole crop may be only a few hundred kilos of grapes.  These tubs are transported to the wineries, weighed then quickly processed.

Unlike producers of table wines, for Madeira there is very little difference in fermentation between the black and white varieties.  Tinta Negra is destemmed and at the Madeira Wine Company the grapes are fed down a long, 50 meter trough before being pumped into a fermentor.  This is the extent of the skin contact but as you will see with the aging process, that is not very important.  The white varieties are destemmed then immediately pressed off the skins and pumped into fermentors.  As Madeira is a fortified wine the alcoholic fermentations proceed until the wine is 5-6% alcohol, at which time neutral grape spirit is added increasing the content to 18-20% and arresting the fermentation.  Prior to the Symington ownership of the Madeira Wine Company (MWC), the wines were fermented to complete dryness, fortified and then grape must was added back to the wines to adjust sweetness.

What makes the aging process so specific to Madeira wines is the effort to simulate the effect of transporting the barrels across the ocean during colonial times.  In those years the barrels were loaded into the hold of a ship to act as ballast  for long journeys.  As Madeira was one of the main shipping ports for all English colonies the wines would spend months, and sometimes years, crossing the oceans.  During these trips the wine would evaporate, oxidize and concentrate, creating the unique character that is distinct of Madeira wines.  To simulate this process the wine producers of Madeira now store the wine in warm lodges (warehouses) and use a very unique aging process called estufagem.

At MWC the wines made from Tinta Negra Mole are treated differently than those of white varieties.  After the wines are fortified they are moved to large, 50,000 liter tanks laced with heating pipes.  The wine is then gently heated to a little over 110 degrees (F) where it is held for four months.  This is the estufagem process and is a way of hastening the aging that naturally occurs in barrel.  AT MWC the wines made from Tinta Negra are then used for their lesser labels, Miles and Leacock’s as well as the Rainwater wines (more about those on day 4) for Cossart-Gordon and Blandy’s.  I should also point out that at MWC a large amount of Tinta Negra is barrel aged as well and that too is blended into their Rainwater bottlings.

By contrast, after fortification the white variety wines are moved to oak barrels, where they are aged in four different lodges for years, often decades.  These lodges have several floors each and as you might expect in a sub-tropic climate the top floors are hot.  On the top floor the wines will loose between 8-10% of their volume through evaporation in the first year or two of aging, and unlike table wines the barrels are not “topped up.”  This allows for a greater level of oxidation, concentrating the wines and stabilizing the color, which eventually is brown.  (Remember I said that color was not important at fermentation?)  Each variety and vintage is kept separate, so the Blandy’s own thousands of barrels, tended by a team of 4 full time experts who repair any leaks.  For this reason the MWC have not purchased a new barrel in over 50 years and many of them are over 200 years old. These barrels are moved the around the lodges and the evaporation is closely measured and controlled. When there is not enough left of a particular grape variety and vintage the wine is moved to a collection of glass demijohns.  Chris hinted that they may come out with a “Demijohn collection” someday of the very best vintages.

The final step of the production occurs when winemaker Francisco Albequerque crafts each blend for the four MWC houses.  In an average year they bottle 80+ different wines, adhering to the traditional style of the four houses.  Francisco uses barrels from many vintages to create the blends that ultimately become the Rainwaters, 5 and 10 year blends, vintage wine as well as their latest creation, Colheita bottlings.  More on these with the Day 4 post.

Madeira Diary – Day 2 – The Blandy’s – 1808 to Infinity and Beyond

Sunday, October 4, 2015

On our first full day on Madeira my travel companions and I were treated to a tour of the south side of the island on a fishing boat.  Although I am prone to sea sickness the waters were calm and … Continued

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Madeira Diary – Day 1 – The fun is just getting there

Friday, September 11, 2015

If you found this blog based on my social media posts then probably the first question you are asking is, “why is Madeira so special that Tim is flying 19 hours to get there.”  The second  question you probably should … Continued

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The Fact(s) about Arsenic in Wine

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

In case you missed it on the evening news or your FB feed, last week a class action suit was filed against the producers of inexpensive wines claiming they were dangerously high in arsenic.  The initial comments on my FB … Continued

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Sunday Night Dinner – At it’s best

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

As I have often written in my weekly newsletter and club offerings, Sunday is my big cooking night and it usually means something special is coming out of the cellar.  This week we had an additional reason to celebrate, our … Continued

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