Tim's Wine

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

by timswine on 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 we left the marina in Funchal on a small, 30 foot boat for a four hour tour.  Cruising along the coastline it is easy to appreciate the beauty of the island and the majesty of it’s size and steepness.  I can only imagine what thoughts were racing through John Blandy’s mind when the island came into view when he landed there in 1808.

At the time of his arrival the island must have been a beehive of activity.  Napoleon Bonaparte was on the verge of invading Portugal and the royal family was leaving for their colony in Brazil.  The English, recognizing the importance of Madeira as a deep water port to restock their ships bound for their colonies, invaded and without bloodshed secured the island in late 1807.  The twenty-three year old Blandy arrived on the island in early 1808 as the quartermaster for General Beresford, who led the garrison.  Being in charge of provisions for the garrison, Blandy must have realized the potential of the port and after his service ended he remained on the island, opening a business managing and stocking ships.  In those days one of the island’s biggest products was wine, which was used as ballast for the ships.


John built a very successful shipping business on the island but it was his eldest son, Charles Ridpath Blandy, who would ultimately make them synonymous with the Madeira wine trade.  It happened in 1852 when an oidium outbreak ravaged the vineyards of the island and threatened supply.  Charles purchased huge stocks of aging wine to ensure their supply and making them the largest brand on the island.

For the remainder of the century the family expanded into many other businesses, handed down from father to eldest son, but at their core they remained Madeira producers. In 1925,  before the great depression, they along with several of their competitors, formed the Madeira Wine Company  so they could share some logistic and supply costs.  Over the next decade the Blandy’s bought out their partners and now are almost the sole owners of the company that includes Blandy’s, Cossart Gordon (the oldest firm on the island), Leacock’s and Miles.

They are “almost sole owners” of Madeira Wine Company because in 1989 the family sold their ownership to the Symington family, owners of Graham’s, Dow’s, Warres, Cockburns and the Quinta do Vesuvio Port houses.  With their ownership they introduced new technology and ideas to the business, as well as hiring winemaker Francisco Albuquerque.  I will address these changes to the winemaking on day four, The Wines.  Then, after 22 years out of the business the 7th generation, Chris Blandy, repurchased most of the stock in 2011 and put the company back under family management.   Now, along with the Symington family they are laying the foundations for the Madeira Wine Company to be the leaders of quality Madeira for years, perhaps centuries, to come.

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

by timswine on Friday, September 11, 2015

Madeira map

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 also be asking is, “what the hell is Madeira anyway?”

 The island of Madeira lies about 350 miles off the coast of Morocco, north of the Cape Verde islands that you hear referenced every time a tropical wave blows off the coast of Africa.  It is owned by Portugal and for that reason was an important part of the colonial trade triangle.  Boats carried slaves from Africa to the sugar plantations of Brazil, carried sugar and rum back to Europe and then down to Madeira, eventually, to load up on wine before that was carried to the new world.

      Madeira is a very special type of wine, that becomes interesting due to an extremely hot aging period.  In colonial times the casks of Madeira were loaded on ships and taken around the world, twice.  The constant rocking, heat and humidity of the ship’s hold “cooked” the wines and give them a very special, pronounced flavor.  You often see the word “cheese rind” used to describe Madeira, in a good way.  The wine geek term for this is “rancio” and is distinctive to wines aged under heat.  I won’t get too far into that with this post but watch early next week when I can post pictures and show you.

 Madeira vineyards     Madeira bottles

If you spend any time reading about the colonial period you will discover that our founding fathers spent a lot of time drinking.  Cider was the beverage of the daylight hours and Madeira was the tipple of choice in the evenings.  The wine was so popular in the English colonies, who would become the US, that we imported almost a quarter of the island’s total production.  Madeira was also the wine used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence and Washington’s inauguration.

     Madeira’s popularity started to wane in the 1830’s when a disease called oidium struck the island and killed off a substantial portion of vines.  Just as the industry started to recover the root louse phylloxera struck in 1873 and wiped out most of the remaining 6000 acres of vines.  Since that time the major agricultural crop of this subtropical island is bananas, although wine is starting to make a comeback.

Tomorrow … The Blandy’s and Madeira in the 21st century   


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