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.