Madeira Diary – Day 3 – Grapes, Winemaking & Aging

Tim's Wine Market

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.