The Week That Terrantez Took Over My Brain (Tasting Old Terrantez Madeira)

Committee Boston

The Week That Terrantez Took Over My Brain (Tasting Old Terrantez Madeira)

Getting our Madeira on at Rouge Tomate Chelsea

“As uvas de Terrantez Não as coma nem as dês, Para vinho Deus as fez.” *

Earlier this month, I had what amounted to a kind of dream speaking gig for me: leading Madeira masterclasses in both Boston (at Committee) and NYC (at Rouge Tomate Chelsea).

Pinch meeeeeee!!!!

I was a hired gun for these events, so I had no hand in choosing the wines on offer during the classes or walk-around tastings; not that I’m complaining, since there was an embarrassment of riches in the lineups, ranging from the intriguing to the excellent to the pretty-much-life-changing.

Given that this was a paying gig, I didn’t want to formally review any of the wines on hand at the events, but I struggled with not sharing something from the wares we tasted on those days, if only because these are precisely the kind of wines that blow my dress up over my head. And so, I thought that I’d share something on the rarer side of these rare vinous treasures…

The Week That Terrantez Took Over My Brain (Tasting Old Terrantez Madeira)

Rouge Tomate Chelsea

And so, today the focus is on Terrantez, the not-related-to-Torrontes grape that has seen significant reductions in plantings on the island of Madeira over the least several decades, mostly to the fact that growers there began to hate the stuff. Terrantez performs rather poorly in the subtropical Madeira climate, falling prey to oidium and bunch rot.

This is a dastardly shame, because Terrantez arguably makes the most sublime Madeiras of all (and that’s saying something).

Usually vinified in the medium dry to medium sweet categories, Terrantez takes to Madeira’s canteiro process extremely well, keeping its perky acidity alive essentially forever, and somehow managing to hold on to small amounts of primary fruits after human lifetimes of barrel aging.

Terrantez took up a great deal of my vinous mental real-estate during the week of my Madeira speaking gigs; I quite literally dreamed about drinking it. Here are three examples why.

The Week That Terrantez Took Over My Brain (Tasting Old Terrantez Madeira)

The Week That Terrantez Took Over My Brain (Tasting Old Terrantez Madeira)Henriques & Henriques 20 Years Old Madeira Terrantez $130

H&H is primarily about power; they love to show off Madeira’s beauty and its brawn. That they are able to do this is, I think, largely a function of their impeccably cared-for canteiro aging system, consisting of very(!) old barrels and multiple aging floors. In this case, you get the spices, dried fruits, toasted nuts, and rum-raisin characters that you’d expect from the best Madeira wines, along with the mouth-punch combo of acid and booziness. But… you also are treated to the fine-tuned linear mouthfeel of Terrantez, and its almost ethereal nuances of herbs, citrus peel, and lime and tropical fruits buried deep, deep down at tits core. Phenomenal.

The Week That Terrantez Took Over My Brain (Tasting Old Terrantez Madeira)

The Week That Terrantez Took Over My Brain (Tasting Old Terrantez Madeira)1988 D’Oliverias Terrantez Madeira $150

This producer, of course, has the largest stock of old wines on the island, and so is a darling of geeks like me who still get a childish thrill from tasting the older stuff, reminiscent of how I used to feel when ripping the packages open on new Star Wars figures when I was 10. They are fond of offering wines that could be described as elegantly raw, in that they are as pure a representation of what comes out of the old barrels as one is likely to get from Madeira. Here, what you get is racy, run-the-gun acidity, candied fruit flavors, and the wafting presence of both fresh and dried flowers. A stunning little combination of elegance and grit.

The Week That Terrantez Took Over My Brain (Tasting Old Terrantez Madeira)

The Week That Terrantez Took Over My Brain (Tasting Old Terrantez Madeira)Justino’s 50 Years Old Terrantez Madeira $NA

This was the “ringer” that ended our masterclass tastings. The 50-year designation is new, with the first bottlings baring it having been released just last year. As you can imagine, it’s not easy to sit on a wine like this; as the Justino’s folks told me, in many cases when it comes to Madeira, “you’re making wine for the next generation.”

This one is well worth the patience and travails of former generations. It is one of the more complex beverages that you could ever put into your mouth; layers of spices, tobacco, dried fruits, caramel, nuts, toast… and at its core, the softer, rounder acidic edges that mark the Justino’s style, and those citrus peels and flowers that only Terrantez seems still able to deliver once it has passed middle age. It’s a ridiculously good wine, and one that I don’t think I’ll ever forget, no matter how much of it I consumed (and it was a substantial amount)…

* – “Terrantez grapes: neither eat them nor give them away, for God made them to produce wine.”


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89 Years Of Kicking Ass (1927 D’Oliveiras Bastardo Madeira)

I was heartened by all of the positive reaction to a recent Book of Face post regarding the combination of two aging souls who are still kicking all kinds of ass.

The first is my cousin Kathleen, who turned 89 years old this past Saturday. The second was a certain rare-ish Madeira wine that happens to share Kathleen’s birth year, and so became one of the (very) few wines that I actually purchased with my own hard-earned cash when I toured the Portuguese island earlier this year.

Both kick ass, but I’d give the edge to the one on the right.

Since posting the above photo of the two of them together at Kathleen’s birthday party, I’ve been contacted by, well, several of you about spilling the beans on how this wine tasted. And so I shall, but not before I give a shout-out to the coolest relative I’ve ever known…

89 Years Of Kicking Ass (1927 D’Oliveiras Bastardo Madeira)

At D’Oliveiras in Madeira

By most measures, Kathleen – who has lived roughly a mile from my childhood home for my entire lifetime – was my grandmother. I had a grandmother on my mother’s side, of course, with whom we lived and who my brother and I drove nearly crazy with our terrible behavior as kids; so while our relationship was good overall, I wouldn’t have called it deeply, emotionally close. I didn’t have much exposure to my grandmother on my father’s side, having decided quite early on that I’d learned enough about my father and his father to warrant avoiding them.

Kathleen played a key role for me while growing up; spoiling me, offering consistent help and helpful criticism, spotting me cash for Star Wars figure when I was a couple of dollars short, patiently listening to my yammering, often quick with jokes, and willing to goof around with the family kids. I have an early memory of walking hand-in-hand with her down the street on an errand when I was very young, with her explaining how to watch for traffic, and why and how we had to pay for whatever goods she was buying. I have much later memories of her lamenting over the performance of the Phillies, indoctrinating my daughter into the same family holiday traditions that she shared with me, and being quick to call bullsh*t on my ex-wife’s cheating. Always independent, she is only just now beginning to slow down.

The thing that really hits home with me, however, and is the real source of Kathleen’s ass-kicking karma kung-fu, is that I cannot recall a time, ever, when Kathleen wasn’t helping someone, taking care of an aging relative, hosting a family gathering, cooking for a small army… From my vantage point, she’s always been helping other people. Probably the best lesson she’s imparted to me, through observation of how she lived her life, was a sense that to tap into the better angels of our nature, we need to take care of others.

Hopefully, that provides some perspective on why I was so stoked to get a birth-year wine opened for this lady.

89 Years Of Kicking Ass (1927 D’Oliveiras Bastardo Madeira)

Overcast Madeira vineyards

89 Years Of Kicking Ass (1927 D’Oliveiras Bastardo Madeira)1927 D’Oliveiras Bastardo Reserva Madeira (Portugal, about $600)

When including this wine in my “Tasting Immortality” round-up of rare Madeira vintages for Palate Press, here’s what I had to say about it (from a tasting session held at D’Oliveiras):

89 Years Of Kicking Ass (1927 D’Oliveiras Bastardo Madeira)“Founded in 1850, the family-owned D’Oliveiras is sitting on some of the largest stock of older Madeira wine available, and has justifiably become famous for the quality of their oldest vintage releases, including rarities such as this Bastardo (a grape which has declined on the island due to its susceptibility to the oidium which thrives in Madeira’s humid climate). Cigar, dried herbs, black pepper, and both dried and fresh berry aromas nearly explode from the glass; the wine is fruity, zesty, nutty, and almost freakishly delicious at 89 years young.”

Bastardo is one of the few fine wine grapes used in Madeira and Port that isn’t native to Portugal; it’s more commonly known as Trousseau or Trousseau Noir in its home region of Eastern France. Like my cousin, it’s a rare breed (particularly on Madeira, due to its low humidity tolerance).

Having now imbibed the same wine from another bottle that traveled back with me to the States, I’m hard-pressed to expand to on that initial tasting note. I can add that it’s powerful, perky, and amazingly persistent. Among Madeira wines, which as you’ve probably noticed from the last few months’ worth of mini-reviews here (which I’ve flecked with gems tasted during my time on the island) is a region chock-full of unique wines, this wine stands out, which is about the highest praise that I think I could bestow on it at this point. After opening the bottle, confirming all was well, and dong the critic thang with a small taste before serving it to the party guests, I can tell you that it was a joy to imbibe.

In other words, it kicks almost as much ass as Kathleen does…


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Copyright © 2016. Originally at 89 Years Of Kicking Ass (1927 D’Oliveiras Bastardo Madeira) from - for personal, non-commercial use only. Cheers!

Barbeito: Tradition Done Differently

During a trip to Madeira earlier this month, I visited six of the eight producers on this volcanic Portuguese island. During each stop, I tried to conceptualize the producer’s individual aesthetic within the context of the larger Madeira puzzle.

D’Oliveiras was the wise elder of the group. H.H. Borges was the precise, focused practitioner. Barbeito was the skillful fighter, full of excitement.

Barbeito has been around since 1946, but in a land so rich with winemaking history, that actually makes it the youngest producer on the island of Madeira. (A new producer is in the works, but hasn’t yet brought any wines to market.) Barbeito is also the most innovative producer on the island, and the firm is offering up a host of options that should entice the next generation of wine-drinkers. Their wines (which total about a quarter-million liters per year) have a common racy appeal and attractive freshness. These wines scream “I’m fortified, but I’m so food friendly!” The colors are lighter, ranging from lemon rind to medium orange, and the labels are playful and bright.

The winery is located way up in the precarious hills above Funchal, a stark contrast from downtown street headquarters of Blandy’s, D’Oliveiras and Borges. This facility, opened in 2008, is steely and modern, boasting top-notch equipment like a robotic lugar (a machine that replicates the old tradition of stomping grapes by foot).

“Here we try to combine tradition with innovation,” Leandro Gouveia, Barbeito’s wine shop manager, told me during my visit.

Barbeito was the first Madeira house to use the grape variety Tinta Negra on the label. Tinta Negra, a red grape variety, is the most common grape on the island, but until recently the name was not permitted to be listed on the label. This stems from an old (but odd) perception that Tinta Negra is not a noble grape, like the heralded white varieties Sercial, Verdelho, Boal, Malvasia and Terrantez. Tinta Negra is handled just like a white grape, and despite its humble stature, the grape is behind some absolutely stunning wines, as Barbeito demonstrates.

Speaking of red grapes, Barbeito is also reintroducing Bastardo to the market. Yes, this awesomely named grape is a historical treasure in Madeira, but unless it’s a bottle from decades (or even centuries) past, you’re not likely to come across Bastardo on a label. Barbeito plans to release small amounts of Bastardo to see if it gains traction.

While I applaud Barbeito for trying some different things, the producer’s innovation and experimentation is completely relative. Barbetio’s efforts must been seen within the context of a tightly regulated wine industry that cherishes tradition above all else. This ain’t California. You can’t plant any grape anywhere, make a quirky wine and see if people will buy it. To bottle Madeira, one must follow a series of very specific rules over the course of many years. Every bottle of Madeira that goes to market has jumped through lots of hoops.

The Madeira Wine Institute, which regulates Madeira wine’s denomination of origin, certifies seemingly every aspect of the grape-growing, winemaking and aging processes. Finished wines are analyzed in a lab to ensure their sugar and acidity levels fall within the approved framework, and a tasting panel approves every wine before it is sold. Sercial is dry and Malvasia is richly sweet — period. You can’t bottle a dry Malvasia or a sweet Sercial. This sounds heavy-handed, but Madeira is a uniquely historic wine that is made with unique methods. And the MWI aims to keep it that way.

Rubina Viera, who heads up the Madeira Wine Institute’s tasting panel, told me that respecting the special heritage and history of Madeira is crucial to the survival of this wine. “If we sacrifice our history,” she said, “we will die.”

Barbeito isn’t sacrificing anything, but their efforts add a bit more texture to the overall canvas of Madeira wine.

Unfortunately, winemaker Ricardo Freitas wasn’t around when I visited. (Levi Dalton recently interviewed Barbeito winemaker Ricardo Freitas on his podcast, I’ll Drink to That. If you’re interested in Madeira and want a ton of in-depth information on Barbeito, this is an awesome resource.) Leandro Gouveia was an excellent host, however. He poured me a long lineup of Madeira wine to taste and answered my many questions.

First, we tasted some young wines, with the goal of analyzing the primary aromas and flavors. These wines had already been fortified to around 17% alcohol, two degrees below the usual bottling point of 19%. I was stoked to try these young wines because of the light they shine on the varietal characteristics of the grapes and the effect of Madeira’s unique aging process.

2015 Sercial (sample)
This is a skin-fermented wine in an “extra dry” style already fortified to about 17% alcohol. Smells salty and steely with bright citrus juice and pith. So bright and insanely salty on the palate (I love it!) along with flavors of green apple, orange peel, raw almond and sea salt. Tart, lively, this gets the whole palate firing.

2015 Tinta Negra (sample)
Very interesting to taste a young example of Tinta Negra, before it fully develops into classic Madeira. It’s a ruby color in the glass. Smells of ruby red grapefruit, juicy raspberries, dusty earth and violets. Tastes strong, powerful, with tart red fruits and sweet floral notes. Reminds me of a sample from a fermenting vat, but stronger. This wine was fortified to 17% once it reached 10% alcohol from natural fermentation.

2010 Tinta Negra (sample)
Interesting contrast to the 2015 Tinta Negra with its golden orange color. After five years of oxidation, this smells of honey, wildflowers, orange peels and almonds. Tart, almost searing, acidity, this is a powerful and demanding wine. All sorts of nuts and dried floral components along with some dried apricot and pineapple elements. Really interesting.

2015 Malvasia (sample)
Awesome to taste a young Malvasia. Smells of so many apples and green flowers. Juicy fruit on the palate, so much tropical and floral elements. A vibrant, juicy wine with lots of sweet complexities. I can see why this is made into a dessert wine.

Below are my notes on the finished wines I tasted with Leandro.

2004 Barbeito Madeira Tinta Negra Single Harvest Colheita – Portugal, Madeira
Light gold color. Smells of orange peel, sea spray and honey. Rushing acidity on the palate, this tangy wine shows lots of richness as well. Interesting flavor profile of yellow and green apples, oranges, bright lemon, along with notes of pecans and sea salt. A vibrant, punchy style but it’s also quite elegant. (92 points)

2001 Barbeito Madeira Malvasia Single Cask – Portugal, Madeira
Lovely gold color. Smells of tropical fruits, honey and sweet flowers. Rich and sweet but more tropical (less of the brown sugar and caramel). I get apricot jam, honey, date and lingering salted almond flavors. (88 points)

1998 Barbeito Madeira Ribeiro Real Tinta Negra Colheita – Portugal, Madeira
Orange colored. Smells of honey, orange marmalade and almonds. Bright acid on a richly-textured wine. Honey, almond, zesty orange, a distinctive note of red apple peel. So polished and fresh with a long finish. Complex and very enjoyable. (91 points)

N.V. Rare Wine Co. (Vinhos Barbeito) Madeira Historic Series Mr. Madison’s Malmsey – Portugal, Madeira
Sweet and floral on the nose with brown sugar and orange marmalade. Full, juicy and sweet but stays restrained and vibrant. Oranges, quince paste, honeys and almond amount to a moderately complex wine. (87 points)

N.V. Rare Wine Co. (Vinhos Barbeito) Madeira Historic Series Thomas Jefferson Special Reserve – Portugal, Madeira
Smells of orange peels, clovers and a crazily complex blend of nuts. High on the acid, this is a kicking wine, but it’s also really rich and nutty. The complexity of the mixed nut flavors is really impressive. Awesome stuff. A blend of different varieties in a medium-dry style. (91 points)

N.V. Rare Wine Co. (Vinhos Barbeito) Madeira Historic Series Charleston Sercial Special Reserve – Portugal, Madeira
Smells of dried nuts, honey and sea salt. Fresh, clean, nutty, well done with a spicy tangerine kick. (89 points)

N.V. Rare Wine Co. (Vinhos Barbeito) Madeira Historic Series Baltimore Rainwater – Portugal, Madeira
Fresh, lively aromas with spiced tea and flowers. Full but a fresher approach (18% alcohol). Smooth and easy to drink, but this is also surprisingly complex for this style. (88 points)

N.V. Rare Wine Co. (Vinhos Barbeito) Madeira Historic Series Savannah Verdelho Special Reserve – Portugal, Madeira
Orange and golden brown colored. Smooth honey and apricot jam aromas. Full and smooth on the palate, a lovely rich style but fresh acid keeps it together. Apricot, quince paste, honey, mixed nuts, this is seriously good stuff. (90 points)

N.V. Rare Wine Co. (Vinhos Barbeito) Madeira Historic Series Boston Bual Special Reserve – Portugal, Madeira
Rich aromatics of sweet brown sugar and pumpkin pie. Full, rich, yet lively and complex. This is one of the zestiest Bual’s I’ve tasted. Flavors of clove, brown sugar, figs and dates mix with bright citrus peel and salty notes. My favorite non-vintage Bual of the trip. (92 points)

1992 Barbeito Madeira Sercial Frasqueira – Portugal, Madeira
Salty aromas with dried orange and lemon pith. Tart and salty on the palate but smooth as well. Full of rocky, mineral notes along with dried nuts and caramel. Dry, tart, complex, very long finish. (93 points)

1992 Barbeito Madeira Boal Frasqueira – Portugal, Madeira
Whoa, holy volatile acidity! Smells of some crazy varnished wood, white tea, and orange marmalade. Spicy and tangy, this wine holds the VA well. Very fresh, almost tastes dry for a Bual. I get nutty and coffee notes followed by polished wood, baked pear, cinnamon spice. The finish is long and complex. Amazing how Madeira can turn make volatile acidity seem so damn attractive. (92 points)

N.V. Rare Wine Co. (Vinhos Barbeito) Madeira Historic Series New York Malmsey Special Reserve – Portugal, Madeira
Smells of polished wood and tart orange, some baked pear and sweet squash with cinnamon. Full of brown sugar and sweetness on the palate but this is still very balanced and maintains a salty tang on the finish. (90 points)

Barbeito: Tradition Done DifferentlyNote: The Ribeiro Reals are blended with 15% Tinta Negra from the 19th Century.

N.V. Barbeito Madeira Sercial Ribeiro Real 20 Years Old – Portugal, Madeira
Light orange color. Smells like sea spray, cut floral stems and raw almonds. Tart, crunchy and crusty on the palate, yet so complex. Tingling mineral notes mix with sliced orange, sweet tea, oyster shell and sea salt. A gorgeous Sercial. (94 points)

N.V. Barbeito Madeira Verdelho Ribeiro Real 20 Years Old – Portugal, Madeira
So floral and spicy on the nose, with clove, potpourri and sea spray. Sweet floral palate with rocking acidity, so pure and elegant but gorgeous richness. This is such a balanced wine with a pure beam of oceanic goodness that crashes over the yellow plum and mixed nut flavors. (94 points)

N.V. Barbeito Madeira Boal Ribeiro Real 20 Years Old – Portugal, Madeira
Smells like wood varnish and tart oranges. Rich and full but stays quite bright, too. I get yellow plums, baked apples and sweet floral tea. This doesn’t strike my palate as much as the Sercial and Verdelho Ribeiro Reals, but it’s still an impressive effort. (90 points)

N.V. Barbeito Madeira Malvasia Ribeiro Real 20 Years Old – Portugal, Madeira
Interesting golden color for a Malvasia (this golden color is a theme with Barbeito, it seems). I get cigar smoke, baked apple and wood varnish on the nose. Tastes like sweet candied tropical fruits but it’s refreshing. I also get cognac-like elements and some polished wood. Lovely freshness for a Malvasia. (91 points)

N.V. Barbeito Madeira Malvazia 20 Years Old – Portugal, Madeira
Sweet aromas but pleasantly bitter as well with complex spice and orange rind. Stays fresh despite the richness. Dried apricot, candied orange, pine sap, layered spice and anise cookie flavors. Complex and layered with lots of intrigue. Whoa. (94 points)

N.V. Barbeito Madeira Malvazia “Mãe Manuela” – Portugal, Madeira
What an absolutely gorgeous wine. Props to Ricardo Freitas for putting this wine together to honor his mother – it’s an amazing tribute. Smells of sweet clove, complex almond and pecan, baked squash, dried apricot, polished wood and anise. On the palate this is waxy and sweet but the balance is pristine. The complexity of flavors nears the absurd: nuts, dried fruits, minerals, sea salt, rooibos tea. Smooth, sweet, tangy, precise. This is phenomenal stuff. Includes wine dating back to 1880. (97 points)

Unfortified: The Still Wines of Madeira

Vineyard views from the north side of Madeira.

Like few other wines in the world, the wines from the island of Madeira are synonymous with their distinctive method of production. For centuries, producers here have fortified their wines with neutral spirits, then aged the wines in cask for long periods of time, oxidizing them and exposing them to heat. The result is one of the world’s winemaking gems — a seemingly indestructible wine that can age for centuries and retain its exotic characteristics for long after the bottle is opened.

After a week-long trip this Portuguese island, I have a whole lot to write about these magnificent wines and the island and people responsible for them. But, first, I wanted to explore the state of the island’s still wines. Yes, they make unfortified, dry, white and red table wines on Madeira. The wines ranged from the eccentric and odd to the refreshing and impressive.

The entire island is home to less than 500 hectares of vines, which cling to unreasonably steep hillsides in tiny, terraced vineyards. And still wine production counts for a mere 4-5% of the island’s total production. So there are not a lot of bottles to go around. The still Madeira wines (which fall under the appellation “DOP Madeirense”) are made in very small quantities, and the majority of the wine stays on the island. But the evolution of the still wine movement in Madeira signifies a desire to adapt and innovate. And that’s notable for a tremendously regulated wine industry on an island typified by a stick-to-your-guns respect for tradition and history.

As a collective group, DOP Madeirense white wines are fresh, vibrant, low in alcohol, high in acidity, and laced with citrus peel and floral flavors. Like seemingly everything produced on the island, the wines exude a sense of sea salt and oceanic vibrancy. As a surfer and lover of all things of the sea, these wines excite me. And they’re perfectly matched to local cuisine like lapas and scabbard fish. The red wines (frequently blends of two to five varieties) tend to have lighter tannic structure, high acidity, crunchy red fruit and plenty of earth and spice elements to go around.

While these wine are quirky, tasty and fit well on the table, it makes little sense for producers of still Madeira wine to export them. Portugal (which everyone here calls the Mainland) produces plenty of Verdelho, for example. And the Mainland has plenty of not-so-treacherous places to grow grapes. Like any major wine category, Mainland Verdelho can be very good, but there are many serviceable wines with large production and moderate price tags, something Madeira producers simply cannot match. A wine competition between the Mainland and Madeira is like pitting a heavyweight against a bantamweight. Madeira winemakers aren’t eager to step into that ring.

On the other hand, it makes little sense to import brisk, fresh white wines that pair wonderfully with local seafood when producers have access to at least some amount of quality white grapes on the island. More than one million people visit Madeira every year, and those people want to eat and drink everything the island has to offer. Madeira already imports a large amount of the food that appears on the restaurant table. Some producers figure they can make still wines for consumption right here on the island. And I’m glad these wines exist.

Before coming to the island, I had only heard vague rumors about Madeira’s still wine (mostly dismissive comments from people who had not tasted them). The roots of the still wine movement date back to the late 1970s. The Madeira Wine Institute (the governing body that regulates and certifies nearly every aspect of grape growing and wine production on the island) began experimenting with more than 50 different varieties to see which would be best suited for the production of unfortified Madeira. The answer, says the Institute’s President, Paula Cabaço, was clear: “Verdelho was the best.”

This certainly seems to be the case. Verdelho shows real promise as a still wine on Madeira. Several producers have bottled crisp, dry, bright examples of this grape, while others have blended it with an interesting mix of grapes (like Arnsburger) not used for the production of Madeira.

No one makes a commercially available still Malvasia, although I’m intrigued about the concept. However, there’s not a ton of the grape planted on the island, and the juice goes on to produce one of the most and long-lived wines on the world as a fortified sweet wine, Malvasia or Malmsey. So producers aren’t rushing to bottle, crisp, still wines for pounding on the patio. Same goes for Sercial and Boal (the other white grapes used for fortified wines).

Considering the rigid rules for Madeira production, it’s exciting to see producers experimenting with still wines: blending traditional white grapes with less traditional ones; using grapes like Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon; trying out blends of traditional Portuguese red grapes like Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz. I tasted one Verdelho and Arnsburger blend that was aged in some new oak. I thought the oak totally overwhelmed the brisk, salty elements of the wine (ultimately I didn’t enjoy the wine), but still wine producers are trying new things. And I like that. The total production is small, but the passion is evident.

While Madeira producers are obviously well equipped with the casks and space needed for the canteiro process (cask aging with exposure to heat and oxygen), many do not have the equipment needed to produce still wine. That’s where the MWI comes in. In 2002, the MWI set up their own winery with all the presses, tanks, etc., capable of producing still wine. And they allow producers to use that equipment to make their own still wine. However, producers have to cover the cost by paying the Institute for this service. Considering producers already have what they need to make fortified wine, this added cost is yet another barrier to the large-scale production of still Madeira wine.

Despite these hurdles, Barbara Spinola of the Institute’s Promotion Department, said there is strong support for the still wine project among Madeira producers. Today, she said, there are now more than 10 different still wine brands.

While the production of still white and red DOP Madeirense wines may has grown, there doesn’t seem to be much long-term prospect for significant growth in this area. To fully invest in making still wines on the island, growers and producers would have to make a sharp turn away from their deeply-held tradition of producing of the world’s best fortified wines. And there’s simply no impetus for making such a dramatic shift.

But a large fortified wine industry and a small still wine industry can both exist in the same place and time. And I hope there continues to be at least some demand for these still Madeira wines. When eating a piping hot plate of lapas, or some steamed scabbard fish, sipping on a brisk local wine is a tremendous experience. And for those looking to expand their palates and try new things, don’t hesitate if you see a rare bottle of DOP Madeirense. It won’t be the best still wine you’ve had all year, but it will certainly offer up a unique island experience. And if you visit Madeira and sit down at a restaurant, don’t think twice: order a DOP Madeirense.

Below are my tasting notes on a few of the still Madeira wines I tasted on a recent trip. All the wines were tasted sighted.

2014 Barbusano Verdelho – Portugal, Madeira, Madeirense
Bright orange and lemon aromas mixed with salt and white flowers. Tart acid on the palate, this is a brisk and salty wine, verging on intense, with flavors of orange and lemon peels, cheese rind and crusty sea salt. This is going to have a lot of haters, but when served with some sautéed lapas, this was an absolutely stellar pairing, and the unique and, honestly a bit strange, elements of the wine really hit it for my palate. (87 points IJB)

2013 Justino’s “Colombo” – Portugal, Madeira, Madeirense
A peachy and floral nose with lemon curd and saline notes as well. Bright and zesty on the palate with a streak of salty, briny flavors throughout. Lime and peaches topped with chalk and honeysuckle. Paired very nicely with a traditional Madeira lunch of lapas (limpets). A blend of Verdelho and Arnsburger. (85 points IJB)

2014 Justino’s Arnsburger “Colombo” – Portugal, Madeira, Madeirense
Bright and floral on the nose with crisp lemon and lime peel. Bright acid, a rocking verve of minerality makes this wine exciting. Flavors of green apple peel, lime, green pears, topped with chalk dust and quinine. Really fun stuff that fits perfectly on the lunch patio table. Exciting to see what some growers and producers are doing with this rare grape, Arnsburger (a cross between two clones of Riesling). (88 points IJB)

2014 Madeira Wine Company Rosé “Atlantis” – Portugal, Madeira, Madeirense
Really unique aromas of salt, cheese rind and white tea, some funky-peppery elements as well. Creamy texture with tart acid. Flavors of white cherries and lemon peel mix blended with sea salt and brine. It paired well with a rich scabbard fish soup, which brought out the acid even more. A Blandy’s still wine project made from Tinta Negra. (85 points IJB)

2014 Terras do Avô Verdelho – Portugal, Madeira, MadeirenseUnfortified: The Still Wines of Madeira
Light gold color. White peach, limes and airy notes of sea spray on the nose. Crisp, crunchy and briny on the palate, this tastes like straight-up salted lemons, crushed shells and big waves crashing on rocks. An absurdly oceanic wine, which makes sense because the grapes were grown 100 meters from the ocean. Considering my love for all things oceanic, yes, I enjoy this wine. But it’s a unique style for sure. (87 points IJB)

2012 Terras do Avô Tinto – Portugal, Madeira, Madeirense
Bright ruby color (no purple here). Smells spicy and peppery with notes of tobacco accenting the bright red currant fruit. Zippy acid, light tannic structure, a great wine to serve slightly chilled. Juicy red fruits but they are tart throughout, topped with notes of dusty earth and spices. A very refreshing red wine that paired nicely with pretty much everything on the table. A mid-Atlantic kitchen sink blend of Syrah, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. (86 points IJB)

2013 Beijo Madeirense – Portugal, Madeira, Madeirense
Juicy ruby color. Smells of smoky plums and currant compote, along with some roasted red pepper and cracked black pepper. Fleshy with dusty tannins but so tart and fresh. Vibrant, crunchy red berries mixed with anise, pepper and earthy tones. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Touriga Franca and Tinta Barroca. (87 points IJB)

Wine Reviews: Blandy’s 10-Year Madeira

Well, I’m headed off to Madeira tomorrow. I’m more than a bit stoked for this trip — this volcanic island jutting out of the Atlantic has been on my bucket list for years. I’ll be there for a week, tasting wine, touring vineyards, taking in the views and taking lots of notes.

When I get back, I’ll have a series of posts exploring this storied island and its eponymous wines.

In the meantime, and to get things kicked off, I tasted through four Madeiras from renowned producer Blandy’s. I previously tasted through Blandy’s 5-Year Madeiras, and I took the excuse of being snowed in by Winter Storm Jonas to taste through the 10-year wines from this producer.

All of these wines are aged 10 years in old American oak. These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted. They all retail for about $35 for a 500ml bottle.

Review: N.V. Blandy’s Madeira Sercial 10 Years Old – Portugal, Madeira
Medium gold color. Smells of orange peel, apricot, shaved ginger, almond and a mix of floral and slight herbal notes. Full and rich on the palate, but like a good Sercial the acid cleans it all up and keeps the wine fresh despite the richness. Flavors of baked apple and orange peel, topped with raw almond, ginger, dried white flowers, sea salt. Bold but so refreshing. I love Sercials for the way the bright crunchy aspects are integrated well with the richer flavors. (90 points IJB)

Review: N.V. Blandy’s Madeira Verdelho 10 Years Old – Portugal, Madeira
Light orange-caramel color. Some bright aromas of orange peel and lemon zinger tea mixed with elements of raw almond, olive oil, honey and caramel candies. Full but juicy on the palate with a bit of tanginess, light sweetness but the wine stays fresh. Orange marmalade, honeyed lemon tea, almond, olive oil, dried flowers – this has a lot of really intriguing flavors. Rich but nicely balanced – what I look for in Verdelho. (90 points IJB)

Review: N.V. Blandy’s Madeira Bual 10 Years Old – Portugal, Madeira
Light brown/dark orange color. Richer aromas of quince paste, dried apricot, honey, toasted almonds and clove. Rich texture, plenty of sweetness but that’s balanced (at least somewhat) by a bit of acidity. Nutty and honeyed flavor profile with flavors of apricot jam, dried mango, along with toasted almond, white tea, candied pecans, some spicy clove elements. I love the sweet richness, but the wine doesn’t feel overwhelming. A sweet wine that finishes fresh. (89 points IJB)

Review: N.V. Blandy’s Madeira Malmsey 10 Years Old - Portugal, Madeira
That classic copper brown color. Aromas of dates, fig paste, spiced pumpkin pie, caramel, honey, and a floral note lifting from the richness. Mouth-filling and unctuous on the palate but there’s a hint of freshness. Flavors of dates and figs blend with orange marmalade, molasses, honeycomb, pecan pie, clove and rich nougat. Rich but complex and ultimately damned enjoyable without being too heavy. (90 points IJB)

“The Worst Place In The World To Make Wine” (Tasting With The Madeira Wine Institute)

“The Worst Place In The World To Make Wine” (Tasting With The Madeira Wine Institute)“If you’re looking for the worst place in the world to make wine, Madeira would be a candidate.”

Also sprach Rui Falcão, during a recent tasting/masterclass for the media in Philly, hosted by the Madeira Wine Institute.

You see, this is why I love Madeira with a passion bordering on unreasonableness. And the border is quite close. And porous. It’s not a style of wine that could be planned or designed; it had to evolve. It’s the wine world’s version of the triumph of evolution over intelligent design. Well, that and the fact that it’s responsible for what might have been the single most interesting wine to ever get processed by my liver.

Falcão’s talk on the wines of Madeira was fascinating in its highlights of just how absurd Maderia wine is, and how f*cking lucky we wine geeks are to have it.

For starters, the raw material seems… well… underwhelming.

Compared to Champagne, the base wines for Madeira are “truly awful,” according to Falcão; these are wines that are obnoxiously high in acids, and laughably low in alcohol by volume. But of course, they then become “something extraordinary. Madeira is all about how you age the wine…”

Just thinking about the aging requirements of Madeira is enough to give logistics accountants headaches for weeks. Colheita versions can only be bottled after five years. Vintage wines must be aged for a minimum of twenty years before bottling. 2015 has seen the introduction of a new blended category, “over 50 years.” If you’re an impatient winemaker on the island of Madeira, you live in a kind of intellectual hell.

Of course, we’re talking about a fortified wine here, which in itself is interesting, seeing that the spirit used for fortification isn’t produced and distilled locally. It can’t be; less than eight percent of the island is available for farming, so there’s no space to devote to growing grapes meant for spirits.

“The Worst Place In The World To Make Wine” (Tasting With The Madeira Wine Institute)

What’s old is new again?

By the numbers, it would seem that winemaking on Madeira is a dying art. As of 2015, there are about eight wineries on Madeira (no, that isn’t a typo). Of the eight, one is new, and still aging their wines, and another was just purchased, so there are “really only six that matter in the export market right now,” according to Falcão.

Of those six producers, only two own vineyards. The largest is a ‘whopping’ ten acres. So, grapes are mostly sourced from growers, of which there are… about 2100. The average vineyard size? One acre (the largest is about thirty acres). The smallest grower, by the way, consists of three plants (no, that’s not a typo).

We’ve not even touched on the difficulties of Estufagem production, farming the poios terraces of the island’s steep slopes, and picking grapes from the latada trellised vine system. Or the fact that unlike just about every other aged wine, ever, “color means absolutely nothing with Madeira.”

The whole thing is just so wonderfully, gloriously f*cked up. Unlike the best of the wines produced from all of that potential dysfunction, some of which we’re about to get into below.


“The Worst Place In The World To Make Wine” (Tasting With The Madeira Wine Institute)NV Barbeito Historic Series Baltimore Rainwater Madeira (Madeira, $50)

A wine made for the U.S. market, by a small producer that is now under fifty percent Japanese ownership; and surprisingly, it’s unlike most of the more tepid Rainwater styles of Madeira you’re likely to encounter on U.S. store shelves. The blend is a five-year, mostly Verdelho with a “dash” of Sercial. The nose is delicate, juicy, and energetic, with nuts, rancio, and some caramel. The palate is great-jumpin’-acids! fresh. The finish is long, with dried fruits, spices, and a kiss of caramel sweetness. Probably the most complex, elegant Rainwater you’re gonna get.


“The Worst Place In The World To Make Wine” (Tasting With The Madeira Wine Institute)H&H Verdelho 20 Años (Madeira, $100)

A company founded by two unrelated families who conveniently shared the same surname; a medium-sized producer (by Madeira standards, anyway), and now mostly French-owned. There’s a lot to wrap your head around in this wine. It starts earthy and herbal, with a ton of toasted nut aromas, followed by fresh fruits and sultana. I know the color is meaningless, but the amber hue of this stuff is downright lovely to behold. The palate starts sweet, but quickly hits you with a jolt of electric acidity, Sherry notes, structural bitterness, and alcoholic power, finishing with orange peel and coffee (and that finish is in no hurry to go anywhere). Elegant stuff, and probably in need of food to fully appreciate its vibrancy.


“The Worst Place In The World To Make Wine” (Tasting With The Madeira Wine Institute)1973 D’Oliveira Verdelho (Madeira, $150)

This family-owned producer is justifiably famous, though quite small, and has been in the Madeira business since 1850; it’s now a wealthy passion project with a patient, hands-off winemaking aproach. As Rui Falcão put it, “every year, they try to make a vintage; they do nothing, and after twenty years, they check it.” There is nothing shy, or simple, about this wine. The sherried nose is herbal, with dried fruits, nuts, saline, and caramel aromas that rise up and are detectable several inches above the glass (if your schnoz is as big as mine is, anyway). The palate is medium dry, intense, textural, powerful, fresh, dynamic, nutty, and downright electrified. I loved the mouthfeel of this wine; it’s fantastically balanced, and kicks gustatory ass all the way to the toffee-filled, nutty, extended finish.


“The Worst Place In The World To Make Wine” (Tasting With The Madeira Wine Institute)1996 Broadbent Colheita Madeira (Madeira, $45)

Made from Tinta Negra, this is a great wine to use for acquainting yourself with the island’s higher-end wares. While not as elegantly balanced, lengthy, or coherent as the above wines, it’s consistent, solid, and delicious. There’s rancio, caramel, coffee, nuts, a bit of alcohol heat, medium sweetness, and great acidity… just textbook upper-echelon Madeira.

“The Worst Place In The World To Make Wine” (Tasting With The Madeira Wine Institute)

“The Worst Place In The World To Make Wine” (Tasting With The Madeira Wine Institute)2002 Blandy’s Colheita Bual (Madeira, $50)

English-owned, and another well-known Madeira brand name. That UK sense of propriety is all over this wine; it’s a classic presentation, a nice introduction to the rich Bual style, and an overall excellent introduction to Madeira in general. Fresh as all get-out, generous with sweet, fruity richness, and laden with lovely caramel, coffee, raisin, and dried fruit aromas.


“The Worst Place In The World To Make Wine” (Tasting With The Madeira Wine Institute)1901 D’Oliveiras Malvasia Reserva Vintage Madeira (Madeira, $650 – no, that’s not a typo)

Technically, this is not the oldest wine that I’ve ever had, but it’s damn close. Part of the fun of Madeira is witnessing its nigh-indestructible nature up-close; hell, part of the fun of being in the wine media biz is getting to taste old Madeira, period. I drank this more so than I tasted it, because, well, f*cking 1901. There’s more rancio, roasted walnut, coffee, spice, and marmalade action on these older D’Oliveiras wines, but the thing that stands out most to me in this case is the intensity; you’re just unlikely to have anything kick your ass (in a good way) as thoroughly and completely as this.


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