Friday, October 30, 2015

Madeira: A Primer on One of the World’s Most Distinctive Wines

“Things need changing everywhere you go,” the wise Johnny Cash once said. On the remote Atlantic island of Madeira, however, things have stayed quite the same. And thats a great thing. Wine producers on this island are rocking the same old gig and preserving the unique viticultural history that won this region global fame.

Madeira is perhaps the most storied wine in the world. Madeira is a volcanic island located off the coast of Morocco, some 250 miles north of the Canary Islands, although the island falls under Portuguese authority. Everything about the island, its history and its wine seems almost too incredible to be true. From the island’s discovery by Portuguese explorers in the early 1400s, to the massive fire that engulfed the island for seven years, to America’s founding fathers toasting to a new nation with glasses of Madeira — the wine is iconic.

To a new generation of wine drinkers, those looking to discover a unique and fascinating wine, Madeira offers an experience like no other.

Terraced vineyards cling to steep slopes on the island of Madeira. 
“This is one of the great stories of wine,” Master Sommelier Andy Myers recently said at a Madeira tasting event. The Madeira Wine Institute (the island’s governing body) sponsored the tasting and lecture in Washington, DC, recently, which was led by Myers and Madeira expert Rui Falcao.

Madeira wines are fortified with neutral spirits distilled from grapes grown elsewhere — anywhere, as Madeira producers are “not going to waste our own grapes,” Falcao said. Then the magic begins: The wines are allowed to age for years, even decades, with exposure to lots of heat and lots of oxygen (wine’s two mortal enemies). Yet this topsy-turvy winemaking has been responsible for centuries of incredible vino. When the wines are released after various periods of aging, they can further age for generations. “We beat it up so much in its infancy,” Falcao said, “that it can take pretty much whatever.”

“If nothing else, there is something that makes Madeira unique, and that is the aging,” Falcao told the room full of tasters. He opined about a beautiful Madeira he tasted from the early 1700s, which was, he said, “still bursting with life.” These wines are big hits with sommeliers because they stay fresh for weeks after being opened, making them perfect by-the-glass list items. And, of course, the wines are absolutely delicious to sip in small amounts.

Nothing seems easy about growing grapes on Madeira. There is almost no flat land, the soils are poor and the climate is nothing like most of the world’s other famous wine regions. The climate is characterized by moderate heat (temperatures frequently hover in the 70s for much of the year), lots of humidity, lots of fog and mist, and very little seasonable variation. This means the grape vines don’t enter a traditional dormant period in the winter, like vines grown in more continental climates. But, Falcao says, this is just another example of how Madeira producers can turn “something that should be awful into something sublime.”

Some 1,300 growers carve out a living by tending 1,200 acres of grapes, meaning the average vineyard holding is miniscule in comparison the great estates of mainland European regions. “Estate” vineyards (those owned by the wine producer) are almost non-existent here. While there were once dozens of Madeira producers, market concentration has whittled them down to eight remaining houses. As such, it’s a relatively small winemaking scene with a comparatively small amount of bottles coming off the island. “This is a nice market wine,” Falcao admits. “This is a geek wine.”

Unlike many Old World wine regions, Madeiras frequently carry the name of the grape on the label. The style of the wine aligns with the name of the grape used, so the conscientious consumer can know what they’re getting into. From dry to richly sweet, the wines are labeled: Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia. (You’ll see Boal used interchangeably with Bual, same for Malvasia and Malmsey.) Sercials can have a brightness to them despite the generous texture and alcohol, and they’re great for aperitifs, mixed nuts and lighter cheeses. Go up the sweetness scale to Malvasia, and you’re looking at unctuous, lush wines that can pair with all sorts of deserts — or they make a great desert on their own. Tinta Negra is a red workhorse grape that is vinified like white grapes, so the color looks comparable to white varietal wines. The word Tinta Negra doesn’t frequently appear on the wine label, so a wine without Sercial, Verdelho, Boal or Malvasia on the label can be reasonably assumed to come from Tinta Negra, Falcoa explained.

Regardless of whatever baggage the grape has or had, it is clearly capable of producing some stunning Madeira wines.

I tasted the wines sighted and have included my notes below.

Pale butterscotch color. Lovely aromas of almond, peanut brittle, apricot preserves, honeycomb, lemon oil and a faint hint of salty air. The palate is rich but dry and maintains freshness throughout. Creamy peaches and dried apricots play with honey, spiced cider and ginger. There’s a pleasant bitterness and saltiness to this wine that makes me crave all sorts of cheeses, dried fruits and nuts. (91 points)

Dark caramel colored. A bit compact aromatically but swirling coaxes out dried mango, candied orange peel, caramel and bitter chocolate. Unctuous on the palate with gorgeous depth, moderately sweet but still refreshing. I get dried mango, bruised apple, dates, caramel, olive oil and a note that reminds me of sweet pepper jam. Crazy complex and full of life. Made from Tinta Negra. (93 points)

Deep copper color. Rich nose of dried pineapples and mangos, fig paste, spiced tea, almond and peanut oils, dense dried flowers, just a whole range of complex aromas that bounce out of the glass. More citrusy on the palate, like tangerine and orange peels, this seems moderately sweet but is refreshingly bright. I get flavors of baked apple, cinnamon and ginger chews with a long, warm finish. Beautiful stuff. (92 points)

Light copper color. Gorgeous aromas of figs, apricot jam, clover honey, ginger snaps. Full and oh so creamy on the palate, honey, mango nectar, apricot jam and yellow plums comprise a richly harmonious wine. Long and silky with nuances of ginger, spiced tea and honeycomb. A creamy, full and rich Bual with lots to contemplate and enjoy. (92 points)

Dark caramel color. Lovely aromas of dried fruit trail mix, caramel, sweet tea, clove, aloe, all sorts of sweet spice notes. Rich and so silky yet stays forward and fresh, which is quite a thing. I pick up on flavors of apricot jam, dried pineapple, floral perfume, spiced apple cider and a really interesting salty note. Long, smooth, pure and persistent. Enjoy now or bury for your children or grandchildren to enjoy. (94 points)

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