Friday, February 12, 2016

The Historic Madeira Wines of D'Oliveiras

During a recent epic trip to the island of Madeira earlier this month, I tasted a whole lot of wines. This small island (falling under Portuguese authority but located closer to Morocco) is home to just eight producers, and I visited six.

And the best was saved for last: Pereira D'Olveiras.

Formed in 1850, D'Oliveiras was a family firm that bought out six producers and exporters of Madeira and placed them under one umbrella. With 170 years as a company, D'Oliveiras has a large stock of very old and very rare wines (Bastardo from the 1920s, Verdelho and Moscatel from the 1800s). These wines are loved by collectors and respected by Madeira cognoscenti. But while the ancient wines deservedly cost a lot of money, D’Oliveiras produces stellar wines at all price points. They have a complex, nuanced approach to each classic style of Madeira.  

Unlike a lot of other producers on the island that bottle several different brands under labels for specific markets, D’Oliveiras is just D’Oliveiras. They stand by their name alone (with classic, old-school labels), producing some of the most profound fortified wines on the island, nay, the world.  

After a week of tasting Madeira, to be honest, I had to gather up my palate strength for this tasting. But once I set foot in this old warehouse in downtown Funchal, any fatigue dissipated. An aura of important history swept over me, and I felt energized, even honored, to be tasting such a stellar lineup of wines.

The tasting was absurd in the amount of phenomenal wines tasted in one sitting, which included a few of the best wines I've ever tasted in my life. My only problem was with the stemware. The glasses provided were those tiny tasting glasses with tapered rims, which makes it really hard to get your nose in there, and it accentuates the alcohol on fortified wines. I would've loved to taste these wines in proper stemware so I could really swirl and get the full tasting experience. Still - what a treat to taste these beauties.

Here are my notes from an epic tasting…

Light gold/orange color. Floral aromas with yellow apples. Fresh and vibrant, pleasantly salty, lovely dried fruits. A sense of honeyed and nutty richness but stays pure. Not the most complex wine but very nice stuff. (88 points)

1989 D'Oliveiras Madeira Sercial - Portugal, Madeira
Smells of cognac, caramel and orange peel. Silky but so bright and alive. Wow, this has insane acidity but it's also plush and smooth. Full of zesty citrus fruit and salty complexity. (93 points)

1977 D'Oliveiras Madeira Sercial - Portugal, Madeira
Light brown color. Gorgeous aromas of sea spray, almond, bitter lemon, orange peel, slight cheese rind. So bright and ripping, the acidity goes to 11 on this one. Flavors of orange peel, preserved lemon, dried honey, salted nuts, honeyed and spiced tea. Wow, this is gorgeous in its complexity. Very tart but balanced a bit by the weight and richness of the wine. Classic stuff. (95 points)

Casks of Madeira age and tower over the tasting room at D'Oliveiras.
1937 D'Oliveiras Madeira Sercial - Portugal, Madeira
Deep orange/tawny color. Smells of dried flowers, orange peels and honeycomb, along with grapefruit and tobacco — unique aromas. Such penetrating acidity on the palate, it's extreme. A total freak of a wine, perhaps the most crazily acidic wine I've ever tasted. The flavors are so cool and strange: old cigar, crusty sea salt, jetty rocks. I can't call this balanced, and I don't know what arbitrary number to throw at it. It was definitely a unique experience, although I could not drink a full glass of this.

2000 D'Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho - Portugal, Madeira
Smells of yellow apples and floral perfume. On the palate this is pretty and elegant with complex fruit flavors (peach nectar, juicy yellow apples, apricot jam), along with a host of non fruit elements: tropical flowers, almonds, sea salt and white tea. Complex, beautiful stuff. at 30 Euros, I had to buy a bottle for the cellar. (93 points)

1988 D'Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho - Portugal, Madeira
Aromas of floral perfume, Cognac, dried pineapples and apricots. Creamy palate, well-rounded and integrated with tartness from the acid. Yellow apples and apricot jam with notes of spice and sea spray. (91 points)

1971 D'Oliveiras Madeira Terrantez Colheita - Portugal, Madeira
Rocking aromas here: yellow apples, dried apricots, peach nectar, Cognac, salted almond and sea spray. Tart and bright on the palate, so tangy yet chewy, with rich orange peel and apricot. I also get cigar smoke, clover and wildflowers. A beautiful wine. (94 points)

Ridiculously good stuff. Holy shit.
1927 D'Oliveiras Madeira Bastardo - Portugal, Madeira
I am so blown away by this wine. It's not just intellectually and historically fascinating, it has amazing and haunting aromas and flavors, and the complexity is ridiculous. On the nose, I get dried fruits, nuts, surprisingly fresh flowers, salt air, white pepper, all of it nuanced and gorgeous. The palate is silky but tart, and I can't believe the liveliness, purity and vibrancy on this wine. The fruit is not just kicking, it comes out swinging with oranges, sliced pears and dried mango. The complex elements of smoke, nuts, spice and earth are profound. So balanced and elegant, so long and pure. Unbelievable stuff. (98

1912 D'Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho - Portugal, Madeira
There aromas are so cool: cigar smoke, old leather, savory spices, musk. Round and full but really zesty. Still vibrant, although not much fruit. This wine is all about the dried flower, nuts, leather jacket, cigar lounge and musk elements. The acid is keeps it lively. Wow. (95 points)

1890 D'Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho - Portugal, Madeira
A real treat to taste. I get some orange peel, honeycomb, caramel and green coffee aromas. So pure and smooth on the palate, I can't believe how balanced and precise this wine is. Filled with tobacco, peppper, floral spice, roasted chestnut and coffee bean. No real fruit here, but the other flavors are rocking and the wine stays bright and tangy. Long finish with notes of mineral and quinine. Wow. (97 points)

N.V. D'Oliveiras Madeira 15 Years Medium Sweet - Portugal, Madeira
Aromas of sweet caramel, apricot jam, pineapple cake and brown sugar. Juicy apple mixed with dried apricot. Spicy, floral notes with brown sugar and a medium-length, nutty finish. Really tasty stuff. (88 points)

1993 D'Oliveiras Madeira Boal - Portugal, Madeira
Smells of dates, figs and caramel. Hmm, on the palate, this is a bit off. It's not corked, but it's strange, funky and dusty. Acerbic , acrid, just strange. Not rated.

1982 D'Oliveiras Madeira Boal - Portugal, Madeira
OK, this one's on point. Rich aromas of trail mix, honey and dried apricots. Bold style but still bright and well-integrated. Dates, figs, caramel, nuts and honey, all of it balanced and smooth. (92 points)

1968 D'Oliveiras Madeira Boal - Portugal, Madeira
Aromas of orange marmalade, dried apricots, sweet caramel, clove and floral potpourri. Tart and zesty on the palate, this is a bold but sharp wine. Flavors of apricot jam, almond, coffee, spiced tea, floral perfume, and a mix of candied and salted nuts. (93 points)

1908 D'Oliveiras Madeira Boal - Portugal, Madeira
I really wanted to freak out about this wine. I mean, I like it a lot, but it's quite austere. Very sharp aromas, some caramel and nuts rise above the volatile acidity. Rich and dense on the palate, it tastes very roasted and baked, like coffee cake, baked figs and hot caramel. The volatile acidity is quite sharp. Interesting stuff, but (for my palate) this isn't a sip-a-whole-glass kind of Madeira. (88 points)

N.V. D'Oliveiras Madeira 15 year old Sweet - Portugal, Madeira
Aromas of brown sugar, apricot jam and caramel. Sweet and plump on the palate, juicy and sugary with sweet dates, fig paste and caramel. A bit simple, but tasty and fun. (87 points)

2002 D'Oliveiras Madeira Malvazia Colheita - Portugal, Madeira
Nose of bright flowers (quite fresh for a Malvasia). Juicy and sweet but not too brown sugary or baked. More nuanced floral and honey flavors. (90 points)

1991 D'Oliveiras Madeira Malvazia - Portugal, Madeira
Gorgeous aromas of dried flowers, spiced tea and clover honey. Sweet, plush, smooth and sexy on the palate. Rich but put together so well. Yeah, this is popping. Finishes with delicious flavors of brown sugar and sticky buns. (93 points)

1901 D'Oliveiras Madeira Malvazia - Portugal, Madeira
Deep gold/light orange color. Smells of sweet caramel, spiced tea, clove and cinnamon. Full and rich but the acidity is precise. Flavors of dates and figs are still going strong. Complex elements of salted almond, wax, wood polish. Long finish. Still going strong but the focus is on point. (94 points)

The 1850 was the best wine I've ever tasted.
1875 D'Oliveiras Madeira Moscatel Reserva (Portugal, Madeira)
 God, what a cool wine. Smells of dried pineapple, sweet clove, cherry wood, menthol, eucalyptus and leather, all of the aromas of complex, nuanced and exciting. Sweet but balanced on the palate, this is wacky good. Leather, coffee, cherry wood, dusty library, herbal bitters, eucalyptus, vapor rub, these flavors are uniquely and complex. The wine is seamless on the with its richness and acidity. Crazy-long finish. (97 points)

1850 D'Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho - Portugal, Madeira
It's so difficult to wrap my head around an historic wine like this. First of all, it's an intellectually fascinating experience, which evokes dreams of centuries past. I won't claim to be able to separate the historical significance of the wine from the sensory experience of tasting the wine. But, tasting the wine itself is one of the most amazing experiences in my wine lifetime. I'll attempt to describe this thing. First off, it still has fruit on the nose, kind of like quince paste and preserved lemon, but I get complex elements of clove, old furniture shop, cigar smoke and wood varnish. On the palate, this wine shows a pleasant bitterness, while the sweetness balances perfectly with the high acidity. One flavor evolves into another, and into another, and then back again, like a blissful circle. I'll throw some words at a few of these flavors: caramel, varnished wood, cigar box, candle wax, leather, sea salt, yellow raisins, candied lemon peel, old library books, sweet floral potpourri, spiced tea. The complexity is ridiculous. So, this is an incredible intellectual experience in and of itself, but the aromas and flavors of this wine are ethereal. Perhaps the best thing to ever grace my palate. (99 points)

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