Madeira is ‘the other’ great fortified wine from Portugal. Located about 600 km southwest off the Portuguese coast, the main island of Madeira was ‘discovered’ by Portuguese settlers around the year 1420. Unfortunately, in their haste to settle the volcanic, sub tropical island and establish crops, they decided to clear the slopes of trees by burning and in the process killed almost all the vegetation.
In the end, the settlers built an amazingly intricate system of channels that carry water from the mountains in the north to the carved out terraces (poios) located on the southern coast of the main island. Over 40km of the channels carry water through tunnels. They planted vinifera white grapes that produce wines from driest to sweetest – Sercial, Verdelho, Bual/Boal and Malmsey (aka Malvasia). These ‘noble’ Madeira varietals are the ones accepted for EU labelling that must have 85% of the varietal in each bottle (since Portugal was accepted into the EU in 1993). Red wine based Madeira is usually made from Tinta Negra Mole, the most widely planted red varietal on the island, but as it’s considered a lesser quality grape and produces very high yields, the best quality wines are produced from the four whites.
This Blandy’s Rich Madeira is made by the Madeira Wine Company (MWC) which formed originally in 1913 as the Madeira Wine Association. It changed to the MWC name in 1981. In the 1700s, there were over 30 producers involved in the industry, but by 2000 there were only 6. MWC is run by two families, the Symingtons (of Port fame) and the Blandys in conjunction with Cossart + Gordon, Leacock and Miles. Together they represent over 20 different brands and have introduced new and unique ways to promote Madeira wines (Alvada, Colheita and Vintage).
This wine is clear and bright, medium brown with legs noted.
On the nose it’s developed and clean with medium intense aromas of brown sugar, molasses, gingerbread, fig newton and clove.
The palate is medium sweet with medium plus acidity (the main marker that would identify it as Madeira as opposed to Sherry in a blind tasting), high fortification and alcohol, medium body and flavour aromas of burnt Demerara, orange conserve, toffee, ginger, clove and Christmas cake. The finish is medium plus.
Very good quality wine, the alcohol is integrated, the acidity is refreshing and the flavour profile fresh. As an Alvada, it’s a combination of both Bual and Malmsey varietals and made oxidatively in the estufagem and canteiro method that mimics cooking the wine fortified with RCGM spirit as it would have been in the hull of a ship sailing over the equator.
Madeira wine and the fortified wine industry on the island managed to survive the ravages of oidium, phylloxera, the opening of the Suez Canal, the Russian Revolution and even American Prohibition (Madeira was the wine used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776). It’s still around and tasting great.