It was only through sheer luck that I was able to attend the masterclass at all as by the time I registered all available slots had been taken up. I persisted though, hanging around the embassy until the organisers informed me that due to a no-show a vacancy had opened. The rewards of stubbornness! Madeira is a wine seldom seen in Singapore and I’d be damned if I was going to pass up a chance to taste some examples.
Madeira is both the name of the wine and the island that it originates from. Part of Portugal, it lies in the Atlantic Ocean and has a markedly hot Mediterranean climate with a mean temperature of 19°C. Rainfall is variable, with around 3000mm at high altitudes and 500mm along the south coast near sea level. Irrigation, provided through a series of canals called “levadas”, supplements the water requirements of the vine.
Grapes are planted on terraces called “poios”, buffered by walls of basaltic stone. Land is scarce on this island of 732 km2 so vineyards utilise the “latada” system, which suspends the vines off the ground on stakes. This allows growers to plant other crops under the vines, and also reduces the risk of fungal diseases by improving air flow. The soil is volcanic and rich in organic matter, which is an important factor in maintaining the acidity of the wine. There are around 1200 growers on the island, a large number with some growers only having 4-5 vines. According to Falcao, this is a challenge for the winemakers because for each grower they need to vinify the grapes separately.
The demand for Madeira was helped by the island’s strategic location along major trading routes. In the 17th and 18th centuries Madeira served as an important port of call between the Americas, Europe and the West Indies. To preserve the wine during these long sea voyages, grape spirit would be added to it. It was discovered that the heat from these journeys (no refrigeration back then!) would transform the wine into a completely different elixir that was more stable and had a complex, oxidised character. These wines came to be known as “Vinho da Roda” or round-trip wines. Due to the expense of these voyages, modern Madeira is made by simulating the process either through direct heating or tanks installed with hot water coils.
Unlike the majority of Portuguese table wines which are a blend of different grapes, Madeira is a single-variety wine. The grape variety also indicates the style of the wine, thus Sercial is dry or extra dry, Verdelho is medium dry, Boal is medium rich and Malvasia is the sweetest style. There is an additional grape variety, Tinta Negra, which accounts for around 82% of plantings and is by far the most important variety in terms of quantity. This versatile grape can be made into any of the four styles, so the way to distinguish a wine that has been made from the four noble grapes is to look for its name on the label. Legislation is currently being considered that will also allow Tinta Negra to appear on the label.
The most important, and surprising, takeaway from the masterclass was that Madeiras with an indication of age simply means that the wine had attained the expected quality and characteristics expected of a wine with that age. This is unlike, say, whisky where the age statement refers to the youngest whisky in that blend. For Madeira, the decision whether or not to award a wine with a designation of age is up to a tasting panel. An exception is Frasqueira or vintage Madeira which must by law be aged for at least 20 years before bottling.
Blandy’s Madeira Colheita Verdelho 1998 – Pale tawny colour. Nutty nose with aromas of dried figs. Medium dry with high acidity. Palate shows burnt caramel and a saline note. Long and persistent finish. Quite light bodied for a fortified wine. Refreshing with well defined flavours. Very good.
Pereira D’Oliveira Verdelho 1994 – Medium tawny appearance with a slight greenish rim. A yeasty, almost doughy bouquet. Concentrated mandarin peel and a slight chalkiness on the palate with a salty finish. A bitter note, similar to molasses, persists throughout. Medium dry. Complex and exotic.
Justino’s Madeira 10 Years Old Malvasia – Medium tawny appearance. Sweet and rich on the palate with notes of apple cider, overripe lemon and dates. Easy and not as persistent as the other wines in the tasting.
H.M. Borges Malvasia 15 Years Old – Clean and expressive nose with aromas of nuts, figs and raisins. Balanced, fresh and appealing. Ticks off all the boxes. Very good.
Henriques & Henriques Malvasia 20 Years Old – Deep brown. Intensely rich on the nose. Full and powerful with a bittersweet finish. Wide spectrum of flavours including soy sauce, bak kwa (sweet barbequed meat), cafe latte, caramel and raisins. Delicious!
Vinhos Barbeito Ribeiro Real Boal 20 Years Old – A blend of Boal and Tinta Negra. Easily the most pungent wine of the tasting. Sharp, smoky, burnt and even a tad sulphuric. Sweet raisins, saltwater salinity and bitter orange tanginess – this wine is complex and multidimensional.