TP October 2010 Newsletter

Madeira, My Dear

By: Anthony Dias Blue
As the ink was drying on the Declaration of Independence, America's Founding Fathers raised a glass to their bold, brilliant document and to the revolutionary birth of a new nation. They toasted with Madeira. This fortified wine from the Portuguese-owned island of the same name, situated on an important trade route in the Atlantic, seems as timeless as the language drafted by Thomas Jefferson.

Rare bottles of old Madeira.
 In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Madeira party-a tasting of several Madeiras, usually with a meal that included terrapin soup-was all the rage in American coastal cities such as Baltimore, Charleston and Savannah. Today, this historic wine persists today as an utterly unique experience, one meant for connoisseurs.

The verdant subtropical island is covered with a patchwork of small growers whose vines are trained on low trellises (latada); the grapes are sold to larger wine producers. Although there were once more than two dozen shippers on the island, today Madeira wine is exported by only a handful of companies.

The charming, light style called Rainwater Madeira is ideal as an aperitif, served chilled. The island's finest wines are made from traditional grapes that give their names to varietal bottlings: nervy, racy Sercial; smoky, medium-dry Verdelho; spicy, raisiny Bual; rare (and nearly extinct) Terrentez; and ancient Malvasia, which gives us the famous wine known as Malmsey, the most luscious of all Madeiras.

Aside from its unusual grape varieties, Madeira is distinguished by two other factors that make it difficult, if not impossible, to replicate. First, the wines are fortified with brandy, a process that originally enabled them to be shipped without spoiling before reaching their distant destination.

And then there's the island's unique estufagem maturation system. Madeira wines are aged, either in artificially heated tanks or casks called estufas, or in attic rooms warmed naturally by the sun; this replicates the maturation that traditionally took place as Madeira was transported through the tropics in the holds of ships, giving the wines the desirable "rancid" quality known as rancio.

Today, the world's oldest still-drinkable wines are Madeiras from the nineteenth century and from the early years of the twentieth. Rare and costly, these noble wines are history in a glass; an outstanding selection is available from The Rare Wine Company ( Fortunately, these wines-and their younger, fresher counterparts from the island-are showing up more and more frequently on today's wine lists thanks to savvy sommeliers with an eye toward stocking the world's greatest selections. Can terrapin soup be far behind?


Blandy's Rainwater Madeira ($16)
Delicate and pale with a complex bouquet of spice; medium-dry on the palate with nut-like flavors and nice acidity.

Miles Madeira Wine Company 10 Year Old Rich Malmsey ($38)
Beautiful amber color; a salty caramel nose with silky prune and dry toasted flavors; rancio, spice and complexity.

Broadbent Terrentez Old Reserve ($225)
A 1930s-era version of this rare varietal from a farm purchased 55 years ago (the exact vintage date was not recorded); aromatic, fruit-forward nose and ripe, complex flavors.

Leacock's 1966 Bual ($290)
Vibrant amber color with pure, intense fruit carrying rich rancio, sweetness and elegance; deep and seamless with incredible length and balance.

Barbeito 1875 Malvasia ($545)
Barbeito is the island's youngest producer, founded in 1946, but it commands the largest reserves of old Madeiras in the world, mostly purchased in cask from small growers. Like other long-aged Madeiras, this 1875 shows beautiful cask-derived concentration and complexity.

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