Madeira is a Portuguese island off the coast of Morocco, a short 80 minute flight from Lisbon. When it was discovered in 1419 it was uninhabited, but now a quarter-million residents plus hundreds of thousands of tourists fill the island.
Madeira is famous for soccer (the Funchal airport is named for native son and Real Madrid striker Cristiano Ronaldo), its beaches, gardens, and mountains, too, which rise more than 1500 meters above sea level. And wine, of course.
I had been vaguely aware of Madeira (“Have some Madeira my dear”) for some time when I had the good fortune to read a terrific book called Oceans of Wine by David Hancock that opened my eyes to Madeira’s unexpected wine history (America’s founding fathers toasted the signing of the Declaration of Independence with Madeira) and unique production technique, where heat and long barrel-aging play important roles.
There followed a number of memorable Madeira experiences, which I recorded in my book Around the World in Eighty Days. Sue and I twice enjoyed a 1875 Barbieto Malvasia Madeira wine at the end of great meals at The Herbfarm restaurant in Woodinville, for example, and we shared a special bottle of Broadbent Madeira with her parents and their neighbors on another occasion.
Calling My Name
I could hear Madeira calling my name, but the opportunity to visit did not present itself until a few weeks ago, when Sue suggested that we add a long weekend in Funchal to a trip to Madrid and Porto, where I spoke to groups of local wine producers about U.S. market export opportunities.
Tourists come to Madeira for many reasons. The big draw seems to be the beach scene and the coastline near Funchal is lined with busy resort hotels. Others are attracted by walking and hiking opportunities in the beautiful mountain areas. Funchal is also a cruise ship port, so hundreds of tourists flood into town each day and disappear back on board each night at dusk. They find the attractive market, the beautiful gardens, and lots of cafes and restaurants.
Sue and I stayed at a small hotel just behind the cathedral, which put us right in the mix of tourists and local residents and just a short walk from Blandy’s, one of two Madeira lodges we visited during our stay. Blandy’s was founded in 1811 and has been throughout its history a family-owned business. A few years ago it partnered with another family firm, the Symingtons of Porto, to create the Madeira Wine Company, which makes and markets several Madeira wine brands.
Madeira Wine History
Our tour of Blandy’s gave us a sense of the rich history of Madeira wine. The upper floors of the lodge were uncomfortably warm for us, but the barrels of wine seemed pretty happy there. The reason for the heat, if you don’t know the story, is that many years ago some Madeira producers noticed that the wines they sent abroad seemed to be transformed by the time they spent in hot ship holds.
Initially they thought that the rough movement of the ocean was the key, but they eventually learned that it was the heat that helped the wine oxidize in a particular way that made it both delicious and gave it long life. Madeira wines today spend years in old barrels (no new oak flavor is imparted) in warm rooms and the results are just as striking as they were in Jefferson’s day.
The high acidity of the base wine keeps Madeira fresh through its maturation process. Although we think of Madeira as a sweet old wine best paired with Christmas cake, Madeira ranges from dry to sweet and invites extended study — characteristics it has in common with Sherry wines.
New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov recently released his very personal list of 2017’s most memorable wines. A Blandy’s 1992 malmsey was highlighted. It was unforgettable, he said. We enjoyed the wines we tasted at Blandy’s, including the fresh and lively 1957 Bual pictured here.
Past and Present
A visit to Blandy’s is all about history, tradition, and romance and I think it should be on every tourist’s must-do list. A visit to Justino’s is a completely different experience. Justino’s once had a lodge in central Funchal like Blandy’s but they moved their operations to an industrial park outside of town a few years ago where the romance level and visitor head count are much reduced in exchanged for increased production scale and efficiency. (Blandy’s also has a modern production facility located away from town).
Winemaker Dina Louis showed us around the facility and helped us taste through the wines. The barrel room was again the center of the visit, but this time it wasn’t the heat that got our attention but the age and condition of the barrels themselves. Both firms employ teams of coopers not to build barrels, as you would expect in a winery somewhere else in the world, but to keep ancient barrels in use, lending distinct character to wines. Madiera wineries scour the world looking for really old barrels in which to age their wines.
There is something about the old barrels and their individual histories and characteristics that Dina Luis finds fascinating and she spoke movingly about a particular barrel that contains her dream wine. Is barrel terroir a thing? Dina convinced us that particular barrels imparted particular subtle influences and made us really want to explore this idea more deeply.
Sue and I stumbled across a project that was underway where used Irish Whiskey barrels were imported and used to age Madeira wine for an Irish client. Then the wine is bottled the barrels will be sent back to Ireland to be filled with more Irish Whiskey — each product lending character to the one that came before. Apparently this sort of barrel fusion is part of the tradition in Madeira, where sailing ships would stop and fill their empty barrels (which previously contained other wines or spirits) with Madeira wine.
Champagne, Madeira, and a Resolution
As we toured Blandy’s and Justino’s and tasted the wines I couldn’t stop myself from finding parallels between Madeira wine and Champagne. Nobody would confuse the two wines in a tasting, but they do share several characteristics. Both begin with acidic base wines, the acidity necessarily to retain freshness through the production process. (Conventional table wines are made in Madeira and we tried as many as we could, but only found a couple that we liked — I think it must be difficult to find balance with such high acid levels).
The base wine for both Madeira and Champagne is then manipulated through an extended process — a second fermentation in the bottle for Champagne and long, hot barrel-aging for Madeira. The art of blending is important in both cases, too, with non-vintage multi-year blends most common. We like to say that wine is made in the vineyard, but these wines are both really made in the cellar.
Madeira’s ability to age makes it special, although we tasted lovely 3-year and 5-year wines, too. The oldest Madeira on my personal tasting list remains that 1875 Barbieto, but the 1934 Justino’s that Dina Luis let us sample is just as memorable.
Sue and are very lucky — our travels this year took us to Cyprus, where we tasted Commandaria — one of the oldest wines in the world — and to Madeira, where they make wines than can last for more than a century. We found unexpected wines in Spain, Portugal, and Argentina, too. But you don’t have to travel so far to discover new wines — globalization brings a world of wine to your neighborhood shops.
What’s the takeaway here? The world is full of interesting and delicious wines and maybe we ought to try a little harder to take advantage of this great diversity. Seek out new wines from new places and then circle back to under-appreciated old wines from old places. That sounds like a worthy New Year resolution!
Many thanks to António Filipe for helping to arrange our visit to Blandy’s and to Bartholomew Broadbent for doing the same at Justino’s.