The Madeira Archipelago, an autonomous region of Portugal, sits in the North Atlantic Ocean about 625 miles southwest of the European continent and 466 miles west of Morocco. It is the outermost reach of the European Union. Encountered primarily by shipwrecked sailors until the 15th Century, the islands were claimed by Portugal in 1419. Situated advantageously in the sea-lanes that ships used to journey to Africa, South America and India, Madeira and its capital of Funchal became a natural port-of-call and supply station for shipping companies. The islands’ major agricultural product was sugar cane and its industry sugar refineries, though when those activities migrated to the New World, vineyards and winemaking developed, and that’s where this post is concerned.
Madeira became a fortified wine sometime toward the end of the 16th Century, that is to say that, like Port, alcohol was added to the wine to strengthen it for long sea voyages; with fermentation stopped, the wine retained residual sugar and became sweet to varying degrees. Madeira was very popular in North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as Brazil, North Africa, Great Britain and Russia. In fact, the Russian Revolution of 1917 dealt a severe blow to the Madeira industry, though from the mid-19th Century double whammies came from powdery mildew and phylloxera. From the 30 shippers working in Madeira at the end of the 17th Century, now there are six, with several of the better-known companies, such as Blandy and Cossart Gordon and other brands, gathered under the rubric of the Madeira Wine Company, of which the Symington family of Oporto has controlling interest.
The island of Madeira is mainly vertical, meaning that vineyards are allocated on steep and narrow terraces that must be tended and harvested by hand. The climate is subtropical, the rainfall high, so the altitude of the vineyards, some over 5,000 feet, helps alleviate problems of mildew and rot. What makes Madeira unique is that the wine is deliberately oxidized through a process called estufagem in which the wines in barrels are exposed to induced heat for periods ranging from at least 90-days — for bulk wines in stainless steel — to six months to a year in 158-gallon wood casks for better Madeiras to periods as long as 20 years for the finest products, these aging in the lodges in Funchal heated by the sun. While a number of lesser grapes made be grown in Madeira for the bulk wines, the best products are made from sercial, verdelho, bual and malvasia grapes; these are listed on labels as an indication of the relative dryness or sweetness of the wine.
Today, we look at seven Madeiras from Blandy’s, founded by John Blandy, who arrived at the island in 1808. His descendents still run the firm, though now in partnership with Symington.
Imported by Premium Ports & Madeiras, San Francisco. These wines were samples for review. Image of terraced vineyards from madaboutmadeira.org.
Blandy’s Sercial Madeira Aged Five Years. The color is light golden-amber; initial aromas are dominated by toasted almonds, hay, dried thyme and caramelized fennel, opening then to toffee and honey. This Madeira is dry yet filled with a strain of slightly honeyed and roasted peaches, enlivened by cloves and allspice, with the characteristic astringency of the latter; it’s quite vibrant and resonant, with vivid acidity cutting through the salted caramel flavor and a lovely satiny texture. The finish is dry and clean but slightly earthy. 19 percent alcohol. Delectable. Excellent. About $24.
Blandy’s Verdelho Madiera Aged Five Years. Here the color is medium amber with a hint of green; here toasted almonds are married to toasted coconut with touches of almond skin and orange zest, cloves and ginger. The dense, chewy silky texture is seductive, though buoyed by brisk acidity, while the finish brings in notes of sea salt, salt-marsh and salted caramel; the impression is of shapely sweetness that tapers to dryness from mid-palate back. 19 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $24.
Blandy’s Bual Madeira Aged Five Years. The color is burnished medium to dark gold-amber; hints of maple syrup and pine resin, toasted walnuts and coconuts, cloves and sandalwood waft from the glass. This Madeira is undeniably sweet, at least on the entry, but is neither cloying nor opulent; it’s quite lively and vibrant, spicy, wild, sleek, yes, dense and chewy and imbued with toffee and creme brulee flavors. The finish is clear, clean and lively. 10 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $24.
Blandy’s Malmsey Madeira Aged Five Years. Now the color is brilliant dark amber with a golden rim; aromas of toasted almonds and hazelnuts, fruitcake, orange zest, cloves and quince jam are finely-knit yet generous. This Madeira is rich and honeyed, thick and chewy, viscous but not heavy; it flows like money across the tongue in the denominations of baked peaches, spiced pears, salted toffee and crystallized ginger. 19 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $24.
Blandy’s introduced the Alvada 5 Year Old Rich Madeira in 2002 as a different expression of the wine designed to appeal to younger consumers who don’t know anything about Madeira or believed that it’s the domain of crusty of English gentleman. In a radical move for the island, Alvada is a blend of Malmsey and Bual. The color is medium gold-amber; rich and smoky aromas of fruitcake and figgy pudding, toasted almonds and coconut, cloves, allspice and orange zest are woven in an alluring amalgam that subtly reveals a ghostly hint of bacon-wrapped dates grilled over an open fire. Dense, chewy, viscous, of course, but with high notes of roasted peach, toffee and caramel-apple, all wrapped in sea salt and almond skin. 19 percent alcohol. Pretty riveting stuff.. Excellent. About $18 for a 500-milliliter bottle.
Blandy’s Sercial Madeira Aged 10 Years. A medium golden-amber hue seems both dense and transparent; this is an earthy Madeira, with dark notes of autumn leaves and moss under a surface of toffee, smoke and tobacco and the typical toasted coconut and almonds. A few minutes in the glass bring in notes of orange zest, bitter chocolate and candied grapefruit rind. This is dense and chewy, deeply satiny, but given resonance by blinding acidity and a dry, spicy finish. 19 percent alcohol. Very Good+. $29 for a 500-milliliter bottle.
Blandy’s Malmsey Madeira Aged 10 Years. The color is an entrancing tobacco-amber hue with a copper-gold rim; notes of buttery toffee and roasted caramel are blended with an aroma that personifies the best fruitcake, with all that implies of dried fruit and exotic spices and a sort of dark rum-imbued wheatmeal; this is rich, savory and saline, a Madeira that’s lively and vibrant, with a core of strong lapsang souchang tea, bitter chocolate, macerated peaches and maple syrup nestled in a luxurious texture that’s viscous without being heavy or cloying. The finish is surprisingly dry and vivid. 19 percent alcohol. Deliriously attractive and sensuous, and a few sips suffice. Excellent. About $30 for a 500-milliliter bottle.