Channeling Churchill in Funchal: Exploring Madeira (Part 1/2)

Posted by | Posted in Wine Education | Posted on 03-27-2014

Edward Comstock.

Edward Comstock.

Wildly unhip — often associated with Old British People and men-in-suits-finishing-dinner at fussy steakhouses, or dismissed as “too sweet” by rubes that just don’t know any better — Madeira nevertheless possesses an unlikely combination of qualities revered by both trophy hunters and wine hipsters. Made from exotic varieties using time-honored, backwards-looking techniques, they are also rare, long-lived, and exceedingly collectable.

Madeira may well remain uncool for as long as these rich but elegant wines continue to be ignored by the critics and for as long as the hipsters remain fixated on what counts as “natural.”

Yet, at least here in Washington, DC, there seems to be a groundswell, a general rethinking of Madeira’s place in the wine world, evident at influential wine stores and restaurants around town.

My advice? Drink up, and be prepared for the pointy-people and tastemakers to follow suit.

In this two part post, I’ll introduce the often overlooked wines of Madeira, and the paradise island where they are made. Next I’ll detail my visit to the famed Blandy’s for an exclusive tour, interview, and tasting of the company’s recent and historic offerings.

PART 1: Channeling Churchill in Funchal

Perched at Reid’s Palaces’ timeless art deco bar, overlooking the steep volcanic cliffs off Funchal bay, twinkling and postcard-ready at sunset, I nursed a D’Oliiveiras 1907 Malvazia. The ancient wine, available by the glass, was exquisite. As it unfolded, I tried to imagine the tangle of merchant clippers and pirate ships that had darkened the port since Christopher Columbus called the island home. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find Reid’s most famous regular, Winston Churchill, joining me for an evening tipple.

My students are often confused when I tell them that time is not a real thing, that clocks don’t measure “something” out there. The wines of Madeira offer a lesson in the instability of our linear, all-to-human, concept of time.

Vintage Madeira exists between worlds — New and Old, now and then. It was the favorite wine of the founding fathers. It was there to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It reddens the noses of both rouges and kings throughout Renaissance and colonial literature and lore.

And right now, you can drink vibrant Madeira from vintages before your grandparents were born. At the same time, the wines of Madeira are very much alive, and have a unique voice to lend to contemporary debates about quality.

Madeira - 3

Edward Comstock.

Want to taste what wine was like in the nineteenth century? Get a few friends together and the dream quickly becomes an affordable possibility.

Purposefully exposed to heat (up to 140 degrees) and oxygen, and stabilized by a neutral grape spirit, vintage Madeira doesn’t age on a human scale. Whether produced within the cyclical time of the solera system, or vinified as a vintage wine, a great Madeira is an immediate experience of history.

Unlike other wines that develop more or less in a straight line, vintage Madeiras emerge within windows of opportunity. This might happen multiple times in the life of the wine in cask, as it goes through cycles of closure and revelation.

So, for instance, when purchasing a Madeira, you look not only at the vintage date, but at the date of the bottling of that vintage. The winemaker must therefore carefully attend to the unique life of each vintage.

Sitting in cask, often for nearly a century, the wine will announce itself when it wants, and the winemaker better be there to heed the call. Finally, once in bottle, the wine becomes more alive — because it becomes more concentrated — the older it gets, almost forever.

Then, when you open it, there’s no reason to drink it right away — or even any time soon. An open bottle will wait patiently for many months.

Of the seemingly endless varietals of Madeira, most are made using the oft-maligned but underrated red grape, Tinta Negra Mole. Although not necessarily sweet, these wines are usually labeled like tawny port, based on an approximation of the average age of the grapes in the blend (5, 10, or 15 years old). And they can be fantastic.

For a true taste of Madeira, look for a vintage or solera offering of one of the noble varieties, all white grapes, which are vinified more like sherry than like vintage port (from driest to sweetest):

Sercial: Usually quite dry with remarkable acidity, great Sercial is also often the longest-lived. Pair with Marcona almonds to get appetite moving.

Verdelho: The rarest grape, dry, rounder than Sercial. Pairs well with savory. Experience the sublime with seafood lobster bisque.

Bual/Boal: Dark, aromatic, and medium-sweet, but like all Madeira, totally elegant. Mole dishes and shallots mushroom. Yes!

Malmsey: This post-prandial wine is the sweetest and richest of the bunch. But don’t expect it to be flabby. I’ll have one after dinner, thank you.

And there is also:

Bastardo: The only noble red grape, apparently ancient vintages of this exist — but I’ve never seen one!

Terrantez:  The island’s version of Pinot noir, thin skinned, susceptible to rot and splitting, but also capable of producing profound wines. Nearly extinct, Terrantez is highly aromatic grape can be made in different styles, but often has a characteristic bitterness.

For reasons I don’t much understand, Robert Parker was never much of an advocate for the rare and precious wines of Madeira. Too bad for him.

His oversight — or limitation — is our advantage; a healthy stock of old and ancient Madeira wine remains, relatively unburdened by the pointy-people wine boom, ready for purchase at sometimes reasonable rates. This may not always be the case.

Given the wine’s combination of quality, character, and scarcity, one wonders what might happen if the market catches up. And in the wake of the decline of Parker’s industry influence, anything seems possible. The old Madeira’s are scarce enough, for instance, that if were to catch on with the mainstream of trophy chases, or the Chinese, the reserves would disappear in no time at all.

In short, there’s no better time than now to drink Madeira.

Next, I’ll take you to the ancient Blandy’s Wine Lodge for a tasting for the ages.

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