Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Treasure the island

Published:  23 July, 2008

Tragedy may be too strong a word, but it is certainly a sad irony, a missed opportunity, a shame: even restaurants that proudly splash the sauce madre over the pigeon and the sauce Prigueux over the quail, even restaurants that have AA and Michelin stars and have won awards for the best wine list
in the UK often don't have even a bottle of 5-, 10- or 15-year-old Bual or Malmsey on that list, let alone one of the exciting new Colheitas or thrilling venerable Soleras or Vintages. A great range of wines, of astonishing complexity, intensity, longevity and personality, is relegated to a sweetener for demi-glace.

Of all the wines in the world, here, surely, is one that is ideal for serving by the glass - a range of styles from dry to sweet; ideal as an apritif or digestif, but wonderfully versatile with food and cigars as well (see tables). Moreover, it is naturally protected against further oxidation, so that a bottle already decades old can stay open for many months. Who might not be tempted by a glass of a birth-year Vintage, especially when it was terrible everywhere else? (In Michael Broadbent MW's Vintage Wine, the following years are rated at only one or two stars for Bordeaux, but four or five for Madeira: 1901, 1908, 1910, 1936, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1968.) Who wouldn't like to taste what Napoleon took with him to St Helena or, should the 1792 be slightly out of reach or slightly suspect, something from a time when Victoria was still on the throne?

The on-trade is more obviously missing a trick, but the off-trade could do better, too. Although bottled exports to the United States have roughly doubled over the past decade (1994-2004), as have total bottled exports, those to the UK have hardly moved, sticking stubbornly around the 30,000-case mark. Moreover, most of this is sold in the run-up to Christmas. So, why so dull, when the best wines are anything but? Why so few Madeira parties any more, like the 10-wine extravaganza John E Fells (agent for the Madeira Wine Company) threw recently?

Oxygen of obscurity

It has to be admitted that, quite apart from complete ignorance on the part of most consumers, many of the characteristics that make Madeira unique fly in the face of recent trends, reinforcing an old-fashioned, Hinge-and-Bracket, Madeira-ma'-dear?' stereotype. It's more alcoholic, because it's fortified'. Most of the best wines are sold as varietals, but the varieties are hardly household names. Vintage wines are expensive, old, rare and a law unto themselves: it may have been a bad year in Bordeaux or Burgundy (which still dominate most impressions of vintage in the Old World), but not on this subtropical volcanic island sticking up out of the Atlantic (and

vice versa). Vintage wines can't be released until they're more than 20 years old (a big disadvantage in marketing terms by comparison with Port), so it is hard to drum up much interest in the most recent harvest, and there was, until relatively recently, little new to talk about when most of the wines were 5-, 10- or 15-year-old blends that stay the same from year to year. Stylistically, they're not the most fashionable for modern tastes, either: most of them are amber to brown in colour, with a slightly scary green rim on the older wines; there's no primary fruit; there's no new-oak gloss (the casks in which the

best wines are aged are American but up to 40 or more years old). Instead there is, for the uninitiated, an oxidised, pungent, off-puttingly unfamiliar whiff, a surprising acidity for the sweetness and a shocking intensity in the older wines. The oxygen of obscurity?

Grape gardening

On the island itself, not everything is as idyllic as the paradise setting suggests. Where, in the 18th and 19th centuries, there were once more than 70 companies, shipping wine all round the world, there are now only six that export on any scale: Barbeito, HM Borges, Henriques & Henriques, Justino Henriques, the Madeira Wine Company (Blandy's, Cossart Gordon, Leacock's, Miles) and Pereira d'Oliveira. None of these is a substantial owner of vineyards, and all are dependent to a greater or lesser extent on the 2,000 or so grape growers, of whom only about 60% are professional fruit farmers. Even these have very fragmented holdings, due to partible inheritance laws in the past; and although these laws no longer apply, there is very little consolidation so far. Any one company, therefore, still has to deal with a great many growers - up to 800 in the case of the Madeira Wine Company (MWC). The very largest supplies only about 36 tonnes, while some yield only a single case of 14-15kg. Small wonder that Francisco Albuquerque, the MWC's oenology and quality control manager, speaks of grape gardening rather than viticulture'.

With so many small suppliers, it is difficult, however hard they try, for the producers to raise the quality of the fruit. And as with Champagne, Port and other more elaborate wine styles, nobody should be tricked into thinking that the quality of the fruit isn't reflected in the quality of the wine.

The biggest problem in these fertile volcanic soils - and in a fairly poor society, where many people remember children having to go without shoes - is high yields. Although the maximum regularly permitted yield is 80 hectolitres per hectare (hl/ha), in reality it sometimes soars to twice that, with 20-30 buds and 9kg of grapes per vine. A bonus is offered for better (riper) fruit, but the money paid for what is classed by the producers as A-grade grapes (the top 30%) amounts to only e0.05-0.10 per kilo, on top of a basic price of roughly e1.00-1.25 per kilo in recent years. B-grade grapes (some 60%) command an even smaller premium, and in neither case is the reward sufficient to persuade all farmers that it will be worth sacrificing weight through green-harvesting or more rigorous pruning.

For equally regrettable (if understandable) reasons, the availability of some of the finest grape varieties is dwindling, sometimes to the point where they have all but vanished. Those that are difficult to grow - less productive and less resistant to disease - struggle to survive. Bastardo (which produced many characterful older wines) is no longer grown commercially, while Terrantez (for some, the greatest variety of all) is in desperately short supply, with only 3 or 4 tonnes a year. Even the four more familiar noble' white varieties - Sercial, Verdelho, Boal/Bual and Malvasia - seem threatened. Together they account for only 10% of the annual harvest, totalling not much more than 500 tonnes; in 2004, a small vintage, there were only 40 tonnes of Sercial, while Verdelho is now split every year between Madeira wine and table wine. Red Tinta Negra Mole dominates production, representing at least 85% of the total Vitis vinifera harvest, largely because it is easy to grow and has yields that are roughly twice as high.

All varieties, however, are threatened by the relentless urban sprawl. As well as affluent Brits who like to spend the winter on the island, there are many Portuguese who have returned home from South Africa or Venezuela in search of a better life. As a result, the capital, Funchal, is the most densely populated city in Europe, with some 1,600 people per square kilometre. Some vineyards are, happily, protected, since they are part of a natural park; but many of the best sites are close to the sea, where the pressure to sell to developers is strongest. Where there were some 700ha of noble varieties 10 years ago, now no more than 450ha or so remain.

Maturation and legislation

On the winemaking side, too, harsh economic realities have taken their toll over the years. Nobody will regret that the wines no longer have to cross the tropics twice, lashed on to ships during their long, sunny voyage. But the high cost of the canteiro method (whereby barrels are left in the warm lofts of lodges for the magical metamorphosis wrought by air and heat to take place naturally within) has meant that most Madeira now has to pass through the estufagem process (whereby the wines are heated to 40-55C). When the former technique can take at least three years and the latter three months, the cost savings are significant. But the quality of the wines will not be as high. The acidity - defining, redeeming, thrilling in even the sweeter top wines - falls more sharply and does not recover in the estufa wines, because of the two or three filtrations and the tartrate stabilisation that the wines need to undergo. The acidity in the canteiro wines falls from around 7 grams per litre of total acidity (measured as tartaric) to around 6g/l but rises slowly over the next five years or so by up to 2.5g/l, whereas the acidity in estufa wines slips from 7g/l to 5g/l. Dry extract is also lost during estufagem, as is colour, which for most young aged blends is added back in caramel. The process as a whole has had a question mark hanging over it for the future, put there by a sceptical OIV.

So distinct is Madeira winemaking that some modern research is much less applicable to it than to other wine styles. Albuquerque is able to identify several areas in which the received wisdom (as transmitted through the two-volume Handbook of Enology by Ribreau-Gayon et al, for example) is wrong with regard to the island's unique wines. He highlights the lack of relevant research', saying, The more I learn, the more questions I have and nobody has all the answers.'

Some commentators feel that at a regulatory level there is still too much scope for subjectivity - particularly in relation to the thorny subject of typicity. The regulations governing the 5-, 10- and 15-year-old blends are the same as those governing Ports of stated age - in other words, it is sufficient for the wine to seem typical of a wine with an average specified age. The wine does not actually have to be of that average age (still less of a minimum age, as is now the case with VOS or VORS Sherry), and there are ways of making it seem older than it is - such as passing a noble variety through estufagem, a tactic to which the better producers do not resort. As in other areas where such a control exists, the suspicion is that some wines pass because they display a common fault or are typical of a particular producer, rather than typical of the style.

A lack of adequate legislation also seems partly to blame for the demise of an entire category - that of Solera. The rules governing this are so complicated, and again so subjective, that most producers, including the MWC, have abandoned the style. Patrick Grubb MW, a great authority on Madeira, and the UK's leading private supplier, insists that the quality of a Solera is often as high as that of a Vintage from the same year. And anybody lucky enough to taste a great old Solera wine (Blandy's 1863 Solera, for example, or Henriques & Henriques Grand Old Boal or Riserva Malvasia, both dating back to the early 19th century) will surely regret their passing.

Keeping down the angels' share

With such challenges on the marketing as well as on the production side, is Madeira as a whole not destined to beome part of the angels' share, disappearing into thin air?

Happily, the few key players who remain are determined to honour and preserve a long and proud tradition, and to see that it doesn't disappear - as over the world's second-highest cliff, near the celebrated Faj dos Padres vineyard - into the sea. Madeira is no more likely to go under than Port is (partly because some of the most committed and determined players are involved in both, with the Symingtons having a stake in the island's leading producer, the MWC, since 1988).

Many of the producers are admirably candid about the problems they face and are tackling them. Although it will always be difficult, given the highly fragmented nature of the vineyards, to enforce regulations on yields, the authorities (the Instituto do Vinho da Madeira, IVM) and the producers are trying to get the message across, and regulations on minimum natural alcohol levels (9% ABV) are reportedly respected slightly more now than in the past. Over the past three years the IVM has employed a full-time consultant to growers, advising not only on yields but on lutte raisonne, and the producers themselves are strengthening their ties with their suppliers. There is seldom any contractual relationship, and most transactions still take place in the time-honoured way with a handshake from year to year. Ricardo Freitas, the dynamic young head of his family firm, Barbeito, says that one of the greatest advances he has made over the last 15 years has been to discover the best growers (about 135 of them) with the best parcels of vines.

The narrowing of the range of varieties (and clones of those varieties) remains a worry, but Terrantez still has its supporters, who are detemined to make sure that it survives. Henriques & Henriques continues to produce it, and Jacques Faro da Silva, director and general manager of the MWC, has recently planted some 1,200 square metres to the variety on his wife's estate. Might its prospects not yet be transformed by the kind of clonal research that has resuscitated Touriga Nacional (another tricky variety) in the Douro?

Broadening the appeal

On the winemaking side, companies continue to invest and improve. Barbeito is currently renovating a large old lodge, which it will use in addition to the others. The casks from the renovated old lodge will then be blended with those from the other lodges, and complexity will be heightened as a result. The MWC updated one of its two major wineries in 2001-02, installing more modern equipment and costly, shiny, new satinwood vats.

Despite the continuing commercial necessity for estufagem for the younger blends, the wines are in other ways much more natural now than they were several decades ago, when they were fermented dry then sweetened up afterwards with concentrated grape must. At the MWC in the 1970s, Richard Blandy returned to the traditional technique of retaining natural sweeetness, by stopping the fermentation at the required stage for the style, by the addition of grape spirit (at 96 proof rather than 77 proof, as for Port). Some smaller houses, like the boutique Barros e Sousa, have never depended on estufagem; others, like Barbeito, are committed now only to canteiro wines; while even the biggest shipper of premium wines, the MWC, puts a comparatively high proportion (some 300,000 litres of the million litres produced each year, including all the noble white varieties and those destined to be older blends, Colheita or Vintage wines) through the canteiro system.

A great encouragement to canteiro ageing - beyond the legal minimum of three years - has been the POSEIMA, an acronym for the subsidy started by the EU in 1986 and now run by the Regional Government (Regio Autnoma da Madeira). This offers tax benefits for traditional varietal wines that are stored, officially sealed with wax, in barrels for at least five years.

This subsidy, as well as the need to find a more commercial alternative to traditional Vintage wines and to stimulate new interest in Madeira as a whole, has helped the introduction of the new Colheita or Harvest' varietal wines. Although the EU's 85% rule regarding variety and vintage still applies, many of these new wines are 100% varietal (Sercial, Verdelho, Boal/Bual, Malvasia or Tinta Negra Mole, though the last may not yet be identified as such) and 100% vintage. The difference is that, unlike traditional Vintage wines (Frasqueiras or Garrafeiras), they do not need to be aged for at least 20 years in cask. (As such the category is analagous to LBV in Port.) As a result of their rise, Albuquerque says that traditional Vintage wines will be even finer, older and rarer than in the past. He will set down no more than about 5% of the harvest for them, and he supposes that there will be only one or two Vintages per noble varietal per decade (so still up to eight or 10 across all the relevant styles). Lest this seem a matter of too much regret, it's as well to remember that there are still commercially available stocks of fully mature Vintages, and that the Colheitas are in addition to, rather than instead of, traditional Vintages (they may even be from the same year).

The first authorised Colheita was Cossart Gordon's 1994 Malvasia, released in 2000. The IVM did not initially permit the Tinta Negra Mole that the MWC had originally planned to release in this new style, but it has since relaxed the restriction, so most producers, including the MWC from 2005, are selling Tinta Negra Mole as a single-vintage wine. Bewilderingly, however, it still may not be identified by its variety, which perpetuates its largely undeserved inferior reputation. Some in the trade would like to be able to sell Tinta Negra Mole as a varietal, while others object that, unlike the four noble white varieties, it is not synonymous with a drier or sweeter style; being made with varying degrees of sweetness, it may, the sceptics suggest, cause additional confusion.

Whatever the final decision in that debate, there can be no doubt that the new Colheita wines have been a highly successful innovation, as is reflected in the rising sales statistics. As well as generating badly needed interest in Madeira, they have given rise to an attractive new style; what they lack in complexity and intensity by comparison with great old Soleras or Vintages, they make up for in approachability, delicacy and purity. As Albuquerque says, they are easier for new consumers to drink'.

Barbeito has developed the concept further by preparing and releasing superb Single Cask Colheitas from noble white varieties (such as 1994 Malvasia Cask 18a, 1995 Boal Cask 80a and 1999 Boal Cask 46), each with a limited production of only 1,000 bottles or so. Far from having too little to talk about, there is now almost too much - rather like the proliferation of different wood finishes for Scotch Malt Whisky.

Another talking point is a second new style of Madeira based on blends of noble varieties. In an attempt to rattle the cage a little bit', as the MWC's Dominic Symington puts it (much as the Symingtons did with Warre's Otima in the Tawny Port category), the company launched in 2002 Blandy's Alvada - a 50/50 blend of Bual and Malmsey, aged in younger (three-year-old) high-toast American oak casks. Aged for five years, it is different from either the 5 Year Old Bual or the 5 Year Old Malmsey, well balanced and with a shade more complexity than either of the single varietals. It also has a radical' (Dominic Symington says deliberately fairly shocking') presentation. Barbeito is also releasing a blend called V/B, a 50/50 Verdelho/Bual blend from the 1998 vintage (by happy coincidence VB also stands for Vinhos Barbeito). Ricardo Freitas says this came about by accident (a Bual didn't ferment as fully as he would have liked, and so was too sweet for his taste, while the Verdelho was fully fermented, so slightly too dry - the ideal solution being to blend them). But while he says he would have been happy for it to be a one-off' - insisting that Madeira is sometimes too stuck in tradition - he will also produce a similar wine from the 1999 vintage, so it may become more regular than he originally thought.

The next new thing? As in many other parts of the world, it may be a move - or rather a return - to wines from a single area, single estate (fazenda) or single vineyard. Although Faj dos Padres was by far the most famous vineyard in the 18th and 19th centuries (reputed to be unrivalled for the quality of its Malvasia), the names of other regions (such as Cama de Lobos, So Martinho and Ribeira Real) were also used to identify their wines. The new owner of Faj dos Padres has replanted the legendary property, so it might be surprising if the name were not used when the vineyard comes back into production. Blandy's has planted vines at its Quinta Santa Luzea in Funchal and is considering selling the wine under the same name. Ricardo Freitas says that some of the Barbeito Single Cask wines are already single-vineyard wines, and he would like to identify the names of these in the future. As to whether terrroir can be tasted on this smaller scale, Albuquerque points out that beyond the difference between the north and the south of the island (the former 40% wetter), there are more than 20 officially recognised microclimates - hardly surprising given the range of altitude and aspect and the height of the island's mountains. He insists that the origin as well as the quality of the fruit can show through in the wines, especially once they are 10 or more years old.

Here, too, though, the IVM appears slow to condone any change. So the wise words of Alex Liddell, first published in his Madeira (Faber & Faber, 1998), still hold true: Part of the wine's misfortunes [in the 20th century] have arisen from an undue conservatism, treating Madeira almost as a museum piece, something which has reached its final stage of perfection. While the IVM is quite properly the guardian of tradition and quality, this should not mean that it stifles innovation and commercial enterprise - which, after all, have also been an important part of the Madeira tradition.'

Madeira the island was born of fire and caught fire - the woods that gave it its name burning out of control. Sales of Madeira the wine may never again ignite in quite the same way that they did in the 18th and 19th centuries. But if the energetic efforts of the producers earn them a fitting response from the regulators and the trade, then sales should, like the cigars the wines match so well, smoulder successfully on.