Of banana groves and vineyards – the subtropical wine of Madeira

wine fields near town Santana, Madeira.

Until last Wednesday I’d never had a Madeira. Other than it being a fortified wine, I didn’t really know what to expect when Tim Stanley-Clarke, from Blandy’s, arrived in Oxford to present a Madeira tasting.

Mr Stanley-Clarke was a fascinating speaker, with many anecdotes on the joys of drinking this interesting tipple (apparently a glass is perfect for elevenses after a brisk winter’s morning walk) and the history of the wine and the island of Madeira itself.

Madeira is one of, I dare say, very few subtropical wine growing regions. It is a small Portuguese island about 600km to the west of Morocco. Its rich volcanic soil combined with significant altitude means that banana plantations coexist with the island’s vineyards.

Both the island and the winemaking have fascinating histories. I enjoyed Mr Stanley-Clarke’s story of how the secret of making this luscious sweet wine came from the accidental discovery of how barrels of the locally produced dry wine (so unpalatable they were used as ballast on trading voyages) had been cooked after months in tropical conditions, thus changing the flavour profile of the wine quite dramatically.

To this day, Madeira is still cooked, no longer in the holds of ancient sailing ships, but more likely in the warm lofts of the wineries on the island.

And of the wine itself. Well, there are four accepted grapes used, each of which has a different style. From dry to sweet they are: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey. There are a number of other grapes that may be used, for instance, the red Tinta Negra Mole, however the abovementioned four are the classics. Wines are blended with 77% proof neutral grape brandy.

The wine is a deep coffee-syrup colour to behold in the glass; a liquid mahogany. The rim ranges from an amber through to a slight green tinge, depending on age and grape. The common facet of all the Madeira wines is that they have very strong acidity. Necessary for the voluptuous body the tropical environment bestows upon them. This acidity, in a well-made wine, has an intense onset which continues all the way across the palate and through the finish. Depending on the grape and style, the sweetness varies from a fairly dry wine through to a luscious syrupy sweetness.

Aromas and flavours are coffee cake, walnut, toffee, orange peel and christmas cake, with the drier wines more on the citrus and dried fruit profile, and the sweeter wines with more toffee and maple syrup.

Unlike other wines, Madeira will last in the bottle for months, meaning you don’t need to swig it all back in a day or two – although you may be tempted!

I enjoyed the 5 year old Verdelho immensely. The off-dry style I could see paired with an onion soup or a pâté My wine of the night, however, would have to be the 1992 single estate Colheita Malmsey. Incredibly balanced with a zingy acidity piercing through the syrupy sweetness. A very complex nose of toffee, lime, crystallised pineapple, nuts, coffee sponge and allspice. And for about £20 a bottle, a bargain!


About James

Dr James Flewellen is a biophysicist, award-winning wine writer and educator based in London. Keep up to date with his writings and tastings at www.jamesflewellen.com.
This entry was posted in Madeira, Oxford Wine Events, Suggested Wines and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Of banana groves and vineyards – the subtropical wine of Madeira

  1. Pingback: A sweet wine tasting | The Oxford Wine Blog

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