Whether you think I am talking about cooking wine, or are an actual lover of these fortified wines, this post has something for everyone, thanks to our recent time at Blandy’s on Madeira Island.
The trip was spontaneous, thus not much prior research except for reading Tom Mullen’s Forbes article and booking a tour at the only organic winery on the island, Bona Terra. Unfortunately, they canceled the morning of due to a problem with construction on their property. Our fallback was a drive along the incredibly beautiful coast and a long levada* walk, perfect for the day before our Blandy’s visit.
Madeira, The Island and Wine
Madeira, a fortified wine available in a range from dry to sweet styles, gets its name from the Portuguese island of Madeira. The winemaking is unique in that after distilled grape spirits are added, it calls for heat and oxygen during aging, two things most winemakers steer completely clear of during that time. But with Madeira, it creates distinctive flavors and delivers higher acidity creating the unique style, and very long-lived wines, even after a bottle is opened.
Another characteristic of Madeira wines is acidity. According to our Blandy’s Madeira tour host, the soils on the volcanic island, rich in minerals, iron and phosphor, contribute to the acidity of the Madeira wines. It is one of the most remarkable assets of the wines, keeping them fresh, even after years in the bottle. We experienced this during our tasting!
Touring Blandy’s Wine Lodge – Barrels
Founded over 200 years ago, Blandy’s continues to be run by the founding family, the seventh generation today – agronomist Chris Blandy. The heart of the family business, the Lodge, is conveniently located in downtown Funchal, the main city on the small island.
We spent two afternoons visiting, of which the first was a bit later, thus we opted to start exploring vintages in their Frasqueira (vintage) tasting room followed by their vintage facility tour the next day. Yet before I discuss the wines, both the barrels and Madeira aging, along with vintage declaration, need an introduction.
Blandy’s has hundreds of barrels ranging from 100 to 2,500 liters in mainly American oak, but also Brazilian sandalwood and chestnut. Their maintenance is the full-time job of four staff coopers.
It is mesmerizing trying to make sense of barrel contents. How do you know what is in each other than the grape, which by the way also refers to the wine style?
If the date is prominent, that’s the year the grapes were harvested.
If no date, take the zero out of the number next to the grape name and you have the year. The Terrantez inside this Blandy’s Madeira barrel below is from the 1987 vintage.
Each barrel shows the amount of wine inside (600 liters in this Bual barrel below).
The wine in all barrels is one of a handful of grapes, each one relates to a specific wine style. Below you will find a list of grapes and the wine styles produced from each.
I won’t go into the winemaking here but know after harvest, grape crushing and fermentation, the young wines are put into their specific barrel and kept in the warmer loft area of the lodge which encourages aging.
The winemaker determines when it’s time to bring each barrel downstairs for a breath of cooler air; they remain there aging via the tradtional canteiro* method, interacting with the air for anywhere from a few years to a century.
I say ‘interacting with air’ above because the barrels are never 100% full. As mentioned above, Madeira is an oxidized wine thus unlike most regular still wine, airspace for oxidation to occur during aging is essential. It is key for development of the caramel, roasted nut, stewed fruit, and smoky aromas and flavors, to name a few.
But not too much airspace! During aging, evaporation occurs (7% of volume of wine per year) thus adding wine to barrels is necessary. And when done, each barrel gets a seal from the oversight organization, the Madeira Wine, Embroidery and Handicraft “Institute” (IVBAM).
Is It A Vintage Wine?
When the winemaker decides it is the right time to bottle a wine, he sends a sample to the institute. Their analysis determines whether to declare it vintage; vintage declaration is not the winemaker or winery’s determination! Minimum aging for application of this declaration is 20 years with a maximum of 100.
The Institute puts a special seal on each barrel declared as such. And when the wine is bottled, an Institute white seal is placed over the top of the cork and a bottle number issued for authenticity. If you buy older Madeira, make sure to look for this seal!
Tasting Vintage Madeira at Blandy’s
Wine geek or not, Blandy’s vintage room is quite inviting. It is the wine version of a historic library. They have rows and shelves of Madeira ranging from several to over one hundred years of age. Our host, Tatiana, immediately welcomed us and began sharing information about Blandy’s vintage wines. Not having tasted a lot of Madeira, we wanted a good representation from young to very old, and that afternoon, not too sweet.
She lined up four, telling us about each. The order was oldest to youngest, which equated to driest and finest to the most sweet of the quartet. We tasted from right to left in the above glasses: 1968 Sercial, 1973 Verdelho, 1978 Terrantez, 2000 Tinta Negra.
While each were exceptional quality lovely wines, there was a standout for both of us. In fact our two favorites were the same in reverse order.
The stunning wine that won my heart was the 1968 Sercial. Aged 49 years in American oak casks, just looking at this, and frankly each of the four, lets you know you will be impressed. This was a gorgeous medium-amber color with a plethora of aromas from long aging that greet your nose above the glass: smoky caramel, bruised apple, dates, fine furniture polish, preserved citrus and marmalade. The very low amount of residual sugar – 59 g/liter – is hardly detectable given the 10 grams total acidity. That acid streak makes it unbelievably fresh at this age. With a full, concentrated-bodied, silky palate, and an amazingly long finish of bitter orange and smoky nuttiness, this wine brings you something to think about with each sip.
1973 Verdelho – Aged 41 years in American Oak casks, it is medium-amber color with golden highlights. The intense aromas gravitate towards dried citrus and apricot, honeycomb, balsamic, light resin, sea spray and bitter almond. The medium-dry palate is concentrated with an arc of acidity running through it to a long finish reminiscent of non-sweet citrus peel marmalade and honeycomb. This had the most vitality from acidity of the four and reminded me most of a Fino or Manzanilla sherry.
1978 Terrantez – There are only 2 hectares of Terrantez left in Madeira and apparently the Island is the only place they are grown. Aged 42 years in American Oak casks, it is the lighter side of medium-amber with orange marmalade, toasted sesame seed, sea breeze and furniture polish aromas. It starts rich, round, smooth and slightly sweeter then comes fantastic tangy acidity that carries it to a lengthy pristine finish with roasted nutty hints. We enjoyed the juxtaposition of sweeter flavors and richness against the acidity reminiscent of sea breeze and iodine. An absolutely first-rate Madeira.
2000 Tinta Negra – This is the most widely planted grape on the island, about 90%. Mostly used in blends and to make younger wines, it also makes very respectable, high quality wines and, as in this case, a vintage.
Being the youngest at twenty-three years of age, it’s also the lightest of the four – fair mahogany. You cannot miss the intense aromas – spices (ginger, saffron), tobacco leaf, toffee, camphor, pine tree and varnish. On the palate, it starts sweet then a small amount of acidity surfaces, reminding me of that sweet-acid combination of a spoon of honey with lemon juice on top. It’s on the sweeter side with a round, ample, pleasing palate and a long finish more fresh and dry than sweet.
Those favorites I mentioned in reverse order? My number one and two were the ’68 Sercial then ’78 Terrantez, and Mark, vise-versa.
Taking A Tour at Blandy’s
We had a fantastic vintage tour the following afternoon and highly recommend doing so if you are in Funchal. If we had to do it over, we would take the tour first (which includes two wines), then do a vintage tasting afterwards. Yet either way is a fantastic dive into Madeira.
Thanks to the Blandy’s team for their genuine hospitality and knowledge. Obrigada (all ladies)! And thank you for Savoring the Harvest with us!
*Canteiro aging is considered the finest way to age Madeira. The wine is put in barrels in warm areas of the lodge or in the sun for its whole life. Madiera Wine and Dine has a nice explanation here.
*To learn what a levada is, click here.
Other Labels Associated With Blandy’s
Blandy’s also owns Cossart Gordon & Co., the oldest company in Madeira (established 1745), Miles Madeira (known as a reference for quality Tinta Negra Madeira), and Atlantis (table wine bottled on the island).
The Madeira Wine Company is a former association of Madeira wine companies headed by Blandy’s) is a partnership between the Symington family of Oporto (Port producers) and the Blandy family.