To call Madeira poorly understood would be charitable. This truly ancient fortified wine from an eponymous island off the coast of (and part of) Portugal dates back to the 1400s and comes in infinite varieties. Sadly, the only one most drinkers are likely to have ever encountered is the cheap bottle carried by the local grocery store, rarely used for anything more than the occasional recipe.
Madeira grew to popularity after it was fortified and shipped to the New World during the 1500s, the heat and motion from the journey transforming a rough beverage into something different and special. Though modern Madeira is no longer shipped around the world, it is still kept warm during the aging process (called estufagem) in order to simulate the voyage.
Very little Madeira is single-vintage in origin, and even those wines with a year on the label may not be entirely from that vintage. Legally, only 85% of the grapes in a bottle have to come from that year’s harvest. Instead, you’ll find a wide variety of places, production styles, and other descriptors cluttering up the typical Madeira label.
The taste of Madeira is difficult to describe, something of a bastard child of Port and Sherry, featuring as many variations as those two wines comprise. Quality is even more wildly variable, as my tasting notes from a recent gathering of Madeira producers will surely indicate. (Grab that 1922 D’Oliveira if you can, a mere $460 a bottle!)
Tasting Report – Madeira Wine 2010
NV Blandy’s Sercial 10 Years Old / C+ / a bit skunky
1968 Blandy’s Vintage Bual / B / unthrilling
1997 Cossart Gordon Harvest Bual / B- / unripe
NV Henriques & Henriques Finest Full Rich 5 Years Old / C+ / thick, angry
NV Henriques & Henriques 10 Years Old Malmsey / B+ / richer, with more fruit and nutmeg
NV Henriques & Henriques 15 Years Old Boal / B- / over sweet to the point of cloying
NV Broadbent Fine Rich 5 Years Old / A- / Port-like with a bright sweetness, best young Madeira of the tasting
NV Broadbent Malmsey 10 Years Old / B+ / too tart, minerally and powerful
1998 Justinos Madeira Fine Rich Colheita / A- / quite lovely, with a good body and a raisiny fruitiness
1969 D’Oliveira Reserve Sercial / C- / odd, golden color, wholly off in tone
1988 D’Oliveira Harvest Terrantez / C
1973 D’Oliveira Reserve Verdelho / B+ / better balance
1989 D’Oliveira Harvest Malmsey / B+ / still fruity and lush
1968 D’Oliveira Reserve Boal / B+ / solid flavor, deep gold color
1922 D’Oliveira Reserve Boal / A / best Madeira of event (and almost 90 years old); amazingly rich, huge, silky sweet body
NV Barbeito Historic Series Sercial Charleston Special Reserve / B
1988 Barbeito Sercial Fraqueira / B- / rough hewn
NV Barbeito VB Reserve Lote 2 Casks 12d & 46a / A / blend of 2 regions, well balanced and special
2001 Barbeito Boal Casks 48 & 84 / A- / very Port like, despite gold color