Thursday, 25 October 2018

A wine odyssey in Madeira

What do you think of when you hear the word “Madeira”? For some people it will be the famous Madeira cake, for others it will be an island escape beloved by British retirees, for others still it will be Cristiano Ronaldo (best not to dwell on that one), and lastly, for some it will be that odd bottle of wine that your grandparents keep in their drinks cabinet and they serve with cake. I visited Madeira recently and a big part of the motivation for the trip was to get to know and understand the wines of Madeira a bit better. I flew into Funchal and set about exploring this quaint little city that has an old-world kind of charm to it and, fortunately for me, is the perfect place to explore the Madeiran wine scene.

A visit to Madeira royalty - Blandy’s

The first stop on our Madeira tour was to visit one of the most famous wine brands in Madeira, but also the world - Blandy’s. Blandy’s Wine Lodge is situated on the edge of one of the nicest squares in Funchal, which is saying something as Funchal has quite a number of charming squares. We met up with our guide for the morning, Rita, who explained that we would be starting our tour with a quick trip to a local vineyard circa 10 minutes away - the only vineyard within the Funchal city limits. It is a small vineyard that is attached to a Blandy family property that was bought in the 19th century and contributes a small proportion to the overall Blandy production, as most of the grapes that it sources for its products are bought from local farmers who it incentivises to grow better produce through increased prices for superior quality grapes.

Most of the grapes are sourced from the south-west and north of the island. This charming little vineyard has rows of vineyards in both the traditional format that most people are familiar with, but also the latada format where vines grow over trellises to form a canopy that looks quite attractive. We saw several varieties that go into Madeira whilst we wandered around, including Terrantez and Verdelho; but we also saw evidence of herbs and plants also being grown in this space nestled above Funchal - according to Rita, the Blandy family sell produce from this vineyard garden to several of the top hotels in Funchal, they also rent out the attractive house that borders the vineyard for holiday lets (find link to hotel). Talk about diversifying your estate!

After this little excursion we headed back to Blandy’s Wine Lodge for a tour around the museum, which had lots of interesting information about the Blandy family, its heritage and development over the years. The Blandy family is currently headed by CEO Michael Blandy, with his son Chris Blandy who runs the company day-to-day. The Blandy family itself has a considerable property interest in the island, it owned famous Reid hotel in Funchal up until recently, as it sold it to the Belmond Group in 2014. In addition to this they have interests in shipping companies, insurance and a number of other ventures. This really is a family that has become central to the whole of the island’s life.

After the museum we had an incredibly exciting behind-the-scenes tour to the family’s private wine collection - which was a sight to behold! They had bottles of Madeira going back through the 19th and even the 18th centuries. The oldest bottle of wine in the collection is a 1755! Madeiran wines are particularly well known for their extraordinary longevity and as such they are very confident that the 1755 would be perfectly wonderful when it is eventually opened for drinking. I asked what occasion the 1755 is being saved for and the answer was that they weren’t sure - in truth it seems to be something of a family heirloom now, being handed down from generation to generation; no one wants to be the one that finally opens it! It was really quite awe-inspiring to stand next to one of the oldest bottles of wine in the world. The 1755 grabs the attention but what was also noticeable was the comprehensiveness of the collection of 19th century wines; most vintages from this century are represented. We joked that the room felt a bit like a cross between a library and a museum, but in truth this is what it was the collected knowledge and experience of the Madeira island going back over 200 years.

The Wines

After all of this, it was time to taste some of their wines! We made our way through to their private tasting room, which was elegantly decorated and had a real sense of sophistication to it. We started off with tasting four of their 10 year old blends each showcasing a particular grape; the Sercial, which had a slightly sherry-like profile with tangerine notes off-set against cinnamon and sweet spices; the medium-dry Verdelho, which had a butterscotch nose and a pleasant combination of candied citrus and ginger flavours off-set against a nice salinity; the medium-sweet Bual, which had a quiet nose but a warm and generous taste with clove and Seville Orange flavours; and finally the sweet Malmsey (which is the anglicised name for the grape Malvasia), which had a rich and welcoming nose with date and treacle flavours that were balanced out on the mid-palate by a nice acidity, which gave for a long and glorious finish. These four wines showed that at 10 years old, these blends can show a nice breadth of profiles - something to please everyone!

Now it was on to the big boys! We started with three Colheitas (single year wines that are released earlier than the vintage wines), the first being a 2002 Sercial which had a fabulous oxidative nose with a nutty aroma that once again made me think of a sherry - this time a darker Amontillado-style sherry. On sipping, I found the wine to be rather fine and delicate with a little heat on the mid-palate. The second of these wines we tried was a 2003 Bual, this had a much more generous nose on it with rich and deep aromas that were slightly smoky. On tasting the first thing that I noted was that this had more presence to it, it coated the mouth nicely; the tastes were predominantly of candied orange, but what I particularly liked was that mid-palate you got this rush of acidity that cleansed the mouth and gave it a very nice finish and prevented it from becoming cloyingly sweet. Impressive stuff! Last up in this grouping was a 1999 Malmsey; the colour in the glass here was notably darker getting much more towards a tawny colour in the glass. When smelled, the aroma was a little more subtle than I figured it would be - there were hints of butterscotch going on; on tasting this was a pure-pleasure-experience, it had notes of sweet spice and butterscotch going on. I felt that this wine lacked a little of the nuance of the 2002 and 2003, but made for a lovely drinking experience.

After this we were treated to a couple of the their “Frasqueiras” wines, which are their single vintage wines that are aged for at least 20 years before bottling. It should be noted here that stock from exceptional years are kept in barrel much longer - I saw evidence of barrels from 1948 that are still waiting to be bottled for a special release! We started with a 1980 Terrantez, which is a Madeira grape that is much loved by wine aficionados, but is not grown very extensively. This had an exotic, complex and profound nose. On tasting what I noted was that the wine was perfumed and delicate; the alcohol isn’t really discernible, but what is noticeable is the remarkable balance to this wine which evolves and develops on the palate. Fruit flavours (strawberry, fig) with a mid-balance acidity flush that cleanses the palate and leaves the mouth salivating slightly. An incredible wine. After that it was time to try out the 1977 Malmsey, which sat a very dark amber in the glass, almost teak-like. The nose on the wine was rich and inviting, like a friendly welcome from a good friend you haven’t seen in years. On the palate it had beautiful sweet notes of treacle and raisin, but it also had some aniseed notes going on too. This reminded me of a PX sherry, but once again benefited from a mid-palate wave of acidity, which prevented the wine from becoming over-sweet.

I would highly recommend a visit to Blandy's Wine Lodge if you find yourself in Funchal. 

A visit into the hills - Vinhos Barbeito

The second part of our Madeiran wine odyssey (can a two-part wine tasting experience be described as an “odyssey”? Probably not…) saw us travel slightly outside of Funchal to an area called Câmara De Lobos to visit Vinhos Barbeito. Now I mentioned that I didn’t know much about Madeiran wine before this trip, however I had of course heard of Blandy’s before I visited. Vinhos Barbeito were a new one to me, however they featured highly on the list of wineries to visit on every person I consulted who knew about Madeiran wine - so visiting them seemed an obvious thing to do. Barbeito are a family-run business, which was established in 1946 by Mario Barbeito Vasconcelos; they were originally based in Funchal occupying the space that the Cliff Bay resort is now on, but they sold up their valuable land to developers and moved their location out of town to improve their facilities - even if it has made them a little harder to access now (we got a taxi out of Funchal to visit them which cost about €20, but got a bus back which only cost about €5)

We were shown around by Leandro who gave us a tour of their production facilities which are very impressive with clearly a lot of investment going in as everything looked very modern and hi-spec to me. As with Blandy’s they don’t tend to grow their own grapes, instead relying on buying from local farmers and incentivising them to produce higher quality grapes by rewarding those who do with higher prices. Their production has an annual volume of 250,000L - 300,000L (which is about a third of what Blandy’s produces), which makes them a relatively small, but still significant, producer of Madeiran wine (which has an overall annual production of around 4m litres).

The Wines

After our tour around the facilities we went to the winery’s lab for a tasting which featured 19 wines. I won’t list them all, but will describe the ones that were most interesting to me.

We tried a couple of very young wines, as Leandro was keen to demonstrate the evolutionary process of the wine’s development. The 2012 Tinto Negra had an almost orange-wine like approach to it, with flavours (suitably enough) of orange coming through nicely. The point of this wine was to demonstrate that Tinto Negra although a black grape, can make a wide-variety of wines from very dry, all the way through to very sweet. From their 10yo wines I particularly enjoyed their 10yo Verdelho which had floral and delicate notes of jasmine and tangerine going on, but in a nice rich style. This was said to be a great wine for pairing with Sushi, which I must say I am now very keen to try out!

Their 2004 Malvasia (they don’t use the name “Malmsey” here) had a remarkable nose that seemed almost vegetal to me (it reminded me of cucumber or Aloe Vera), but the palate was a complete contrast as it featured rich and fragrant taste profiles with some mid-palate nuttiness that gave it great depth. Barbeito do a range of 20yo blends under the label “Ribeiro Real”; I enjoyed these wines greatly, with the 20yo Malvasia standing out for me - it possessed a menthol- or eucalyptus-like presence, which gave the wine a glorious finish that was balanced perfectly.

At this point Leandro started reaching for the really impressive wines! We had three Frasqueiras: a 1988 Sercial (which possessed largely savoury, nutty notes and I declared to be a “thinking wine”, i.e. one that you can’t sip absent-mindedly, but one that requires you to concentrate on it); a 1981 Verdelho (which had acquired more tertiary notes of leather and bacon, yet was somehow more of an easy-drinking wine); and a 1995 Boal (that had incredible balance to the wine with the initial sweetness evened out in the mid-palate to give a long, hedonistic finish).

After these we moved on to a 50yo Bastardo (one of the rarer Madeira grapes, better known to the wine world as the French grape, Trousseau). This wine had a remarkable smoky, yet savoury profile to it, but on tasting it was once more wonderfully balanced with fruit at the front of the palate, nutty notes in the mid-palate and an end-palate swoosh of acidity that carried it through. Glorious! Last up was a 40yo Malvasia which had an wonderfully complex nose and an incredible concentration to the wine; the thing that I remember most about this wine was the energy that it seemed to possess. This is a wine that you feel is still young at 40 years old and will potentially reach its maturity and potential in another 40 years!

The two words that I wrote down in the conclusion of my notes to this tasting were “elegance” and “freshness”; particularly when contrasted with the wines from Blandy’s, which were richer and deeper. 

In conclusion...

I don’t think that I could say that I favour one house’s style over the other, they both have things that they do very well and have their own merits. What I do conclude is that the spectrum of wines that Madeiran wines cover is much broader than I expected. I feel that in the fortified wine world, Madeiran wines sit somewhere between Port and Sherry, but are more aligned to Sherry than Port due to the breadth of flavours that you can get (bone-dry all the way through to very sweet); but what I particularly liked was that these wines, even the older and more complex ones, never became cloying or over-sweet. They always displayed a freshness  and a balance to them. This was completely unexpected to me as I (falsely) regarded Madeiran wines as a sickly-sweet drink that your gran would have with her cake in the afternoon. I was wrong (words that I am longing to hear some UK politicians utter…), Madeiran wines have a lot going for them and are something that I look forward to learning more about over the coming years. 

I am certainly a Madeira convert!


I would like to thank both Blandy’s (in particular, Anna and Rita) and Barbeito (in particular, Leandro) for their hospitality on my visits.

If you want to visit Blandy's Wine Lodge you can find it at: Avenida Arriaga, 28, Funchal, 9000-064

If you want to visit Vinhos Barbeito you can find them at: Estrada da Ribeira Garcia, Parque Empresarial de Câmara de Lobos - Lote 8, 9300 - 324 Câmara de Lobos

Disclosure: I did not pay for either of my visits or the tastings. Nevertheless, the opinions in this article are my own and I was not paid to write this article.

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