Sunday, December 29, 2019

A visit to Madeira, Portugal, Atlantic Ocean

I was fortunate to visit Madeira a couple of times and of course I took advantage of the opportunity to visit a few producers of the famous island wine. Here is a few notes I took during these trips, expanded to include some research I completed upon my return.

João Zarco

A bit of history

The Portuguese captains João Zarco, Bartolomeu Perestrelo and Tristão Teixeira arrived in 1419. The island saved their lives when they were caught in a huge storm. The following year Lisbon started to send some settlers over to colonize a useful stepping stone on the way to explore the Atlantic and work their way around Africa. 

The colonists started to grow sugar cane, as sugar was much in demand in Europe at that time, and then fennel, whence the capital's name of Funchal. This happens to be the first city founded by Europeans outside Europe after the fall of the Roman empire, in 1424.  

Madeira, the lush "island of wood", was on the route of the great explorations that were beginning to probe the world at that time, and trade flourished. A certain Alvise da Mosto, a Venetian who in 1455 introduced the vine, brought some roots of Malvasia from Candia (Crete) the Greek island that Venice then ruled. Madeira began to produce wine.

In the XVI century, the island was on the route of the trade winds that led from Europe to the Americas, and the Portuguese began to export wine overseas. However, given the long navigation times to the ports of the new markets in the Americas and in Asia, their products often became of unreliable and even undrinkable quality.

However, it is said that a ship bound for America (some say India) did not sell the wine and brought it back to Funchal. Tasting it, the owners were surprised to find it improved. The harmonious fusion of persistent acidity and enveloping sweetness was credited to the heat of the ship's hold. 

Someone even thought the movement of the waves had provided some kind of mechanical stimulation to the wine! So, until the beginning of the twentieth century, a rather bizarre practice became popular: barrels of wine were sent up and down the ocean, to obtain vinho da roda (in Portuguese, "round trip" wine).

In the middle of the XVII century, in order to stabilize the wine, the practice of fortification with alcohol distilled from sugar cane began to be used widely. The interplay between heating and fortification produces the magic of Madeira as we know it today.

In the XVIII century, to simulate the heat of the ships' holds, warehouses with glass roofs were built on land, a kind of greenhouse for vinho do sol (wine of the sun). Exports flourished. Madeira was highly appreciated in America, so much so that George Washington chose it to toast the independence of the United States in 1776. In imperial Russia it was known to be loved by the Tsar and the nobility.

The XIX century was difficult: the economic recession in Europe that followed the Napoleonic wars affected exports. The American Civil War blocked the westward trade and the opening of the Suez Canal cut the island off from the eastern routes as most trade between Europe and Asia was diverted to the canal and no longer around Cape of Good Hope. The double scourge, first of powdery mildew and then of phylloxera, wreaked havoc in the vineyards. Desperate, the winemakers made wine from ungrafted American vines, the "direct producers", because only these plants survived the diseases, but this resulted in a marked loss of quality.

The XX century started badly: the Great War made sea shipping routes risky. As if this was not enough,  first the October Revolution in Russia and then the American prohibition closed the doors to the two main markets. In the meantime, the technologies for transporting wine improved, the speed of ships increased, it was no longer necessary to fortify in order to export stable wine, even over great distances. Production collapsed, vineyards were explanted. Madeira wine was sadly relegated to the kitchen, as a condiment.

The Great Depression in the 1930s and World War II hit exports even more. Madeira was isolated, the farmers had no way to sell and almost stopped producing grapes. Today it is almost impossible to find vintages from the mid-thirties to the early fifties.

From the end of the twentieth century, however, we can witness a gradual recovery. The world market becomes more sophisticated and the demanding taste of madeira, oxidative, fresher and more mineral than port, is gaining support. Producers focus on quality as they are aware they can never win on quantity (twenty times more port wine is produced than madeira). The use of "direct producers" decreased gradually and ended in 1980, in preparation for Portugal's entry into the European Union. The latter has been of great benefit: it has facilitated market access and it has sent billions of euros in grants.

Geography and viticulture

The island of Madeira is located at a latitude of 32 degrees North, on the edge of the belt favorable to viticulture. It has a subtropical climate, with temperatures rarely below 10 degrees or above 20 degrees.

The soil is volcanic, and the slopes very steep. There are only 450 hectares of vineyards as of 2019: small, difficult terraces carved in the lava make any mechanization impossible. About 1500 winegrowers take on the challenge, often micro-productions on little plots of land adjacent to their house.

Only four varieties are considered "noble", all white. Sercial vines are usually planted at an altitude, almost up to 1000 meters, to give more acidity. Those of verdelho at 400-500 meters while boal and malvasia give their best in warmer microclimates, at sea level. A red grape, the tinta negra, more resistant, is planted almost everywhere and is used for the largest part of madeira wine production.

Reliable heavy rains, especially on the steep hills, provide abundant water, which is suitably conveyed with an intricate canalization of over 2,000km. The strong north-easterly trade winds favor the vineyards on the southern side of the island, more sheltered from the mountains. On the north side, the terraces must be protected from wind and salt by hedges and dry stone walls.

Harvest is usually before the grapes have reached full maturity so as to accentuate the necessary acidity. Organic production is difficult: the very humid climate forces producers to treat their vines.

The main markets are France with 26% of exports, Portugal 18%, Germany 10%, United Kingdom 9%, Japan 8% and USA 7%.


Fermentation takes place in wooden barrels or in vats made of concrete or steel, and some producers rely on indigenous yeasts only. The addition of small quantities of concentrated must or tartaric acid is allowed during or after fermentation: useful for correcting the taste considering that there is no malolactic fermentation in madeira.
Sercial grapes are used to make dry wine, verdelho for semi-dry, boal (or bual) for semi-sweet and with malvasia, predictably, one makes sweet madeira. The wine must contain at least 85% of the grape variety indicated on the label. The table below explains the characteristics of the different categories. 

Variety    (min 85%)
type of wine    
residual sugar (g)
fortification (%)
5-6 days
3-4 days
2-3 days
18-24 hours

The total production of madeira is about 4 million liters, nothing compared to the 80 million liters of port that hit the markets every year. Tinta negra makes up 85% of the production. When a label does not indicate the grape variety, it means that it is tinta negra. Boal and malvasia contribute 5% each, sercial and verdelho 2.5%. The production of two other white vines is microscopic: terrantez and bastardo, the latter almost extinct. Their wines, semi-sweet or semi-dry, are a rarity, true gems coveted by collectors.

All four types of wine are made with tinta negra. They are less complex wines that until a few years ago were not authorized to indicate the grape variety on the label. Things change and excellent tinta negra wines are now readily available. Blends are rare, a little more than experimental. One of these is Rainwater, obtained with verdelho and dye negra, semi-sweet, very popular in the USA.

The fortification has a variable duration depending on the type and is stopped by the fortification. Brandy took over from sugar cane alcohol in the seventeenth century. Today most producers us pure alcohol distilled from grapes, imported from France and Spain.

With fortification, the wine has reached some 19 degrees of abv and the crucial phase begins when after the farmer and the winemaker it is the turn of heat to do its work. This can occur in two ways. Canteiro (beam) is the noblest system, reserved for fine wines, which mature in wooden barrels placed on beams. They are placed in non-conditioned environments, sometimes even outdoors, under the sun, for at least two years.

Canteiros at Justino's

The problem of the canteiro is twofold: the cost of making the beams and the barrels, and the uncertainty of the final result, which is hostage to erratic climatic factors that can vary dramatically from year to year. Each madeira wine made in a canteiro is one of a kind, but unpredictable. An attempt is made to regulate freshness and smoothness by moving the canteiros around, from a northern exposure in cool environments to favor the former, to south-facing warm rooms, or even outside, directly under the sun, to increase the latter. It is a difficult art.

Estufagem at Justino's

For this reason, the practice of estufagem (stewing) has spread for the medium and low segment of the market, where consistency in the final product year after year is essential. There are two variants: in the cuba de calor (vat of heat) the wine is placed in large steel vats. Inside these or around them some spiralling pipes are positioned in which water flows at a temperature of 50°C. Thus the wine can be heated directly, according to the indications of the winemaker, for 90 days.

In the armazem de calor (heat warehouse) the steel vat is placed in a heated room. The heat is therefore transmitted to the wine indirectly, and requires 6-12 months. This is a much more expensive system than the cuba de calor and therefore it is now much less widespread, but the heating is slower, as it was in the holds of ancient sailing ships!

In some cases the wine is fortified after the estufagem to avoid loss of alcohol due to the heat and then decanted into wooden barrels for aging. Here a mysterious oxidative process develops which can last over a century. Slow oxidation generates the charm of madeira, while a normal wine that is "maderized" by rapid oxidation or exposure to heat is unpleasant to the palate.

Madeira ages in barrels: the loss through evaporation, the "angels’ share" is topped up with identical wine, but only partially. Once in the bottle madeira is stable, almost immutable, except for the need to change the cap after a few decades.

For this reason, from 1994 onwards, the European Union has requested that producers indicate the bottling year on the label. Finally, there is the rigorous inspection by the Madeira Institute which certifies the product before it is put on the market.

Fun fact: Scottish distillers send their new casks to Madeira to age the wine in for 2-3 years, then bring them back to Scotland so they can transfer the flavor of the madeira to the whisky. On the other hand, Madeira producers buy used cognac or sauternes barrels to give elegance to their wine.

Categories of aging
grape variety
Finest 3 years
3-5 years
Tinta negra
Reserva 5 years
5-10 years
Tinta negra and/or noble
Reserva especial 10 years
10-15 years
Extra reserva 15 years
15-20 years
Colheita (year)
5-19 years, (at least 85% from single year)
Vintage o Frasqueira (year)
Minimum 20 years + 2 in bottle, (minimum 85% from single year)

The "vintage" indication appears only on old bottles: Portuguese law states that only port wine can use it on the label, while the indication frasqueira (from frasco, flask) is reserved for madeira.

Bottles are stored vertically. In this way there is no danger of oxidation due to cork deterioration, while contact with a deteriorated cork would be fatal. The wines aged in this way last a long time even after having uncorked the bottle: a few months for a “3 years”, up to two years for a colheita or frasqueira

There once was some madeira produced with the solera method, but the bottles bore the date of the oldest wine, which is not permitted by European legislation. Only very rare old bottles remain available.


As of 2019, there are only eight producers of madeira wine. Most do not own their own land, but buy their grapes from the multitude of small growers on the island, some 1500 of them at the last count. We visited four producers and here are my notes.  


The new location is located on the hills at an altitude of 400 metres, chosen to increase freshness. I am welcomed by Juan Teixeira, the company's enthusiastic oenologist who is now the island's leading producer. They buy 40% of the Madeira grape production and have been part of the Martiniquaise group since 1993. French capital has been invested: in 1993 there was a reserve of 300,000 liters in barrels, awaiting bottling, today 2 million! Very modern equipment, huge fermentation vats of hundreds of hectoliters. They only bottle what is sold: the wine ages only in barrels.


John Blandy founded the company in 1811. After eight generations the family continues to believe in his project, today the second largest producer after Justino's. In 1989 they created the Madeira Wine Company with the Symingtons of Oporto. In 2000 Blandy's paved the way for the spread of high quality madeira at affordable prices with the 1994 Malmsey colheita, the first vintage madeira outside of the expensive vintages. Rita, public relations assistant, tells me about it in the large tasting room, dim light and walls covered with vertical bottles and divided by grape variety.
The majestic building, in the center of Funchal, was a monastery in the 16th century, then it was converted into a prison. Their coopers are at work with American and Brazilian oak. They also own 7 hectares of vineyards and buy the rest of the grapes.

We visit the "cellar": some rooms facing south, where the temperature reaches 36 degrees in summer, others facing north, cooler. There is also a small museum: old equipment, measuring instruments. On the walls the yellowed letters of royalty ordering wine for the European courts.

Henriques & Henriques

Maria, the nice international sales manager, is a passionate person who rejoices in describing the wide range of products. We go around the cellar, among the large wooden barrels of thousands of liters on the ground floor, where 35 degrees are easily reached in summer. A cooper in the workshop is hammering the hoops of small barrels destined for the canteiro. Each one is diligently marked with chalk: year, variety, lot.

The company dates back to 1850, when João Henriques founded it. He was succeeded in 1912 by his sons Francisco Eduardo and Joaquim, hence the double surname. In 1968, on the death of the last Henriques, the company passed into the hands of Alberto Jardim, Peter Cossart and Carlos Pereira.

Oldies by Oliveiras

Pereira d’Oliveiras

I am welcomed by Luis Pereira d'Oliveiras in the cellar that the family has managed since 1850. His father Anibal, a historical figure of the island, left them a few years ago, now he is the boss, helped by his son Felipe. He offers me to taste everything I want, from the most recent bottles to those from 1850! I do not know where to begin. Slowly, I start from the 90s of the 20th century and work my way up to 1850.

Pairing with food

The fame of madeira is limited to aperitifs or desserts but there is more, even if it is not a wine for the whole meal. Here it is advisable to follow the four types, in addition to the aging factor. While there is no hard and fast rule, it is recommended that you increase the serving temperature in tandem with the sugar content.

Dry (sercial). The medium body and the accentuated aroma recommend it as an aperitif with olives, almonds or toasted peanuts. He loves smoked salmon, sushi and appetizers with mayonnaise. It enhances fish mousse and fresh goat or sheep cheeses. There are those who marry it with tonic water and ice. Serve at 9-10°C.

Semi-dry (verdelho or terrantez). More structured, it is also appreciated as an aperitif, and loves consommé, creamy soups or French onion soups. It goes well with jamon pata negra, mushrooms and soft cheeses, terrines of foie-gras. Serve at 10-12°C.

Semi-sweet (boal or terrantez). Full-bodied, it prefers fruit desserts, soufflés and medium-ripe cheeses. Perfect with milk chocolate, petit-fours, cream desserts and the traditional “bolo de mel”. Serve at 13-16°C.

Sweet (Malvasia). The structure makes it suitable for foie gras, butter biscuits, crème brulée and dark chocolate. Equally elegant with roquefort or gorgonzola. Serve at 16-18°C.

Old vintages can be married harmoniously with medium strength cigars.



Juan receives me in a room with a white table and an infinite row of open bottles: after a long tasting session, these are the excellences, in a crescendo of aging.

Malvasia colheita 1997. Typical dark amber colour. Aroma of grass and tobacco. Coffee and caramel embrace ripe orange and tobacco in a complex balance where the sweetness envelops but without obscuring the freshness. Very long finish.

Terrantez 1978. Amber with gold highlights. Intense tobacco aroma. Bursting freshness with slightly bitter notes of raw almond but soft velvet for a moderate balance. Typical pungency that draws attention during a very long finish.

Sercial 1940. Golden yellow that has darkened with aging, very consistent. Citrine freshness typical of the vine in perfect balance with the softness that comes from the long maturation. Complex aroma of spices and tobacco. Pineapple and apricot on the palate. Very persistent, harmonious.

Verdelho 1934. Amber darkened by time, very consistent. Complex aromas of pepper, leather and tobacco. Perfect balance of multiple tertiary flavors, among which leather and wood emerge. Very long and harmonious.


Boal 1958. Dark amber with an apricot nose that soon gives way to ripe citrus fruits. Incredibly fresh on the palate for a sixty year old Boal!

Sercial 1969. Amber with a nose of toasted nuts and caramel. Opposite experience to previous wine. A vine born to give freshness, it surprises with its softness that makes it perfectly balanced. Very long.

Making a barrel for canteiro production, Henriques&Henriques

Henriques & Henriques

There are about twenty open bottles, kept at room temperature, in the sunlight, upright, with any cap. “Choose what you want!” Maria tells me. I ask for advice, and here is the result.

Rainwater. Light golden yellow. Delicate aromas of almond and orange peel. Prominent freshness on the palate, with citrine notes. Moderate persistence.

Verdelho 15 years old. Golden yellow with amber reflections. Complex aroma of nuts, old wood, raisins and honey. Baked apple and orange marmalade flanked by caramelized notes. Incisive but not overbearing freshness, moderate balance with a long finish.

Boal 15 years old. Dark amber and gold reflections. Surprisingly fruity aromas and marked freshness for this variety devoted to sweet wine. Complex palate of quince and lemon tart. Very persistent.

Malvasia 20 years. Dark amber with gold reflections. Very complex aromas of roasted chestnuts, honey, caramel. Velvety palate of honey and vanilla, toasted hazelnuts. Opulent, round, but the acidity that emerges makes it perfectly balanced. A harmonious wine that I dream of with dark chocolate.

Terrantez 20 years. Orange color due to prolonged maceration, green hues. On the nose, green pepper and raisins stand out. Spices, nuts and wood emerge on the palate. Perfectly balanced, complex and long with typical slight pungency.

Tinta Negra 50 years limited edition. It denies the commonplace that wants tinta negra wines relegated to second-class wines. Very dark amber, great texture. Nose of apricot jam with notes of leather. Caramel supported by quince on the palate. Very elegant softness and residual acidity produce great balance. Very long.

Pereira d’Oliveiras

Happy man tasting old madeira at Oliveiras
Bastardo 1927 bottled in 2014. Complex nose of cooked plums. Dried figs on the palate. Perfect balance, very long. Bottled for the first time in 2007, after 80 years in cask, 60 years beyond the minimum required of 20.

Verdelho 1912. Hazelnuts and dried figs. Still incredibly fresh. Complex and very long.

Moscatel 1875. Very intense on the nose and on the palate. Considering that it is a Moscato, it is incredible that it has kept this freshness and softness for 150 years. Very long.

Verdelho 1850. The oldest of the wines tasted. It never ceases to surprise d'Oliveiras. It must be said that this wine is still young, such is its freshness. A touch of bitterness on the finish, however, suggests that perhaps it shouldn't wait any longer. But maybe it's just me who is not used to these flavors.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Wines of Sicily, selection of indigenous grapes

Tonight we met for one more session on the wines of Sicily.

This time it was conducted in English for a smaller group of our members.
Presentation on Sicilian wines

Today's presentation on Sicilian wine is available in English here.

We blind-tasted a selection taken from the large number of wines we sampled last November at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Brussels.

This time we chose to focus on indigenous grapes. Sicily is known for a huge number of these, up to 100 including some historical ones now out of production, and therefore we inevitably had to make some painful choices.
Bottles dressed up for blind tasting
Our plan is to complete this tasting with another one that will cover grapes and producers we did not have time to do justice to today.

For the whites we started with a Gaudensius, a traditional method bubbly made by Firriato with a creative and happy blend of chardonnay and catarratto.

A carricante by Planeta revealed the richness of the volcanic soil on the Etna.

Best pairing with arancino?
Among the reds, for nero d'Avola, the most famous of Sicilian reds, we had a bottle of Hedonis by Feudo Arancio.

This was followed by nero d'Avola in its incarnation as a component, together with frappato, of the only DOCG of Sicily, the Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Sammauro by Nanfro.

Then perricone, an intriguing black grape which is unfortunately less popular today than it used to be and harder to find. We appreciated a Gibellina by Tenute Orestiadi.

crostini and sardines
Literally dulcis in fundo, we tasted the zibibbo passito by Firriato, Ecru, which was considered the most interesting wine of the evening by a consensus of all tasters tonight.

We also had a chance to try some pairing with Sicilian foods like arancini, cannoli and diversi tipi di crostini alle sarde e al pesto siciliano.

We also tried Sicilian extra virgin olive oil, fruity and aromatically assertive as we expected.

On behalf of the Associazione Italiana Sommelier our thanks to the following importers in Belgium: 

Young Charly
Marcon Vini

And the following producers:

Feudo Arancio
Tenute Orestiadi
Tenuta Terre Nere

for their support of our Brussels club.

End of an evening of hard work