Madeira, that enchanting wine from that tropical volcanic island in the Atlantic, is one of the most misunderstood fine wines. The wine of choice of Victorian polite society, its fortunes fell in the 20th century and it became popularly regarded as a form of Sherry that’s an old maid’s tipple. None of this is true, of course, and since the turn of the century’s its fortunes have improved dramatically as more and more people discover this glorious unique wine.
We’ve been fans of Madeira for many years – especially of their vintage wines. So as an introduction to Madeira’s wines, here’s MWH guide to vintage Madeira. In it we’ll look at how these fascinating wines are made, the difference between vintage and solera wines and recommend some wines and shippers.
What Is Vintage Madeira?
This may sound like a silly question but given the way age statements and years adorn Madeira wine bottles it is worth explaining. A vintage Madeira is a wine that is the product of a single year’s harvest. In that respect it’s the same as for most other wines. What makes it special is its rarity.
In pretty much every other fine wine region vintages are the norm or, as is the case with vintage port or Champagne, its declared in exceptional years. In Madeira vintage wines are rare as hen’s teeth. While many wines will carry an often-ancient year on their labels, these are not actually vintage wines but the date in which the ‘solera’ was laid down.
A solera – or fractional blending if you want to get technical – is a way of mixing wines from different years in the same cask. Popular in Sherry, it involves starting with a barrel of wine and over time as bottles are drawn or to combat evaporation younger wines are added to top it up. Over time you get a heady mix of old and young wines that can have exceptional complexity. In Madeira these soleras can be extremely old. I had a bottle of Henriques 1898 Verdehlo which was spicy, caramelised and full of life. For many wines this system simply wouldn’t work owing to the effects of oxidation. Here it works perfectly as Madeira is naturally oxidised thanks to the heating process – estufagem – it goes through while being made.
Vintage Madeiras then are casks from a single year’s harvest that are periodically bottled. As the winemaking tradition is either towards bottling wines when they reach a certain age, typically 5, 10 or 15 years’ old, or the solera there are relatively few vintage wines to be had. This is changing, however, and bottles are becoming more readily available as interest in the wines grows. In our opinion these wines are superior to the blends. They have a purity about them and a complexity that the others simply cannot match.
Vintage Madeira Styles
One of the frequently peddled myths about Madeira is that it is sweet. Now while a 5-year-old Malmsey or Bual can be pretty luscious, once you get into well-aged wines, 10 years and above, even these richer styles become drier with a noticeable freshness to the finish.
Most Madeira is bottled under the following four styles. They take their names from the grape variety used to make them and as a (very) rough rule of thumb, the higher the altitude they are grown at the drier the wines will be. From sweetest to driest they go:
- Malmsey – luscious in youth with notes of prunes and honey, older wines take on a caramel and coffee note with a fresh, citrusy acidity
- Bual (Boal) – slightly drier with a touch more complexity than Malmsey, this is often no sweeter than a German Riesling spatlese and has a similarly bright, cleaning finish
- Verdehlo – a wine that really needs to be 10-years or older to show its true colours, this is often loaded with caramel-tinted citrus (think a grapefruit segment dipped in honey) and has a spicy, fresh, minerally finish
- Sercial – arguably the best suited to old vintage status, in youth this can be wincingly sharp and angular. Left for a minimum of 15-20 years in cask and it softens, revealing everything from limes and grapefruit to dried pears and bitter chocolate
As many vintage wines are extremely old there are some oddities out there too:
- Moscatel –the world’s oldest known grape it gives wines that are distinctively fragrant, rich and full of grape, pear and peach fruit.
- Bastardo –France’s Trousseau this red variety it retains some of its sour cherry and red berry tones, but thanks to the arresting of the fermentation with spirit these notes are sweeter and luscious. Bastardo is often said to be a Port lovers Madeira
- Terrantez – fruity, high acidity wines that provide gloriously complex old wines. I noted ‘jelly babies and lavender honey’ of a 1900 D’Oliveiras. Utterly captivating.
Recommended Madeira Shippers
While there are many brands on the market many are in the hands of a few companies such as the Madeira Wine Company and Henriques and Henriques and our own personal favourite, D’Oliveiras. The following offers a line of producers we’ve always found to be worth seeking out:
- D’Oliveiras– top-drawer wines at every level, their wines are classical, often immensely rich and always enjoyable
- Henriques– probably the most famous name – and certainly the best marketed – their wines are modern classics, clean of line, very pure and complex
- Cossart Gordon –another traditionalist, their wines seem to come into their own at the 10-years-old and over. Their Verdehlo is invariably superb
- Leacocks – one of the Madeira Wine Company (MWC) brands, Leacocks wines are often excellent if slightly commercial and so lacking the intensity of others
- Blandy’s – another MWC wine, the 5, 10 and 15-year-old are often seen on supermarket shelves and offer a good introduction to the styles on offer. Their rare vintage wines are in a different class to their age statemented offerings