Bringing the Special Wines of Madeira to the CWG

Bringing the Special Wines of Madeira to the CWG

One of the greatest resurgences in the wine world’s recent history is that of Madeira. Long relegated to the lower shelves as an aide for cooking and cheerful sweet quaffing, the fortified wines from this island off the coast of Portugal have lately undergone a renaissance. The revival of Madeira wine has been spectacular as its unique structure, complexity and diverse flavour profiles beguiles wine-lovers and critics around the world.

And then, of course, there is the fact that no other wine has the ability to age like Madeira due to the process used in its making. This enables one to today drink a wine of over a century old without detecting the slightest hint of spoilage.

As a Portuguese company and a major supplier of cork stoppers to the Madeira wine industry, these wines hold a special place in the heart of Amorim, whose South Africa MD Joaquim Sá recently hosted a tasting for members of the Cape Wine Makers Guild (CWG). Amorim is a proud sponsor of the CWG’s protégé programme which creates opportunities for the country’s previously disadvantaged wine makers.

And when it comes to Madeira, most of the CWG members present at the tasting admitted to being disadvantaged in their knowledge of this legendary wine.

Having recently visited the island of Madeira, Joaquim was able to offer some enlightenment on these wines along with the tasting of 12 special bottles.

Some 1 400 ha of vines are found on the island, with 2 000 producers making on average four million litres of wine annually. And with vines having been planted on Madeira since 1445, it is also one of the world’s oldest recognised wine regions.

Seven grape varieties are recognised for making wine on the island: Sercial, Bual, Verdelho, Malvasia, Tinta Negra, Terrantez and Bastardo – the last two being all but extinct.

The Collection.

One could quite easily spend a month discussing Madeira full-time. But during the tasting of the 12 wines Amorim presented to the CWG, two factors stood out among the marvellous collection of wines ranging from crisp and tangy Sercial to the decadently sweet and rich Malmsey, made from the Malvasia grape.

First was the firm acidity of the wines which, according to the wine makers present, hint at a very unique geography for viticulture. This can be attributed to the island’s soils. Madeira is volcanic, an eruption 6 500 years leaving the surface covered by a soil profile causing sharp acids in the wines.

Acidity helps in preserving the wines, but it is not the chief factor enabling the elixirs to remain fresh and alive for decades and centuries.

During their making, Madeira wines are exposed to heat after they have – like Port – been fortified. By warming the wines to around 50°C for a few months, the chemistry of the wine changes, breaking down components that lead to the elements usually associated with aging. The result is a wine that is original and unique to taste and virtually resistant to the rigours of aging.

As in most wine histories, the origin of Madeira has a story. In this case it was the early Portuguese seafarers who led to the creation of this specific wine style. Barrels of fortified wine were taken on their voyages, and in some instances never opened during the time at sea. The barrels baked in the sun for months as the ships sailed across the equator and upon discovering the forgotten casks it was evident that the content had undergone a transformation and a new wine-style, as it were, was born.

To recreate this process of warming, the Madeira producers devised two methods. Canteiro is the traditional style where the barrelled wines age in rooms warmed by the sun. The more modern method is called estufagem and entails heating the wine in stainless steel tanks for a period of three months at 50°C or for four months at 45°C.
The wines selected for the CWG tasting were not only an immense treat, but also served as a crash-course in the pleasures of Madeira.

Starting out were two young, entry-level wines both five years old from Barbeito and Justino’s and mainly made from the Tinta Negra grape. These fresh aperitif-like wines prepared the palate for the riches to come.

The next wines were 10 years of age: Barbeito Sercial Reserva and a Verdelho from the same producer. Here we were getting into serious Madeira territory, wines with minerality and nuts on the nose and tantalisingly fresh in the mouth, while at the same time showing a medley of dried fruit, salted caramel and some distinct savouriness.
The illustrious guests and wine makers were not asking any questions about the wine – they were enthralled.

On the sweeter side of Madeira, a Barbeito 2005 Malvasia Single Cask showed the opulence this wine is capable of attaining. The sugar of 99 gram/litre sounds terrifically high, but the natural acidity of the fruit tempers the effect, preventing that over-cooked syrupiness found in many dessert wines. Christmas pudding, honey and toffee are all lifted by a maritime freshness. This wine can still go for decades.

The fantastic tasting ended on a high with two wines made from the rare Terrantez grape. One was the Blandy’s 1976, a single harvest Madeira, medium-sweet with a distinct spicy character from the aging in oak. The Justino’s Terrantez Old Reserve has no vintage – the current owners found the barrel when they bought the farm and no record exists of the contents, which are thought to date back to the 1930’s.

A herbal honey characters has been left on the wine, which exudes cigar box, dried fig, apricot and all-spice. Once again, the life-affirming acidity gives the old wine an invincible and vigorous freshness, only surpassed by the extent to which this memorable tasting will remain fresh in the minds of those who attended, and for years to come.

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