Madeira – February 2022
My visit to Madeira for a week was holiday rather than work but it did allow me to visit three producers – and drink Madeira on every occasion that presented itself! Above all, it reminded me that there is nothing like visiting the source to gain a better appreciation of the product and to fire the enthusiasm. Madeira, both the wine and the island, is remarkable.
If you like ravines, vertiginous cliffs that rise sheer from the sea, forest walks, steep winding roads and dramatic scenery around every corner, then Madeira is for you. If you’re looking for a beach holiday, it probably isn’t – most of the sand is imported from the Sahara. Mind you, the sea is a lovely temperature and both snorkelling and deep sea fishing are apparently very good. And despite the fame of Madeira wine, don’t expect to see vineyards at every turn. We didn’t see any for two days, as it is clear that bananas and other fruits and vegetables offer more lucrative returns. Apparently there are less than 500 hectares of vineyard on the island. Most of these, like many of the other crops, are planted precariously on steep slopes and must be incredibly difficult to work and water. Hence the levadas, of course, the man-made water courses that channel the water from the island’s impressive peaks to the lower slopes. I was going to say fields but I don’t think there are any of those – it is just too mountainous.
I wish I had seen Madeira before Portugal’s revolution. Apparently, as recently as the 1970’s, Madeira was one of the poorest places in Europe. So the transformation over the last 40 to 50 years, much of it financed by the EU, must have been remarkable. Funchal boasts a host of modern hotels and flats, and nice-looking villas cover most of the hillsides on the South Coast. In the last couple of years, tourism has clearly suffered but there are signs that it is returning. The market for holiday homes is flourishing and this could spell bad news for wine producers as much of the land currently planted to vines is coveted by property developers. Travelling around is also easy because of the excellent roads and many tunnels – I am not sure which country/island has the highest proportion of its road network routed through tunnels, but Madeira must be right up there.
As for the wines, they were quite simply every bit as exciting as I hoped they would be. My three visits also allowed me to form my own views as to the differences in styles between different producers. Blandy’s wines are highly polished, beautifully made and tread a delicate path between traditional and modern – probably also the most consistent of the producers we came across. HM Borges produce a more traditional in style, as do D’Oliveira, by which I mean that some of the elegance may be sacrificed for greater richness and fullness of flavour. Sadly I didn’t visit Barbeito, which was a shame because they are held in high regard on the island and are aiming for a fresher, fruitier style that might appeal to a younger audience. Barbeito also make the wines for Fajã dos Padres, a remarkable wine made in small quantities from Malvasia Candida grapes grown next to the beach at the bottom of a cliff – only accessible by boat or cable car from the top.
Old vine at Fajã dos Padres
The estufagem process (heating the wines in tanks for 3 months) is still used for the less expensive wines. However, wines that are 5 years old or over are more likely to have been matured using the Canteiro process, whereby the wines are aged in cask in warm lodges and lofts. The most common wines are those with an average age designation – 5yo, 10yo, 15yo, 20yo, etc. Colheita is a term used to denote wines from a single vintage that are aged for 5 to 20 years. And Frasqueira and Garrafeira are terms used to identify single vintage wines older than 20 years. I didn’t come across any Solera wines and my impression is that these are now very much the exception.
This is not the place for detailed tasting notes, but stand out wines included the following:
Blandy’s – All the 10 year old wines were tasting beautifully. Terrantez 1980 and 1977. Sercial 1968. Bual 1920.
HM Borges – Verdelho 15yo, Boal 1986
Barbeito – Sercial 10yo.
D’Oliveira – The tasting here was quite simply one of the most thrilling tasting experiences of my life. Not all the wines were great but those that were were wondrous. Highlights were Sercial 1977. Verdelho 15yo and 1994. Boal 1980, 1904. Terrantez 1978. Malvazia 1907. We tasted two wines from the 19th century – a Verdelho 1850 which was exciting and a Terrantez 1899 which was sensational, near-perfect.
Tasting at D’Oliveira…….half of it
Slightly to my surprise, I discovered that in general Malmsey or Malvasia is not my favourite style – somehow the fruit quality/purity did not seem to be up to the standard of the other grapes. But I suspect I am being fussy – and that the wines that might have lacked purity for me would find favour with other palates. The key insight the tastings provided was how the evaporative ageing in cask over many years concentrates all the components of the wines, including acidity; this results in wines of 50 or 100 a years old that still have unbelievable freshness, body and vibrancy, perhaps even ageless. If one is looking for reliable older vintages of wine for special occasions or events, Madeira is, in my opinion, peerless.
Tasting at Blandy’s……..part of it.
The island does also produce table wines, with notable producers including Francisco Albuquerque (winemaker at the Madeira Wine Company) and Barbeito. Both the latter’s wines, expecially Verdelho, and the Atlantis range from Albuquerque are good and well made – but seem less good value than the plethora of high quality Portuguese wines that are found in most of the island’s restaurants.
Talking of which, good restaurants we tried include
Central Grill Churrascaria, Funchal – wonderful family restaurant serving simple but high quality food, with meat cut from the spit at your table. Next to an excellent wine shop called Enomania.
Fajã dos Padres – the tour of the organic, polyculture farm here is well worth doing, not least so that you can build up an appetite for the restaurant. Limpets are a local speciality which I am happy to have tried the once……..Also good swimming and snorkelling here.
La ao Fundo – popular restaurant in Funchal’s old town, excellent fish.
Restaurante Santo Antonio – a local institution in Estreito de Câmara de Lobos which doesn’t normally take bookings – but it is large, so well worth taking a chance. Sensational beef espetadas.
The Atlantic – Scenic restaurant overlooking the sea, close to Reid’s and the Cliff Bay Hotel.
Franco’s Corner – Again close to the Cliff Bay, excellent food and high quality Portuguese wine list.
Budbreak at Fajã dos Padres – in February
Final thoughts? I knew I loved Madeira wine and now my admiration for the wines is matched by my appreciation of this beautiful, highly welcoming island. Stocks of the older vintages must be exhausted eventually but there still seem to be plenty around for now. Curiously (and no doubt frustratingly for the producers) restaurants on the island make little effort to promote fortified Madeira wine – in fact, they work harder on the local still wines. Tourism obviously ensures reasonable local sales through the shops but exports are still critical, as they have been since the 16th century. As far as the quality Madeiras are concerned, key markets are the US and UK. The Far East is growing fast, with Singapore, Japan and South Korea showing particular promise. China too may well offer good prospects because there is no local production competing with this style of wine. As Chris Blandy points out, main threats are the potential loss of vineyards to real estate and the lack of home grown talent on the island – most of the most able students tend to gravitate to universities and careers on the mainland. But Madeira’s great strength is that there is no other wine that tastes or ages like it. This means that, as restaurants become more adventurous with their food pairings and bars experiment with their cocktails, new opportunities will open up. I think I’ll continue to enjoy the older vintages neat, though………