The Wine Girl

Pergola vine training systems in Madeira. Photo: Elyse Genderson

Last month I had the privilege of traveling to Madeira, the small Portuguese island off the coast of Morocco, renowned for its beautiful fortified wines. The island has always enticed travelers with its warm sub-tropical climate, plenty of daily sunshine, and an abundance of exotic flowers. With stunning mountains in the center of the island and dramatic cliffs in the north, Madeira’s secluded beauty makes it an award-winning tourist destination. Supporting that prestige, Madeira is home to Blandy’s, a premiere producer of Madeira wine founded in 1811. On this trip, I was a guest of Blandy’s along with a small group of wine professionals.

Madeira wines have a rich history. A favorite of the founding fathers, Madeira was served to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was the most important drink throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States, partially due to its ability to survive long journeys at sea.

The historic wine has been known to survive for more than two centuries in the bottle due to the production process which involves not only fortifying the wine with brandy but also oxidization through a heating process called, estufagem, making it virtually indestructible. Chris Blandy, CEO and seventh generation owner of Blandy’s, attests to this – describing 100+ year old Boal Madeira from his family’s library that still retain their freshness and vibrancy.

The Heating Process
The estufagem process was introduced in 1794 in order to meet increasing market demand for mature-tasting Madeira wines. Today, at Blandy’s the process is only used in the production of 3-year-old wines made with red Tinta Negra grapes. Once fortified, wines are transferred to large stainless steel tanks called estufas and gently warmed to temperatures of 113 degrees Fahrenheit for four months. The wine then spends an additional two years stabilizing and maturing in oak casks.

For vintage and aged Madeira, the Canteiro process is used, in which the wines are aged in seasoned oak casks stored in the rafters of the warm attic within an ancient wine lodge. Here, the casks are exposed to the gradual natural heat of the island. The casks are gradually moved from the top floors of the lodge, where it’s warmer, to the middle floors, and finally to the ground floor where it’s cooler.

These casks are not completely full, so the wine is exposed to air and slowly oxidizes. This converts the fresh fruit flavors into tertiary aromas and flavors of cinnamon, caramel, smoke, dried fruit, and almonds.

The Grapes
Wines are typically single varietal using the four noble white grapes (from driest to sweetest: Sercial, Verdelho, Terrantez, Bual, and Malmsey). Madeira’s stunning landscape with beautiful grape vines trained on pergola are quite impressive. The bunches hang below the leafy canopy of the pergola system, protecting the grapes from the hot sun and allowing air flow and circulation to protect against mildew caused by the humidity.

Looking Ahead:
The newest release from Blandy’s, The Winemakers Selection, honors the 600-year anniversary since the discovery of Madeira with a new, rare bottling showcasing the best of Blandy’s history with a blend of 11 wines across 3 centuries, the 19th, 20th, and 21st.

While it may be difficult to get your hands on this rare wine, here are my recommendations for the best Madeira’s available.

Madeira for the beginner:
Miles Rainwater Medium Dry $18.99
Made from the red Tinta Negra grape, this wine displays lovely dried apricot, orange peel and vanilla. Dry on the mid-palate, it finishes slightly sweet with fresh citrus, and a long luxurious finish.

Blandy’s 5-Year-Old Sercial $29.99
This dry Sercial boasts flavors and aromas of orange peel, saffron, and hazelnut. It is an excellent aperitif and makes a wonderful pairing with fish dishes and Indian cuisine. It is ready to drink and will keep for several months after opening.

Blandy’s 10-Year-Old Malmsey $34.99
The rich Malmsey grape is mostly grown in the North of the Island in São Jorge where the Blandy family has long standing relationships with over 26 farmers. This luscious and sweet style is balanced by bright acidity. Beautiful aromas and flavors of dates, plum, and crème brûlée make this the perfect dessert wine.

Madeira for the enthusiast:
2002 Blandy’s Colheita Sercial Madeira $57.99
The Sercial grape produces the driest style of Madeira wine. This wine has lots of depth and richness from the long aging in American oak cask, with notes of coconut and vanilla.

2006 Miles Madeira Colheita Tinta Negra $59.99
A Medium Dry, single vintage style with aromas and flavors of raisins, figs, honey, and white peppercorns. Perfectly integrated acidity and rich coating mouthfeel.

Rare Wine Company Historic Series Savannah Verdelho $55.99
Lightly sweet but balanced by bracing acidity, this wine shows off notes of orange peel, lemon, buttery biscuits, toffee, and a hint of ginger, and honey.

Madeira for the Connoisseur:
1957 Blandy’s Vintage Bual Madeira $499.99
Bottled in 2017, this spectacular wine was aged in old oak for 60 years. Rich and luscious with notes of toffee, caramel, molasses, and milk chocolate.

Visit Elyse at Schneider’s to discover wines you’ll love.