Madeira – the best-kept vinous secret?

Geoff and Pam Coles

It may be a secret but it’s also a something of a miracle. Madeira is a wine produced 300 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean on an island the size of the Isle of Wight; a wine that became the centre of a global trade hundreds of years ago; a wine that can age and improve for a century or more in cask and, once in bottle, is impervious to oxidation.

Geoff and Pam’s ‘discovery’ of Madeira some 35 years ago was a holiday accident. As hoteliers and restaurateurs they knew something of Madeira but on the island for a few days they met Luis d’Oliveira who then had no British importer. Back home they discovered a couple of local merchants willing to stock the wine, came back to Madeira and negotiated a deal. Since then, sales have grown steadily, first in the off-trade and now, increasingly, in the on-trade as sommeliers discover its value as an aperitif and as a food match. Next month, an exclusive Madeira Bar opens in London.

Madeira is produced from a range of grapes and through two different processes. All grapes undergo an initial fermentation which is then stopped by the addition of grape spirit leaving wines at an alcoholic strength of between 17.5 and 21 per cent. Cheaper, volume wines made from tinta negra mole grapes are then aged in the estufagem process which uses hot water or steam piped through the vats. This duplicates the process of heat-aging that the wines underwent in the early modern period during long voyages from Madeira to India and back. However, higher quality wines made from noble varieties – mainly Malvasia, Bual, Verdelho, Sercial – are stored for up to a hundred years in small wooden barrels under the corrugated iron roofs of the lodges. In this canteiro system the heat of the sun and exposure to air allows the wine to gently mellow and oxidise. With the passing years they take on deeper colour (usually) and greater complexity (always). Fully developed older wines have aromas of muscovado sugar, caramel, walnuts, citrus peel and oil (usually orange), hints of coffee and spice.

 There are a number of different styles of Madeira but the key differences are mostly in the level of residual sugar. The sugar level is essentially a product of the point at which the spirit is added to stop the fermentation. The earlier it’s added, the sweeter the wine but grape variety has an impact as well. Sercial wines are driest, then Verdelho (and the rare Terrantez), with Bual and Malvasia the sweetest. Regardless of residual sugar levels, all Madeiras have a spine of acidity which leaves the finish clean and makes them ideal aperitifs. The labelling on wines made with noble varieties shows the level of aging they have undergone. Reserve wines have 5 years aging; Special Reserve 10 years, Extra Reserve over 15 years. The term Colheita is also used for wines from a single vintage but which have less than 19 years aging. Once they’re older then that they can be called Vintage wines.

There are six major producers – all of which have deep roots in the island’s winemaking tradition - Geoff and Pam showed us a range of wines from D’Oliveira starting with a 5 year old medium sweet wine from Tinta Negra and ranging up to (or back to) a 1912 Verdelho. D’Oliveira is a highly traditional house with its roots in growing grapes rather than making and trading wines but when the Madeira trade was unable to export during the wartime blockades between 1914-18 and 1939-45 they were well-placed to buy up stocks of wine from struggling producers and begin to trade on their own account rather than through almacenistas (wholesalers).

The bulk of the Madeira wine industry is still in the traditional fortified wines but there has been some recent diversification under the aegis of the Madeira Wine Corporation into still wines (“where English wines were 25 years ago” said Geoff) and rum, with two distillers re-opening and beginning to export (look out for William Hinton).

The story of Madeira and its wines was woven round a nine-bottle showcase of fortified wines starting with three samples of the Tinta Negra wines and then working our way up (or should that be back?) through the years to the most expensive bottle the Club has collectively tasted – a fabulous 1912 Verdelho currently retailing at £609.

The three Tinta Negra wines were all medium sweet and 19% ABV. As we moved from a 5 year old (£21.70) to 10 year old (£36.70) and then to fifteen (£66.50), the greater complexity imparted by age became apparent though all three had that note of slightly burnt muscovado sugar and a hint of walnuts. Older wines also tend to higher acidity and darker colour.

We started climbing the quality ladder with a Sercial from 1999. The slightly lower sweetness (65 g/l)  compared to the 2000 Verdelho (80 g/l) that followed makes the latter a more versatile food wine and the former an excellent aperitif – though Geoff did suggest pairing the Sercial with an aged Comté cheese.    

Wines 6 and 7 were a 1993 Boal (96 g/l and £88.80 at RRP) and a 2000 Malvasia (>96 g/l and £66). The medium-sweet style of the Boal is what the first three wines were trying to emulate but there was far greater complexity in aroma with notes of orange peel and marked salinity in the mouth. Match with fresh pineapple suggested our presenters. The Malvasia was darker in colour and the aroma had more burnt sugar mixed with walnut, grapefruit peel, dark chocolate and truffles. This wine has the similar sugar level as some PX sherries but is fresh, clean and cool in the mouth unlike the richer and denser mouthfeel of the sherry.

The final two wines were both Verdelhos, the first from 1985, the final wine the 1912. Both these wines were fortified not with grape spirit but sugar cane spirit (the island’s other raw material which EU rules have now outlawed as a fortification agent). This gives a sharper, cleaner note to the sugar and both wines had an extraordinary freshness and clarity along complexity and concentration.   

For the record Geoff’s favourite wine is the 1966 Verdelho; Pam’s the 1937 Sercial.

This was a fabulous tasting and the generosity does not end there. Should any of us be visiting the island to sample the D’Oliveira wines he also offered us an out of the ordinary tasting. Finally, Geoff and Pam have very generously offered us all a discount of the standard retail prices – not just those we tasted but on the full range – so that 1912 Verdelho will be a saving of nearly £150. How’s that for a bargain?


GH: 25/10/19