The volcanic island of Madeira, emerging dramatically from the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of miles off the North African coast, is a challenging, singular place in which to make wine. Torridly hot and humid in mid-summer, a ridge of mountains forms the spine of the island, from which vertiginous slopes end abruptly as sheer cliffs meet the sea.
Ancient terraces cut into the hillsides allow some agriculture, but it is mostly on a tiny scale, subsistence farmers working a tiny patch of land to grow bananas, corn or vines.
Indeed, standing on any one of the island’s spectacular high vantage points shows the extraordinary patchwork of vinegardens (their size makes it difficult to think of them as vineyards). In this humidity vines are trained high on trellises to allow air to flow beneath. The apparently sprawling, lush canopy of foliage looks more like a rainforest, or perhaps the Hanging Gardens of Babylon when viewed from above. Working this land is back-breaking. With mechanisation unknown, it is the sturdy legs of the sun-burnished Madeirense winegrowers that take the strain as they scramble up and down the almost sheer inclines laden with 50 kilo crates of fruit.
The sheer physical difficulty and logistics for a large wine producer like Blandy’s is mind-boggling, especially when one visits their efficient but cramped old winery in the middle of the bustling capital Funchal (the city having largely grown up around it). Winemaker Francisco Albequerque (below) manages things with good humoured efficiency as small trucks arrive in an endless stream, most bearing no more than a dozen boxes of freshly picked grapes, all of which have to be processed and sent to the fermentation tanks in double-quick time.
How much easier is the life of some other winemakers: grapes grown on gentle slopes in dry and temperate conditions; neatly spaced rows of manicured vines where tractors take the strain; grapes delivered to huge, state of the art wineries with acres of air-conditioned space to spare.
And yet, it is surely the challenging conditions that makes these wines so special and so good: it is those volcanic soils that give a backbone of acidity, and the island’s location and climate is the secret of how Madeira developed as a fortified wine: the wine heated and gently oxidised as barrels sat on the humid harbour-side and took long sea voyages, and fortifying with brandy helped preserve the wines. Francisco may dream of that perfect modern winery, but would his Madeira still be Madeira? It’s a conundrum that’s not so unfathomable as it sounds: Francisco is hugely experienced after 23 years at Blandy’s, and will take only carefully calculated risks.
He is thoughtful, restlessly inquisitive and highly disciplined. He is currently in the middle of a big experimental programme with the assistance of the University of Funchal called ‘Impact 2’. Impact 1 finished recently, a study into the impact of age and heat in Madeira’s ‘Estufage’ system, where young wines are deliberately heated to mimic the conditions of centuries before. That study led to fundamental changes in how Blandy’s makes its wines in terms of heat and time, and now Impact 2 is seeking to home in on the characteristics that define the perfect expression of each of Madeira’s noble grapes varieties. Dozens of experimental small lots are being vinified in slightly different ways, and tens of thousands of data being analysed and studied by the University.
But it is not only in the winery and ageing warehouses (known locally as ‘lodges’) that change is afoot. The other key player in a quiet revolution that is underway is Blandy’s new CEO and seventh generation of the family to take charge, Chris Blandy, who took up his post in 2011. Right: Chris beneath the pergola-trained vines in Câmara de Lobos.
An athletic, down to earth and charming 34-year-old, Chris was born on the island, and though he was educated in England from the age of eight through to graduating from the University of Newcastle with a degree in Business and Languages, Madeira is clearly in his genes. He is acutely aware that after two centuries of family ownership, the future for Blandy’s cannot rest entirely on the network of up to 800 small farmers who historically have supplied all of their grapes. Part of the reason for my visit was to see the ‘Vineyard Project’, the company for the first time having bought land to plant its own vineyards and having taken over the long term management of several others.
Arriving into Funchal on the south-east coast, we drove to the north to meet up with Chris in one of the island’s main vineyard areas, where a brand new 4.2 hectare vineyard has just been bulldozed into terraces on a virgin hillside. Planted with rootstocks ready to be grafted into the noble varieties – Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey – at a stroke Blandy’s has created the largest contiguous vineyard on Madeira.
As we surveyed the vineyard from the other side of the valley to get some idea of its scale, Chris explained that 60% of the island’s vines grow in the sunny, warm and relatively dry south around the town of Câmara de Lobos, with the other 40% scattered around the island, with substantial plantings around São Vicente and Seixal in the north where they enjoy cooler, damper conditions. “Madeira an island of huge climatic differences,” Chris told me. “The southeast is relatively barren and desert-like, the north often cool, wet and windswept. Altitude plays a part too. Bananas are grown below 200 metres, then the vine takes over as you travel up the mountain. The prime spot is between 200 and 300 metres.”
Indeed, the harvest started on 26th August in Funchal, but will continue for around six weeks to finish on the highest, northern slopes. “Last year we bought from nearly 500 growers,” says Chris. “The smallest brought in only 16 kilos of grapes.” The Vineyard Project is mainly about securing grape supply for the future. As younger generations take over family farms, many decide the work is simply too hard for the financial rewards. “But it is also about experimentation,” says Chris, “For example, we are trying to re-establish the Terrantez grape and we are working with the growers to re-convert the best vineyards from Tinta Negra (the workhorse grape of less expensive Madeira, which now accounts for 90% of all plantings) to the noble white varieties.”
Chris also speaks of the “emotional connection,” his family has with the island and why preserving its wine producing culture is so important. Founded by John Blandy in 1811, the company has its fingers in many Madeira pies, owning a cruise ship agency and chandlers, a tourism business, a newspaper and magazine distribution business and having a share in the Porto Bay group of hotels. But it is the wine business that is at the spiritual and physical heart of the business, based in their Funchal lodge which sees no fewer than 200,000 visitors per year. Indeed 40% of the company’s entire wine production is sold through this facility as coach-loads of tourists arrive to learn and taste.
Blandy’s is as important to Madeira as Madeira is to Blandy’s (the company produces one million litres annually, a quarter of the entire island’s production). A lot of that is their entry-level ‘Duke of Clarence’ 3-Year-Old made from Tinta Negra, “But,” as Chris points out, “selling all that Duke of Clarence is what allows us to have our 1920 Verdelho still ageing in cask.”
Chris Blandy seems to be the perfect breath of fresh air that this historic company needs as it operates in a tough market of decreasing overall sales for fortified wine. Having left university he took a job with Symington (a minor partner in the Blandy’s business), working inVilla Nova di Gaia in Portugal for three years. He then moved to Washington DC where he spent another three years working in hotels and hospitality before his cousin Michael Blandy head-hunted him, initially to run Blandy’s tourism businesses on the island.
Indeed there seems to be a real sense of renewed vigour about the Blandy’s wine business. It is only since 2011 that the family has once more had full control. Until then, the Symingtons of the Douro held a majority stake, but the Blandy family bought them out. Symington retains 10% of the shares and is still crucial in helping distributeBlandy’s wines around the world. And under Chris’s direction, the focus is on quality: “Madeira wine is not a growing market,” he says, “so there’s just no point in growing Tinta Negra to make cheaper wines.”
Right: the many colours of Madeira.
Madeira is a fortified wine. As the young wine is part-way through fermentation, brandy is added to the tank or cask, which elevates the alcohol level to around 20% abv, stopping fermentation, and with some of the natural sugar of the grapes remaining unfermented. That is what makes Madeira strong and sweet – though drier styles have the brandy added later.
There are two basic groups of Madeira wines: those that have an age statement, such as “Five Year Old” or “Ten Year Old”, and true vintage wines. The former group are blends of multiple years with a style and approximate average age that accords with the label. Vintage wines are the product of a single harvest, labelled either as Vintage or Colheita. True vintage is a minimum of 20 years old when released, Colheita can be younger.
If no grape variety is stated on the label the wine is almost certainly made from Tinta Negra. If one of the noble grapes is named the wine must be composed of at least 85% of that variety:
- Sercial – the driest; fresh, nutty and clean
- Verdelho – medium-sweet, but acidity can still give a dry impression
- Bual – always sweet, luscious nutty and raisined flavours
- Malmsey – fully sweet and rich, moving into coffee and toffee notes
Terrantez, Bastardo and other varieties are in use, but rare. Terrantez is undergoing a revival as a variety with the quality to equal the noble four.
For all wines of all styles, a unique stage of the Madeira winemaking process is to heat the wines to quite high temperatures, for many months, often many years or decades. This famously replicates the long sea voyages that the wines once made in the summer heat. Methods used range from ‘cooking’ the wine in heated tanks for cheaper wines, to slow, long natural ageing in large wooden casks in the lofts of the island’s lodges. The wines are also deliberately oxidised in a similar way to Sherry: as some wine evaporates in the heat, the casks are not topped up.
This tasting spanned the ‘Duke of Clarence’, entry-level Madeira back to the extraordinary Verdelho from the 1887 vintage. The latter is part of a lot of some 100+ ancient bottles recently discovered in the Blandy’s lodge, and being sold in an auction at Christie’s, London on 11th December 2013. From my scores – most well above 90/100 – you will see that I think very highly of these wines. I suspect Madeira is not for everyone, with its oxidised character and often searing balance of acidity, but I can’t help feeling that these very singular wines are amongst the most complex in the world, and given their quality and near immortal capacity for ageing, amongst the best value too.
Blandy’s, Duke of Clarence 3 Yr Old, Portugal
Attractive tawny colour, toffeeish. Toffeeish nose too, has gained richness and mellow characters, a touch of coffee. Terrifically rich and nutty, with very fine red fruit notes, lovely mellow spirit and nuttiness. 87/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.
Blandy’s, Alvada 5 Yr Old, Portugal
Bual and Malmsey, very nutty, some complex straw and smoke notes. The palate has delicious focus: there’s a juiciness here, a squirt of lemon acidity really freshens the wine, playing against that sweetness. Finishes fairly dry. 89/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.
Blandy’s, 10 Yr Old Sercial, Portugal
Paler, orange and tawny colour, immediately fine and subtle, a lemon marmalade character. In the background touches of walnut and even a hint of something floral. Deliciously mouth-watering dryness, with racy, fine, lemon zest and spices, lots of dry, racy acidity and deliciously moreish and tangy, rich. 45g/l sugar hidden behind that terrific acidity. 90-91/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.
Blandy’s, 10 Yr Old Verdelho, Portugal
75g/l RS. More amber coloured, with lots of fruitiness here, more berries and plum, then some walnut and tobacco spice. The palate has a gorgeous weight and texture, hints of the sumptuous richness, but then that firm, spicy core of acidity, citrusy and with shellac dryness. Delicious stuff, very long. 91/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.
Blandy’s, 10 Yr Old Bual, Portugal
90g/l RS. Quite a dark, nut-brown tawny. Toffee and hints of Muscovado sugar, that lovely caramelised colour. The palate has lovely balance again: sweet, sweet wine, a twist of marmalade and liquorice, but the toffee and coffee comes through and of course that fabulous acidity that really sharpens this wine, running through to a peppery, spicy finish. 91/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.
Blandy’s, 10 Yr old Malmsey, Portugal
110+g/l RS. Quite a dry, nut husk aromatic, with subtle shellac and nuttiness. The palate has a luscious texture and glycerine richness, that along with moderate sweetness adds to the sense of richness, plenty of orange and lemon zest freshness again. 90/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.
Blandy’s, Malmsey Harvest 2006, Portugal
Deep nutty brown/tawny. Lots of shellac and nut husk notes, with a certain smokiness. The palate fills with a delicious sweet, fruitcake and toffee richness, with that dry nut husk character, smokiness persisting, but once again the deliciously focused acid drives through. 90/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.
Blandy’s, Terrantez 20 Yr Old, Portugal
Glowing, burnished gold/tawny. Lift, spice, flowers, a lovely and arresting aromatic, with a rounded walnut character of age and oxidation behind. The palate has fantastic richness and mellow coffee-infused, red fruit freshness. Just beautiful balance, the tawny, nutty marmalade and prune notes against the abundant freshness. 93/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.
Blandy’s, Colheita Sercial 1998, Portugal
Golden orange colour, a touch of biscuit and Madeira cake butteriness, with plenty of phenolic freshness and suggestion of grippiness. The palate has delightful medium textured smooth, silky weight, the big dry finish of grapefruit zest and sweeter, raisin notes complex and involving, A gorgeous wine, layered and hugely long. 93/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.
Blandy’s, Colheita Verdelho 1998, Portugal
Slight ruby tinge to the golden colour. Nutty marmalade, tobacco and spice richness, some apple skin phenolic notes, lovely and complex. The palate has super sweetness, a load of sweet, slick, elegant fruit that has richness to counteract the considerable acidity. So dry in the finish, that big, almost ashy, walnut husk dryness setting the wine off beautifully. 93/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.
Blandy’s, Colheita Bual 1996, Portugal
Lovely mellow nuttiness, fleeting glimpses of something floral and tobacco smoky, touches of incense, but creamy concentration. The palate has beautiful walnut and tiny raisiny fudge notes, lovely edges of lemon and lime zest, fresh and aromatic, with delicious, long nutty finish. 94/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.
Blandy’s, Colheita Malmsey 1996, Portugal
136g/l RS, 7.85 TA. A touch of camphor and nut husk, almost green aromatic. Fabulous sweetness o the palate, the super-ripe, lightly raisined fruit, the touches of chocolate and slated caramel fudge, but the ever present core of acidity balances beautifully, just such lovely finesse, freshness, long and beautifully balanced finish that has a dryness. 94/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.
Blandy’s, Verdelho 1977, Portugal
A slightly rotty note to this, a touch of something dank, but then the shellac and nutty notes come through, a little wreathing note of smokiness. The palate has a really incisive lemony, fresh and intense flavour, piercing and incisive, yet has loads of sweetness flitting through the layered finish. 90/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.
Blandy’s, Verdelho 1887, Portugal
Found in demijohn, probably bottled in 1985. Mahogany colour with a hint of ruby. Green fig, olive, spices and toast. Chestnut, that shellac and walnut husk dryness. Fabulously complex, touches of chocolate and burnt toast. Fabulous palate, that ripe, figgy richness, absolutely seductive stuff, coffee and walnut, green walnut liqueur, a burst of marmalade and Seville orange, toasting nuts and honey, old polished wood, just delicious balance, hugely long, unravelling, perfectly poised with delicate vanilla and fudge, such beautiful lime marmalade acidity. Magnificent and unique. 98/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.
Blandy’s, Bual 1996, Portugal
Beautiful glowing toffee colour. Gorgeous fudge and raisin nose, but a nice stream of grapefruit too. Nice clean, citrus notes, this has a real edge of nuttiness but precision too. some floral and endive notes adding a chicory bittersweet note, that lovely fresh, long. Pure finish with subtle spirit heat. 92/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.
Blandy’s, Bual 1968, Portugal
Nutty, burnt butter colour. Mellow rum and raising, fudge-like, maple syrup character, but a hint of dry, nutty, shellac too adding a complex layer. The palate has wonderful sweetness, but all that dry, nutty, wonderfully refreshing finish, a sweet meatiness, lovely long finish, where that definition and intensity, concentration and ripeness. 94/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.
Blandy’s, Bual 1969, Portugal
Nice tawny/nut brown. Walnut husks and shellac, something a touch green, leafy, endive like. On the palate the sweetness sweeps through, with marvellous fudge-like sweetness, malt, but then romping through the wine comes that acidty – a blast of shimmering acidity, under-ripe, greengage and fabulously complex acidity, a touch of lemongrass, and marvellously long and balance. 96/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.
Blandy’s, Bual 1920, Portugal
Dark, toffee colour, such lift, such aromatic spice and floral nuances, pepper and walnut, but all lifted, leading onto a palate where the sumptuous sweetness sweeps across the tongue, tobacco and warming fudge and toffee, sticky toffee pudding in a glass, prune and rich caramel, but the acidity: a huge, sweeping core of acidity that drives the wine, lime and long zesty, bittersweet Seville orange with wonderful tang. This is an absolute treat, such knife-edge balance, wonderful depth and concentration. 97/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.
Blandy’s, Terrantez 1976, Portugal
Dark, touched with mahogany colour. Delicate, exotic spices, lots of depth and lots of chocolate and rum and raising fudge, but it has that delicate freshness, hints of flowers and something light and ethereal too. Massively spicy palate, has the roasted spices, roasted plum and wonderful acidity, the tongue absolutely dancing on a knife edge of sweet and savoury/acid freshness, long, with tobacco and caraway, long and so brilliantly balanced. 96/100. See all stockists on wine-searcher.