It pains me to have to say this about a wine with such a noble tradition and such a capacity for quality, but if there is any wine less fashionable than Madeira at present, then I cannot think of it.
Madeira’s mainland cousin, Port, enjoys a unique status as the ultimate fortified wine. Fine vintage wines are as collectible as they are desirable; they sell “en primeur” and fans in Europe and The USA cannot get enough of them. Non-vintage Port is having a makeover too, with sexy new names and packaging, such as Warre’s Optima, or Quinta do Noval’s The Raven with its striking, square, blacked-out 50cl bottles. Even Sherry, the once staid constitutional tipple of maiden aunts, is shaking off its fusty image. Gonzalez Byass’ Fino, Tio Pepe, has undergone a rebranding overhaul that sees it luxuriating over full-colour spreads in glossy magazines, presented as the ultimate well-chilled food wine. Meanwhile, Madeira tends to languish in a dusty, half-forgotten memory as something people cook with, or bring back as a souvenir from a holiday on the island.
The wine industry on Madeira is a small one. This tiny Portuguese island off the northwest coast of Africa has around 1,500 hectares under vine, whereas the Douro Valley has around 40,000 hectares for the production of Port.
Notably, the bulk of Madeiran plantings are American Vitis Labrusca varieties, introduced post-Phylloxera, and now illegal in Madeira production. Only around 420 hectares is planted with the six traditional varieties permitted in Madeira. Of these, Tinta Negra Mole makes up around 85%, mostly used in the cheapest wines along with Terrantez. That means there are only around 60 hectares planted to the noble varieties: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey. There is a very active movement towards reclaiming the traditional and noble varieties, with EU-backed replanting programmes underway. However, with over 2,000 small farmers working tiny parcels of terraced land on little more than a subsistence basis, this is no easy task. Replanting these ancient, impossibly steep slopes is a whole different ball game from ripping up a few dozens rows on the flat.
Another problem the Madeira industry has faced is the ratio of bulk wine shipped, as opposed to bottled product. Just a few years ago, 75% of all wine was shipped in tankers for bottling as cheap Madeira in European export markets (notably Germany, France and Belgium). Since 2002, the Madeiran industry and government have focused their efforts on drastically re-shaping this imbalance. Not only will locally-bottled wines sell at higher prices, but quality control should be greatly improved. In 2002, bulk shipping was already down to less than 50% of all exports, and will continue to fall.
There are still remarkably fine Madeira wines being produced of course, and fanatical connoisseurs can choose from a mesmerising variety of styles, from searingly dry Sercial, to lusciously sweet, aged Malmsey. Today, production involves only a handful of companies. Giant of the industry is the Madeira Wine Company (MWC), an association now jointly-owned by Blandy’s and Port shippers, the Symington family, which has absorbed numerous smaller producers and shippers over the years. MWC is responsible for 50% of all production, and trades such well known brands as Blandy’s, Cossart Gordon and Leacock & Co. The biggest independent company is Henriques & Henriques (H&H), and there is only a handful of other smallish producers, including d’Oliveira, Borges and Barbeito.
I had been told that Vinhos Barbeito was one of the most forward-thinking companies on the island, as well as being one of the youngest, being founded in the 1940’s by Mário Barbeito. When Mário died in 1985, the company was taken forward by his daughter, Dona Manuela de Freitas, whose two sons, Ricardo and Miguel joined the firm in 1991. Today, Ricardo (right) is in day to day charge of Vinhos Barbeito, his mother having retired in the early 1990s, and his brother looking after other family business interests. The company is now co-owned by a large Japanese wine distributor called Kinoshita Shoji, who take the bulk of export production for distribution in Japan. Other important export markets include the United Kingdom, the USA and of course, Portugal. Many years before the popular movement to limit bulk wine exports, Barbeito was the first Madeira producer to voluntarily switch all production to bottled wines in 1993. This bold move is an early indication of an ambitious, confident company, who are not afraid to take risks.
This became more and more apparent as I spent a day with Ricardo de Freitas, touring Barbeito’s facilities and tasting the wines. I met up with Ricardo at Barbeito’s wine lodge on the Estrada Monumental, just a couple of doors down from the famous Reid’s Palace hotel on the outskirts of Funchal. Youthful-looking, slim and casual in golf-shirt and jeans, Ricardo took me on a tour of the lodge.
This included the casks which naturally age and heat the wines (a production process known as the Canteiro method). There is also a blending laboratory and bottling plant. Whilst there, a run of little half-bottles in distinctive wicker-covered flasks was being prepared for export. At the other end of the scale, there is a dwindling stock of ancient wines acquired by Mário Barbeito. Each year a handful of lucky enthusiasts acquire a bottle of the 1795 Terrantez. We moved on to the second of Barbeito’s three cellar facilities on the island, in the grounds of the family home, on the edge of Funchal, where a series of warehouses is stacked with casks of maturing wine.
One of the keys to the production of Madeira is evaporation. Depending on the arrangement of the warehouse, and position of the wines as the heat of summer works to concentrate colour, sugars and alcohol, evaporation runs between 2% and 5% per annum. Ricardo has many experimental lots for his fine wines, including rooms with specially rigged ventilation gaps in the roofspace, and rooms containing small barriques instead of large 600-litre casks. His aim is to have a pallet of interesting components that will allow him control and flexibility in blending. There are also some large, heated stainless-steel tanks or estufas, for the production of his “everyday” bottlings.
Barbeito’s range includes some really terrific wines, and plenty of innovation. You must be prepared for an initial shock at the light colour of the entire range: Ricardo explains that a few years ago he took the decision to eliminate the addition of caramel to the wines. Though some caramelisation of sugars is a natural product of Canteiro and Estufada, most producers will also add caramel, mainly to give their wines a darker, denser colour and some sweetness. All of Barbeito’s wines – even the fully sweet Buals and Malmseys – lie somewhere between pale gold and burnished tawny in the spectrum.
I asked Ricardo if he had tasted any of Australia’s dry Verdelhos, and whether the Madeiran producers had thought of making non-fortified table wines, much as Port producers have done with table wines from the Douro. With Madeira having to spend years in cask before release, table wines could certainly ease the cash-flow burden. Ricardo was extremely enthusiastic about the Australian examples he had tried, and hinted that he had experimented with table wines purely for private consumption. There would be bureaucratic obstacles to bottlings of Madeiran tables wines from the noble varieties however, and some risk of confusion: currently there is only one non-fortified wine classification, VQPRD Madeirense, which applies to white wines made from non-traditional grape varieties, with all production targeted at the domestic market.
By contrast, over 75% of Madeira is exported, so the global “brand Madeira” is definitely hinged on fortified wine for now. We finished our little tour in the centre of Funchal, at “Diogo’s”, which is Barbeito’s retail shop at number 48 on the Avenida Arriaga. As well as a fine array of Madeiras stretching back to the 19th Century, and other fine wines from around the world, it includes a small museum dedicated to Christopher Columbus. The museum is based around a huge collection of books and memorabilia amassed by Mário Barbeito, who had a life-long interest in the explorer. Ricardo had arranged a tasting for me, which really was impressive: as well as careful selection, long ageing and the absence of caramel, the wines are not de-acidified, so they retain much more freshness and tang than many Madeiras. At this level, Barbeito are leading the way in making complex, fine wines as naturally as possible.
Barbeito Tinta Negra Mole 1995
Sold in an elegant 500cl bottle, this fine single harvest medium/dry wine is 100% Tinta Negra Mole, made from the best four casks of the 1995 harvest and aged in French oak. Like all of these wines, this has around 19.5% alcohol. Pale to medium gold in colour, this is walnutty and warming, with notes of orange and spice, leading to a rich, fruit-cakey palate. There is plenty of freshness, with good acid balance and only a background sweetness. Good length too, and a very pure finish with no alcoholic burn. This is an exceptional example of Tinta Negra Mole, and is excellent. £15.95 Berry Bros & Rudd
Barbeito Frasqueira Sercial 1978
Sercial always makes the driest style of Madeira, and this is a special selection of the 1978 harvest, which remained in cask until 2000, when it was decanted into glass demi-johns before bottling in 2001. Only 620 bottles were produced. This has a fairly dark golden brown colour, and very dark, nutty, almond and herbal notes on the nose. The palate is really quite oily, with a fine, rich mouth-feel and a wonderfully complex array of fig, toast, caramel and biscuit flavours. It is just off-dry, and has a lovely finesse and warmth into a long finish. Excellent.
Barbeito Frasqueira Verdelho 1980
This Verdelho is a product of a very similar selection and maturation process as the Sercial, with transfer to demijohns in 2000, and 760 bottles filled in 2001. Tawny coloured, there is a fine spiciness, with notes of lemon peel and waxy lime, dry nutty nuances and a slightly oxidised, sherry and raisin note. On the palate more of that dried fruit character, but then a lovely marmalade and Seville orange flavour filling the mid-palate. Freshening acidity is crisp on the finish, and this is very good indeed/excellent.
Barbeito Boal Reserve 5-year-old
Barbeito labels its wines as “Boal”, and alternative spelling to the more common Bual. Very much like Tawny Ports, designations such as “5-Year-Old” and “10-Year-Old” refer to the average time the wines spent in cask, and do not indicate wines of a specific vintage. A lovely glowing, golden/tawny colour, this has a warming nose of walnuts with a touch of caramel, even just a little glimpse of coffee. The palate is very fine, with dark marmalade fruit and lots of racy citrus adding cut and freshness. Lovely sweetness, but great balance too. I really like this less expensive wine. Very good indeed/excellent. Around £8.99 for 50cl.
Barbeito Boal Old Reserve 10-year-old
Wines in this blend are 10- to 14-years old on average. It is a blend from two warehouses, the cooler Câmara de Lobos being gentler and more aromatic, and the warehouse in São Martinho being more concentrated through higher evaporation levels whilst in Canteiro. There’s an almost ruby core to the light tawny colour. It is immediately very complex, with notes of walnut and rich fruit-cake, and again that hint of cappuccino. On the palate there is plum fruit and a cool orangy note. Plenty of depth pushes through on the mid-palate, with chocolate and spice – a terrifically long, spicy, warming finish. Excellent. £22.95 Berry Bros & Rudd
Barbeito Frasqueira Boal 1978
Made by an identical method to the 1978 Sercial, with 1250 bottles produced. With 85 grammes of residual sugar, this is a sweet wine, but has such freshness that again I might classify it as off-dry/medium. There is a deep, chocolate tinge to a tawny colour. It has a polished, dense, old-wood character, with a slightly rancio quality that is complex and alluring, with notes of nuts, dried fruit and a little lemon peel. The medium- to full-bodied palate has honey and more walnutty richness, with some little notes of tea and caramel, and a long tangy finish, where good acidity pushes through. Lovely style, and very good indeed/excellent.
Barbeito Malvazia Old Reserve 10-year-old
Again, an alternative spelling for Malvasia/Malmsey. Traditionally making the sweetest of Madeiras, yet again this could not be described as fully sweet, retaining plenty of cut. This wine had only been bottled a few weeks before my visit. It had a lovely light golden colour, and a very smooth, clean, fresh nose of creamy toffee and nuts. Smooth and luscious on the palate too, there are deep-set chocolate flavours, and a hint of something juicy and almost tropical; like peach or nectarine. Long and very pure, this is another really unusual and very good indeed/excellent wine. £22.95 Berry Bros & Rudd
Barbeito Malvazia Special Reserve 20-year-old
Light to medium tawny. It has a warming nose of fig, quince and smooth, luscious toffee and walnut character. There’s an intriguing glimpse of tropical, mango fruit. Intense concentration on the palate, with fine, deep, tangy flavours suggesting raisins and nuts, and plenty of juicy, vibrant fruit amongst the aged characteristics. Smooth and medium- to full-bodied, this is delicious and very long. Excellent. £38.95 Berry Bros & Rudd