Madeira is a miracle of the wine world, coming from the eponymous island in the Atlantic where ancient ships stopped on the journey to the New World and loaded wine as ballast. On their way to the tropics, the barrels rolled around and heated up. The wine was found to improve – and the basic system of Madeira production came to be. The island has only 440 hectares of small terraces. Four varietals account for 20% of production – Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia with Tinta Negra Mole making up the other 80%. Madeira is virtually indestructible with vintages of more than a century available, though very old Madeira is milder and more wine-like than its younger descendants. Fortified, as its sister Port is, it bears no resemblance to port wine whatsoever but is unique, delicious, nutty and ginger and can be either sweet or dry. At Eton Vintners, we have many types but this D’Oliveiras Boal is semi-sweet and has a well-defined bouquet with notes of marmalade, nutmeg and walnut. On the palate, medium-bodied with fine tannins and, walnut-infused and honeyed fruit and a prickly finish. A very special wine for this special time of the year.
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Madeira's mainland cousin, Port, enjoys a unique status as the ultimate fortified wine.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 planted 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.