Vintage $350 Madeira Beats Pricey Burgundy, Champagne

Madeira wines from the producer Barbeitosit, made from single casks or a single harvest. Source: The Rare Wine Company via Bloomberg

It isn’t every day that wine writers get to taste Madeiras from 1910 and 1912 over lunch, but I had a chance to taste those two old-timers in an array that also included examples ranging from a 1920 to a pubescent 1996.

Even more surprising was my finding that the 1910 Barbeita Sercial ($350) was the best of a dozen Madeiras sampled at a Wine Media Guild in a New York tasting earlier this month.

For a wine more than a century old, it was voluptuous but not fatty, fully balanced between fruit and acid, with a deep richness that gave way to a light finish.

It is the acids in Madeira, which increase with age, that keep centenarians like this tasting so fresh, while the added fortifying alcohol allows for such longevity like Port.

Aside from its formidable aging potential and its variety, the truly remarkable thing about Madeira is how relatively inexpensive it is. When you think you can easily spend $300 to $1,000 on a bottle of Champagne or Burgundy for a single night’s pleasure, Madeiras were meant to be sipped in small doses over many evenings.

Once opened, they don’t keep forever, but can be rewarding for weeks, long after the Champagne and Burgundy bottles have been consigned to recycling bins.

Madeira is made on the volcanic Portuguese island of the same name, where it began in the 16th century as an unfortified white wine. It became fortified when shippers found that the addition of alcohol helped stabilize the wine on long trade voyages.

Thirsty Colonists

This was particularly important for shipments to America where it was the most popular wine of the 18th century and the colonies consumed a quarter of all the Madeira produced.

Over the next two centuries Madeira had its ups and downs, from crises caused by powdery mildew and phylloxera infestation to supply problems.

At its height, the island boasted about 200 producers, though today only about seven remain. France, Germany and the Benelux countries consume the most cooking Madeiras and lesser varieties, while the U.S., Japan and the U.K. import the most superior quality Madeiras.

Madeira can be made from a variety of grapes, including Tinta Negra Mole, Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malvasia, information usually provided on the labels of better bottlings.

Supermarket Madeiras

Three-year and five-year Madeiras are blends mostly found in supermarkets. But 10-year and 15-year Madeiras offer considerably more quality at very decent prices.

A vintage Madeira, called a frasqueria, is basically drawn from a cask from a single year and must age a minimum of 20 years in oak barrels.

The Madeiras at the tasting, most imported by The Rare Wine Co. showed a remarkable range. One very light, pretty example was the 1988 Barbeito Sercial ($47), while the 1978 vintage of the same wine was pale in color yet spicy, with a perfect balance of acid to make it delicious before or after dinner.

The 1985 D’Oliveira Verdelho ($95) was slightly vegetal, somewhat grassy, while a younger vintage, 1994 ($80), had a tremendous bouquet, bright acids, and levels of flowery, spicy flavors that finished long on the palate.

The older 1973 was magnificent, with a burnt sugar nose that changed to a restrained elegance and mild sweetness that would make it a fine wine with a creamy Portuguese blue cheese like Serpa or Serra da Estrella.

Coppery Centenarian

The 1912, still sound as a bell, was bracing, coppery, as if it were just minted yesterday.

Turning to a series of Bual-based Madeiras, produced in warmer terroirs on the island, I found all of them showing some oxidation, tasting not unlike Spanish sherries, which was pleasant enough in the 1966 Blandy.

The 1977 ($135-$170) was one dimensional, and not particularly sweet (though Boals generally achieve higher sugar levels than Sercials and Verdelhos).

Two other examples, 1968 ($150-$200) and 1920 ($700-$800), were distastefully oxidized, musky tasting, and murky. Indeed, the 1920 was brown and smelled so badly I couldn’t bring myself to taste it.

(John Mariani writes on wine for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include an interview by Manuela Hoelterhoff and theater reviews.

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