Americans tend to regard Madeira wine as the drink of spinsters and maiden aunts. This is a shame, since they can be some of the world’s most glorious wines---delightful to sip on their own, and incredibly versatile with food.
Produced on the Atlantic island of the same name, Madeira has been around for centuries. Thomas Jefferson drank it, and it was a staple in England long before the red wines of the Medoc appeared on the scene. It is normally bottled as four grape varieties with different levels of sweetness: Sercial (dry), Verdelho (off-dry) Bual (semi-sweet) and Malmsey (sweet).
During a recent visit to the island, I had the opportunity to sample a range of gems at the venerable house of Blandy. Established in 1811 by John Blandy, the company was purchased by the Symington group in the late 1990s but remains a family-operated enterprise. Now operating under the umbrella of The Madeira Wine Company, it encompasses the houses of Leacock’s, Miles and Cossart Gordon.
An outbreak of phylloxera over a century ago wiped out most of the original grapevines, and much of the island was replanted with the prolific Tinta Negra Mole grape. At Blandy’s, however, the wines are still composed of the original four grape varieties. The company owns some vineyards, and has contracts with the best of the island’s 800 growers.
I began with Alvada ($27), a 50/50 blend of Bual and Malmsey introduced in 2002. It had a raisined nose but was totally dry on the palate, with a nutty flavor and slightly tannic finish; it would be enjoyable to sip on its own, and even better with chocolate. The next two wines were 10 Year-Old versions of Sercial and Verdelho ($37). The Sercial was reminiscent of a Fino Sherry, but with slightly more palate weight: dry and angular on entry, rich but dry in the middle, and an excellent match with sushi. The Verdelho was slightly saline on the nose, ripe and generous on the palate; the off-dry texture would pair well with blue cheese.
The highlight of the tasting was a pair of Colheitas from 1996 that our host described as “baby vintage Madeiras.” Both the Bual ($80) and Malmsey ($65) were lush and sweet, with the sweetness nicely balanced by good acidity and a spicy texture; the first would go well with foie gras, while the second again called for chocolate. Like all the wines I tried, they displayed impeccable balance: rich, elegant and restrained.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to amazon.