Traveling through time with Madeira



Reproduced from Year 5, Issue #23 of Spirito di Vino Asia...

Tasting a wine that is even older than yourself is a magicalfeeling. Madeira’s unparalleled aging potential earnsa special place in the arena of old wines, and it is certainlya sensational experience to enjoy this legendary wine.

There is always something magical about tasting a wine produced in one’s year of birth and certainly, to taste one that was made 60 years before being born is something else altogether.

The occasion for such a time-travelling experience was a unique tasting hosted by the Hong Kong Wine Society and organized by a long standing member Edward Smith.  As usual in these proceedings, we were presented with 12 wines to taste blind so that we could record our notes, give each wine a score, and reflect upon them without the influence of their label or their year of birth. The scores were then tabulated to establish a group ranking after which followed a thorough discussion of each wine among the members present.

The focus of our contemplation during this extraordinary tasting were “vintage” wines spanning from 1907 to 1978 from the Portuguese island of Madeira located 796 km from the coast of north Africa and roughly at the same latitude as Morocco.  They were acquired from Pereira d’Oliveira, a small but long established family firm founded in the 1850 that is now under the responsibility of 2 brothers who are the 5th generation to run the company.  Headquartered in a beautiful and traditional lodge in the capital of Funchal, the firm is blessed with an unrivalled stock of old wines dating back to 1850.  Over the years, they have acquired 4 other firms and some of the wines we tasted, the Bastardo 1927 in particular, were taken from the stock of one such firm, Adegas do Torreão.  However today, they market all wines under their names.  The reason for such an impressive inventory of old wines is the past reluctance of the 2 brother’s father to export any of its Madeiras.  In fact, from 1930 to 1970, no wines were exported at all.  It is only in the 80’s that the father yielded to the coaxing of his sons.  Today, it is possible to buy centenarian wines over the counter at the lodge in Funchal and most wines up to 80 years old are still in cask while older wines are kept in demi-johns to avoid any further concentration and oxidative maturation.

The absolute beauty of Madeira wines is their incomparable ageing ability.  Not only because they are fortified, are generally high in acidity, and have various degree of residual sugar, but also because their maturation method insures they have the capacity to survive over centuries.  These “vintage” wines were wood-aged in “pipas” (a wooden barrel containing 418 liters) and in large casks in an area of the cellar called “canteiro” where conditions are warm and dry to undergo a very slow and controlled oxidation. During this process roughly 4% of the wine evaporate each year thus slowly increasing their richness and complexity.

In English, the wines are often referred to has “vintage” but in actuality the term is not quite correct as the category, actually called “Garrafeira” or “Frasqueira”, requires that the wines be aged in wood for at least 20 years before it can bear the category name on the label.  In Madeira, 20 years is considered the moment at which the wood-aged madeira only begins to display depth and subtlety.  The category was introduced in 1982 as a benchmark by which to judge them as world class wines and today, luminaries such as Michael Broadbent and Jancis Robinson sing their praise as wine which can be drink with pleasure even after centuries and the best are still able to make a very strong statement of the grape potential.

Our tasting included wines made with the usual recommended grapes of Sercial, Verdhelho, Boal, and Malvasia, but it also included the rare Bastardo, and even rarer Terrantez, two grapes that are today almost extinct on the island of Madeira with total plantings below 2 hectares each.

Although the wines were tasted and scored blind, I was thrilled to discover later on that my favorite of the evening was the 1968, my birth year.  This 48 years old wine had a certain richness and intensity with a lively freshness that engaged and mesmerized in more ways than one. Typical of those born in the year of the monkey perhaps??  Certainly a keeper with long ageing ability still.  The 1908 surprised completely.  Sensual and rich, it held attention with a “symphony of freshness and harmony” as one of the member later stated. The 1907, an important wine for d’Oliviera as it is the birth year of the brothers’ both parents, showed extremely well for a 109 year old wine with a beautifully integrated texture, caressing and commending respect.  The group’s favorite was the 1978 showing a round and balanced structure with toasty caramel notes and many agreed that it would have been the perfect wine to serve with Peking duck!

Overall a fascinating tasting showing that wines from the off the beaten path island of Madeira indeed show tremendous pleasures!


Tasting Notes:

D. Oliveiras, Reserva Boal 1908 – Group Rank #5

Mahogany with amber highlights.  Rancio with slight animal character.  Sensual and intense on the palate.  Holding attention and engaging the mind.

Pereira d’Oliveira, Verdelho Frasquiera 1966 – Group Rank #6

Amber tending on mahogany. Restrained with nutty and fruity character.  Delicate flesh and mid-sweet on the palate with freshness and suppleness.  Intense and long.

Pereira d’Oliveira, Verdelho Reserva Frasquiera 1973 – Group Rank #8

Mahogany with amber highlights.  Delicate with a wild character.  Notes of ginger, coffee and lemon skin. Rich palate with a slightly bitter undertone.  Long.

Pereira d’Oliveira, Boal Frasquiera 1958 – Group Rank #4

Deep mahogany.  Deep and compact aromatics.  Rancio dominating with nuts and figs.  Layered and complex. Evolving and expressive.  Vibrant and structured palate.  Rich and refreshing all at once, a complete wine.  Intense with a long finish.  Ageing potential remaining.

Pereira d’Oliveira, Bastardo Frasquiera 1927 – Group Rank #10

Amber tending on mahogany.  Loosely layered.  Nutty with slight pungency and notes of citrus and walnuts.  Lighter than the others until now.  Rapid evolution.

Pereira d’Oliveira, Sercial Frasquiera 1969 – Group Rank #12

Amber.  Subdued and delicate nose with slightly herbal and pungent notes.  Nutty and woody.  Slightly hot and disjointed.  Short finish. Premature evolution?

Pereira d’Oliveira, Boal Frasquiera 1922 – Group Rank #3

Amber with mahogany highlights and slightly hazy.  Expressive rancio character with clear notes of figs, toffee and walnuts. Slightly muscaty.  Sweet and rich, but fresh and proportioned.  Moderate but intense, mouthwatering finish.

Pereira d’Oliveira, Boal Frasquiera 1968 – Group Rank #2

Clear and bright amber tending on mahogany.  Elegant rancio character with prunes, figs, and nuts.  Slightly floral and spicy.  Ethereal on the palate, beautifully balanced where freshness and richness mingle perfectly.  Intense, engaging and long.  With ageing ability remaining. As one member stated, “an archetypical Madeira”.

Pereira d’Oliveira, Terrantez Frasquiera 1971 – Group Rank #9

Amber with slight haze.  Herbal and pungent notes.  Citrus and nuts.  The palate fresh but a slight metallic taste.  Premature evolution?

Pereira d’Oliveira, Boal Frasquiera 1978 – Group Rank #1

Mahogany with a slight haze.  Rancio character with notes of caramel and toast.  Walnut and orange skin.  Sweet but fresh. Concentrated but balanced.  Round, friendly and intense.  Long and engaging finish. With ageing potential. It was generally thought to be the perfect match to Peking duck!

Pereira d’Oliveira, Malvazia Frasquiera 1907 – Group Rank #6

Amber tending on mahogany.  Orange skin and figs, nuts and honey with notes of coffee.  Rich and fresh.  Ethereal.  Intense and long.  A beautiful wine at 109 years old!

Pereira d’Oliveira, Boal Frasquiera 1973 – Group Rank #11

Amber tending on mahogany.  Delicate with pungent and slightly medicinal notes.  Musky, herbal and minty.  Fresh and vibrant on the palate but slightly watery.  Still, long and intense.