My love of Madeira is well documented in Vintage Wine. Unsurprisingly, fewer and fewer old vintages now come on to the market.

In the past, the best came from the private cellars of old, established families on the island, such as the de Freitas’ of Barbeito. Captain David Fairlie’s excellent old wines were shipped to Christie’s, London, in error, via San Francisco. Then the Acciaioli brothers – scions of one of the oldest Madeira families, little known in England in recent times – exported mainly to Scandinavia. From their cellars came a good range of 1802, 1832, 1836, and 1839, all drinking superbly.

The most astonishing quantity of all came from a Henriques family estate – just two wines, but more than 100 dozen bottles of each: the 1827 Bual, and one of the most consistently beautiful, the 1830 Malmsey.Not all that long ago, David Elswood, the current head of Christie’s wine department, almost literally unearthed ‘a remarkable range of old Madeiras from the underground cellars of William Leacock’s impressive Funchal mansion’. And what a range – and quantity: major vintages and soleras from 1795, in total more than 2,000 bottles.

Of many memorable Madeira tastings over the years, one stands out: a Terrantez seminar I conducted for Robert Maliner, an old client, at one of his Hollywood (Florida) Wine Society weekends. The almost overpowering fumes not only filled the large room but percolated the hotel’s entire ground floor.

The same thing happened recently at the Patrick Grubb Selections tasting of old Madeira, in the Medal Room of the Honourable Artillery Company’s HQ (Grubb served in the HAC, upstaging a mere 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery).

The tasting opened with a sensational 1790 Sercial from the private reserves of the Araújo family, who still own vineyards at Quinta do Jardim da Serra in an area noted for the finest Sercial grapes. Most Sercials are fairly pale, but this was a lovely glowing amber-gold with a light lime yellow rim. ‘Bouquet’ is an inadequate term for the surging of nose-filling power and pungency, the hallmark of a great old Madeira.

To describe it adequately is beyond me: concentrated, tangy, floral with subtle whiffs of caramel, black treacle – heavens, I’ll be purloining Parker’s 100-point rating soon. On the palate, ‘rich’ is a feeble understatement, its flavour reflecting its nose, leading to an attenuated, acidic finish.

The most fascinating, original wine was a ‘c.1820’ Bual Barbosa from Cama de Lobos, in wood for 65 years, in demi-johns for 50 years, bottled 1935. This is normal procedure: if the wine is left in old oak casks for too long it will affect its taste, whereas a sealed demi-john (or carboy) will preserve it.

I was baffled by the name ‘Barbosa’, but Grubb noted that it meant ‘lazy’ and was an old, slow-growing variety no longer planted. He also noted that the label was reminiscent of those from the late Dr Michael Grabham’s magnificent Madeira collection, ‘passed on to the Blandy family’.

The wine had the rich tawny gold of a Bual, its nose initially strange ‘old straw’, fast eclipsed by ethereal crystallised violets. Being a Bual, fairly sweet, with incredibly rich mouthfilling flavour, powerful with inimitable high-end acidity. Looking at the label more closely, printed at the bottom in small lettering was ‘Owing to the absence of the owner, grapes were picked almost as raisins at Quinta Stanford’. So, perhaps Barbosa is not the name of the ancient grape, but that of the ‘lazy’ owner?

Before moving on to the greatest wine of the evening – and in my opinion the greatest Madeira of all time – a word or two to explain that the two distinctive characters of Madeira are a tangy nose and high acidity which counterbalances its richness. How high and how sweet can be demonstrated by Cossart Gordon’s 1908 Bual, bottled in 1985. The acidity was 14 grams per litre and the residual sugar 130g/l.

T

he last of the 10 great wines in Grubb’s tasting was ‘believed to be’ 1862 Terrantez HMB. No question abut it, I’m sure it was. HM Borges, founded in 1877, was an assiduous acquirer of old Madeiras, amassing a formidable stock. Old wines bought in cask would be put into demi-johns for later bottling. ‘HMB’ almost invariably appeared in stencilled white, above the shipper’s name, in this case ‘Leacock’.

Its colour, smell and taste tallied with my note in Vintage Wine: ‘The ’62 has extra dimensions: warm amber that should be observed by candlelight or by a window, catching the last rays of sunlight’ (not fanciful: I experienced this the first time in the study of a Fellow of St Catherine’s, Cambridge). ‘An almost overwhelming bouquet and flavour, high toned, tangy, scented, with power and delicacy magically combined.’

Written by Michael Broadbent