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Jefford on Monday: Drunk On Time

It was almost Christmas, and I was running a fever. This, oddly, seemed to heighten rather than diminish sensual acuity. There was an end-of-term feel at the Madeira Wine Company, and I'd arrived towards dusk, too; those in charge of the tasting room gestured towards the reference shelves of ancient bottles, all of them open, indicating that I should try what I wanted, while they chatted with the peaceable lack of urgency you often find on islands, once the day's last boat has left.

Jefford Madeira vineyard

The silent, solitary and unhurried tasting which followed, I remember, blew the top of my head off, and the remnants have been incorrectly positioned ever since. I reeled away an hour later, my sway caused neither by alcohol nor influenza but by explosive sapidity, and the scents of time itself. Drunk on time? It’s possible. If you’ve never tasted a range of ancient vintage madeiras (‘vintage’ has now been replaced by the term ‘garrafeira’ or ‘frasqueira’), you will think I’m exaggerating. If you have been fortunate enough to encounter wines like these, then you’ll recognise the awe.

Don’t just take my word for it, though. The best book on Madeira (Madeira: The Mid-Atlantic Wine) by Alex Liddell has been revised by the author and was republished a few days ago by Hurst, priced at £16.99. Liddell was an Oxford graduate student who, despite intense disapproval from his tee-total father, took an interest in the weekly wine-tastings that, back in the mid-1950s, British wine merchants lavished on the nation’s youthful elite. Liddell remembers buying Mouton '45 at £1.50 a bottle while still at Oxford, and has only recently drunk his last bottle of Noval '31, purchased at the same time. He also bought (for a daunting £3.45) a madeira from the village of Cama de Lobos grown and vinfied in the same year as the French Revolution, 1789; it appealed to a student (and later lecturer) in philosophy. “I shall never forget the ravishment,” Liddell writes, “of that first taste. Its powerful and explosive attack, rich complexity of flavour, rapier-like dry finish, and long, intense aftertaste were quite beyond anything I had hitherto experienced. I was hooked for life – and rapidly invested in three more bottles, one of which still remains in my cellar.”

That bottle eventually drew Liddell to the island. When he first went there in the early 1970s, he remembers, it was not uncommon to see Madeirenses walking the streets unshod. A timeshare led to thrice-yearly visits. “There were,” he told me, “well over double the number of producers then compared to today, and there were several little wine shops with semi-under-the-counter stocks of old bottles which I plundered over the years.” His best finds, though, were in Lisbon. “Mainland Portuguese, it seemed, drank only port and never madeira, so there were lots of small what you might call ‘licensed grocers’ with dead stock: madeiras which had been in their cellars or on dusty top shelves for ever and ever, still with their original price tags, which I obligingly took off their hands, often with a reduction for quantity on top of their historically low prices. I nearly wore out a pair of shoes by walking systematically up and down every street in central Lisbon, searching out these wonderful little Aladdin’s caves.”

The price of great madeira frasqueira, of course, has now soared, as you would expect for some of the world’s greatest, oldest dated wines. I often fret (in a theoretical sort of way) that the wine style will become extinct.  Remember that a frasqueira cannot be declared before its twentieth birthday, and serious efforts often need many more decades than that to acquire cranium-splintering force. And the quantities produced are tiny: the new edition of Liddell’s book lists Madeira’s 2012 plantings. There is just 16 ha of Sercial on the island and less Boal; total Malvasia plantings stand at 36.84 ha; and the majority of wines produced from these vines will be sold before their twentieth birthday in any case. Will the remnants be enough to keep American, Russian and Chinese frasqueira madeira connoisseurs happy in 2112, or 2162?  

I can’t see that it will. Indeed, I’ve always suspected that there is some kind of accounting disconnect which means inadequate incentives for Madeiran farmers to grow these classic varieties (Sercial grapes fetched no more than 1.80€ per kilo in 2012, according to Liddell’s revised text, and Boal and Malvasia less). Too much time must elapse between grape delivery and eventual sale as a great 75-year-old bottle of frasqueira; it will be the auctioneers and the collectors who profit most. There are less than 500 ha of vines planted in the entire archipelago, including hybrids, the default ‘ignoble’ variety Tinta Negra Mole, and the varieties used to make table wine for the million tourists who visit the island each year: hardly credible, but true.  

Liddell, replying to my anxiety, suggested that even great frasqueira madeira remains a hard sell. He is, though, anxious that too many wines are being sold on the dot of twenty years nowadays, whereas his Damascene Cama de Lobos only went into demijohn on its 111th birthday, and wasn’t bottled for a further fifty. Who holds stock for that length of time today?  

I made one subsequent visit to Madeira – at harvest time. That provided a different sort of shock. I stood in a vineyard on the north side of the island. It was a tiny, tangled garden where the vines jostled shadily with melons, cucumbers, beans and potatoes. Much of the fruit arriving at the wineries was unripe (9% is the lowest permitted level of potential alcohol, and 12%, Liddell says, is “generally speaking” the best shippers can hope for). The young wines and base wines tasted dreary at best and unpleasant at worst; their metamorphosis into the great ancient wines seemed improbable, even fantastic.  

That was when I realised that this truly is a wine made by time, and warmth, and air; and the more, the better. And as the decades go by, the raw acidity of barely ripe grapes becomes the saving grace and vivifying force of a fortified which can stride effortlessly through decades and even centuries (though as Liddell tellingly points out, lodge scrutiny and carefully judged refreshment are vitally important, too, for the most successful wines).

Of course most madeira isn’t destined for long ageing, and it receives its transformative heat in a sudden dose at the beginning of its life. Many of the advances made on the island in recent years have been to try to find intermediate ways of creating and selling good madeira: neither young cooking wine nor an expensive antique bottle. The result of all these efforts today is a wine culture whose complexity is entirely disproportionate to its size and economic impact. It’s the perfect material for a good book, in other words -- which is why I am so glad that Liddell has found time to update his.

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com

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