Michael Broadbent investigates Madeira.
Madeira – a wine for all seasons
Don’t be put off by the subject. Madeira is one of those wines which is always on the verge of revival, always the bridesmaid never the bride. The older vintages and solera Madeiras have long had a cult following and, recently cataloguing a collection for a forthcoming sale, I was reminded of the time when, as head of Christie’s Wine Department, I had a bit on the side; perhaps not the most appropriate expression. What I mean to say is that by the side of my desk permanently stood a bottle of Madeira, a medium-dry yet rich Verdelho to offer to visitors, clients, old friends, Uncle Tom Cobley and all who called announced or unannounced mid-morning. Those who came in the afternoon were offered Bual. Both were surprisingly reasonably priced 10-year-olds. Without more ado I would proffer a glass suggesting that Verdelho was much better, certainly more nourishing, than Christie’s morning coffee, and the richer Bual infinitely more interesting than tea.
It always surprised me how few of my visitors had ever drunk Madeira. It was a revelation. One glass of these tangy, fortified (18–20% alcohol) wines usually did the trick. It also demonstrated one of Madeira’s many virtues: it is economical, for a bottle once opened will stay fresh for several days. Moreover it will survive storage conditions that would spell the death of any other wine. I was about to add that I have never come across a corked or out of condition Madeira, though, now I come to think of it, one of the major disappointments in my early Christie’s days came about like this: I had been invited to inspect the cellar of a very grand house south of Edinburgh. The cellar was vast, with over a dozen bays with bins liberally littered with dusty, grimy bottles, all of which turned out to be Madeira of rather ordinary quality purchased around 1900 for domestic quaffing. I rarely opened bottles for tasting on site but decided to sample bottles taken from each bin. Alas, even those with a firm looking cork and good level turned out to be hopelessly oxidised. So much for great Scottish cellars. I returned to London empty handed; well not quite, for I could not resist removing a faded, scarcely legible handwritten card ‘Bin No 30, Jan 1910’ on the back of a lofty, aristocratic invitation: ‘The Marquis and Marchioness of Tweeddale request the pleasure of [blank]’s company at a Servants’ Ball on Wednesday, 5th January 1910. Reply to A Whitley, Yester, Gifford’. What a pity the family retainers had not drunk the lot.
That’s almost enough about Madeira save that Daphne and I still enjoy a glass or two as ‘elevenses’ at the weekend as an alternative to our favourite Rhine wines. (Actually, the most recent has been a Mosel, Dr Loosen’s 2001 Erdener Prälat Riesling Auslese. Delicious. Sweetish but light, and with perfect acidity).
My last word on the subject might irritate some readers but, in common with Jancis, Hugh and others, I am not infrequently asked for my desert island wine. Without hesitation I reply Madeira because it would withstand the heat and remain drinkable for ages after the cork was drawn. To be specific, if pressed, I opt for HM Borges’ Terrantez – a rare grape – of the 1862 vintage, one of the most glorious wines of all time: its penetrating perfume alone intoxicating, its concentrated and interminable length on the palate unmatched.
Now, if Madeira – old Madeira – is something of a cult wine, where does one learn about it and where can one acquire the odd bottle? Firstly, there are two books: Noël Cossart’s Madeira, the island vineyard (Christie’s Wine Publications, 1984) is wonderfully evocative, well illustrated and with a useful map of the island folded into the back cover; the other is more assiduously academic, Madeira by Alec Liddell (Faber, 1998). Though both are now out of print, try www.amazon.com, or Janet Clarke (www.janetclarke.freeserve.co.uk).
Perhaps I might mention my own Vintage Wine (£35, LB Websters) which is widely available, and has a major chapter on Madeira, with the most extensive list of tasting notes of vintages and dated soleras.
And where to buy the wine? Contact a specialist in Madeiras (Patrick Grubb Selections, +44 (0) 1869 340 229), or haunt the salerooms. I warn you that supplies are drying up and rarities are just that, and increasingly expensive. My personal opinion is that buying bottles with the grape name and vintage stencilled in white while enjoying a holiday on this delightful island is a bit hit and miss. More advisable to visit the Madeira Wine Company’s historic bodega in Funchal or, if staying at Reid’s Hotel, pop next door to the family-owned producer, Barbeito.
Meanwhile, be adventurous, and try it. Decent wine merchants should list an everyday five-year-old or my favourite Blandy’s or Cossart’s 10-year-olds. In ascending order of sweetness: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and luscious Malmsey.
What Michael’s Been Drinking This Month
Collavini, Collio Bianco
Among the most forgettable wines of this month was Eugenio Collavini’s strangely named Broy (sounds like a glue). The positive colour and nose were promising but its taste, despite coaxing, air and time, was spoiled by the bitter, hot, 14% alcohol finish.