A trip to Madeira is a trip back in history, to an island colonised by the Portuguese in 1420, and a favourite destination of Sir Winston Churchill. RICHARD MAYSON is enchanted.
Madeira is a passion of mine; the wine, the place and the people. Having spent much of my life in mainland Portugal (or the continente as the islanders call it), I first visited Madeira in the late 1980s. It was the wine that drew me there. At one of those brilliant pre-auction tastings that Christie’s used to put on in London, I had a Damascene moment. Halfway through sniffing a series of thrillingly fresh, vibrant wines from vintages in the 18th and 19th centuries I decided I had to visit the place that made this bottled history.
Landing at the airport is the first of many thrills on this volcanic speck, 900km from the Portuguese mainland and 600km off the coast of North Africa. Madeira literally appears out of the clouds and, as the plane does a sharp U-turn to land on the tiny runway, you catch a glimpse of the jagged mountain peaks that rise nearly 2,000m out of the Atlantic. Believing the clouds to be vapours from the mouth of hell, it is easy to see why the early ‘flat-earth’ explorers gave Madeira a wide berth.
After the Portuguese finally landed on the island in 1420 it was quickly colonised and became an important harbour for ships on the new and expanding trade routes to Africa and Latin America. Vines were planted, reputedly brought from Crete by Henry the Navigator himself, and wine from the island was taken onboard ship, partly to help combat scurvy. As the wines pitched and rolled across the tropics in the ship’s hold they underwent a profound transformation, giving rise to the word ‘maderised’. A fashion developed for vinho da roda (wine of the round voyage) and, until the end of the 19th century, Madeira wine was not considered to be up-to-scratch unless it had crossed the tropics twice.
Nowadays the finest wines are aged for anything up to 60 years in specially constructed stores or lodges, warmed naturally by the sub-tropical sun. The mean annual temperature in the island’s capital, Funchal, is 19C. In the winter, temperatures rarely fall below 16C and in the summer rarely rise above 28C. This amenable climate attracted visitors long before the days of air travel and package holidays. King Carl of Austria lived and died on the island and numerous distinguished visitors were attracted to William Reid’s hotel overlooking the bay of Funchal, which opened in 1891. President Baptista of Cuba took over one floor in the 1950s and among the other well-known guests were George Bernard Shaw and Sir Winston Churchill. Churchill enjoyed a bottle of 1792 Madeira – made famous by Napoleon who took a pipe of it with him to St Helena – over dinner at Reid’s.
Churchill insisted on serving the wine himself, remarking ‘do you realise that when this wine was vintaged Marie Antoinette was still alive?’ Reid’s is still the place to stay on the island, frequented by Prime Ministers and Heads of State who have the choice of the George Bernard Shaw Suite or the Winston Churchill Suite according to their political leanings.
Anyone visiting the island today would identify with Cyrus Redding’s comment from the early 19th century when he remarked: ‘The vineyards do not appear so numerous as the stranger would expect.’
There are in fact around 1,800ha (hectares) of vineyard on the island, split between 1,900 growers. The average size of a vineyard holding is just 0.95ha, so instead of talking in yields of hl/ha, Madeira’s growers speak of kg/m2. Vines fight for space with cabbages, potatoes, bananas and sugar cane on tiny step-like terraces, known as poios, which look like hanging gardens. As recently as the 1960s, many of the finest vineyards were to be found in the western outskirts of Funchal and in nearby Câmara de Lobos. Pico de São João (St John’s Hill), São Martinho and Santo António were all important grape-producing areas, noted for the quality of their predominantly sweet wines in the 19th century, and their names frequently appear on the labels of old bottles.
As the city has expanded these areas have now been built on. Most of the vineyards are now to be found on the south side of the island above Câmara de Lobos at Estreito de Câmara de Lobos and on the north side in the narrow valley behind São Vicente.
The island’s wine industry, however, remains centred on the capital, Funchal. Over the years, takeovers, mergers and closures have taken their toll and there are now just six shippers of Madeira wine. Two of the larger (unrelated) firms, Justino Henriques and Henriques & Henriques, have decamped from cramped lodges in Funchal to modern, purpose-built premises outside the city. The most atmospheric lodges to visit are Adegas de São Francisco, belonging to the Blandy family.
Originally a monastery, the site was acquired by John Blandy in 1834 following the dissolution of the religious orders and is now known as the Old Blandy Wine Lodge. These are the oldest working lodges in Madeira and attract thousands of visitors a year. As with other traditional lodges, the wines are stored on three floors with the younger wines stored in the attics where the temperature and evaporation rates are highest and the oldest wines stored on the cooler, lower floors. The heady aromas in the lodge are indescribably beautiful and have to be experienced first hand. The oldest wines, still in cask, date from the 1920s, and rare wines from the 19th century can be seen in the frasqueira (bottle store). In the Max Romer room, Madeiras dating back to 1908 can be purchased for tasting by the glass.
Make a beeline for the smallest wine producer, Barros e Sousa on the Rua dos Ferreiros. Stepping off the cobbled street into the building is like taking a step back in time. Barros e Sousa produces fewer than 300 cases a year, and the wines are fermented in cask in the courtyard and aged in a creaking three-storey lodge, propped up by rough-hewn tree trunks. It feels like the hold of a ship, and these wines are probably the closest in style to those that used to complete the round voyage. The company is not registered as an exporter and the wines are only sold to those who visit their lodges. It is a journey well worth making. But then I would say that. My wife hails from Madeira, so maybe I’m a tiny bit biased…
The wine lover’s address book:
Brisa do Mar, Reid’s Palace, Estrada Monumental. (Tel: + 351 291 71 71 71 – Open-air dining in the summer months only)
Villa Cipriani, Reid’s Palace, Estrada Monumental. (Tel: +351 291 71 71 71)
Jango, Rua de Santa Maria, 166. (Tel: +351 291 221 280)
Dom Pepe, Rua da Levada dos Barreiros. (Tel: + 351 291 763 240)
Xôpana, Travessa do Largo da Choupana. (Tel: + 351 291 206 020)
O Caroto, Sitio da Nogueira, Caminho Velho da Camacha. (Tel: +351 291 922 189 – tiny restaurant, booking essential)
Câmara de Lobos
Bacchus, Quinta do Estreito, Rua José Joaquim da Costa, Estreito de Câmara de Lobos. (Tel: +351 291 910 530)
Viola, Estrada João Gonçalves Zarco, 596, Estreito de Camara de Lobos. (Tel: + 351 291 945 601)
Quinta da Casa Branca, Rua da Casa Branca, 7. (www.quintacasabranca.pt)
Hotel Choupana Hills, Travessa do Largo da Choupana. (www.choupanahills.com)
Cliff Bay, Estrada Monumental, 147. (www.cliffbay.com)
Jardins do Lago, Rua Dr João Lemos Gomes, 29. (www.jardins-lago.pt)
Reid’s Palace, Estrada Monumental, 139. (www.reidspalace.com)
Casa Velha do Palheiro, Rua da Estalagem 23, São Gonçalo. (www.casa-velha.com)
Arco de São Jorge
Quinta do Arco, Sítio da Lagoa. Tel: +351 291 570 270
Câmara de Lobos
Quinta do Estreito, Rua José Joaquim da Costa (www.charminghotelsmadeira.com)
Estreito da Calheta
Quinta das Vinhas, Lombo dos Serrões (www.qdvmadeira.com)
Jardim da Serra
Quinta Jardim da Serra, Sítio da Fonte Frade (www.quintajardimdaserra.com)
Quinta do Furão, Achada do Gramacho (www.quintadofurao.com)
Barbeito. (Tel: +351 291 761 829)
Artur de Barros e Sousa Lda. (Tel: + 351 291 220 622)
HM Borges. (Tel: + 351 291 223 247)
Justino Henriques (www.justinosmadeira.com)
Henriques & Henriques. (Tel: +351 291 941 551)
Madeira Wine Company. (www.madeirawinecompany.com)
Pereira d’Oliveira. (Tel: +351 291 220 784)
Direcção Regional de Turismo da Madeira, Av Arriaga, Funchal. (Tel: +351 291 211 000)
Instituto do Vinho da Madeira, Rua 5 de Outubro, Funchal. (Tel: +351 291 204 600)
Richard Mayson is the author of The Wines and Vineyards of Portugal (Mitchell Beazley) and is currently preparing a book on the wines of Madeira.
Written by Richard Mayson