Madeira develops Table Wine

by Greville Havenhand

“I know of no other wine of its class that can beat Madeira when at its best. In fact I think that Madeira and Burgundy carry combined intensity and complexity of vinous delights further than any other wines.”  So wrote George Saintsbury in his “Notes on a Cellar Book.”  It is over a century ago that he wrote that and, sadly, in that century the fortunes and reputation of that wonderful fortified wine from that garden out there in the Atlantic have declined.  First came phylloxera in 1872, only to be followed by oidium. The noble grapes Sercial, Verdhelo, Boal and Malvasia were largely replaced by Tinta Negra Mole and various undistinguished American vines. Nevertheless trade had to go on, and quite a number of the wines labelled as one of the “noble” varieties were Tinta Negra Mole, grown in differing ways at differing altitudes, and vinified to resemble the real thing. With great effort from the shippers quality wines returned, although majority of the wine produced was of the lesser quality much of which was shipped in bulk to mainland Portugal and to France, where it is used in cooking.  The shippers have made great strides in producing and promoting quality wines in spite of the declining world market for fortified wine. Another blow has been that from the start of 2002 all Madeira has had to be exported in bottle unless it has been “seasoned” for culinary use or as a flavouring for schnapps. Madeira has no glassworks so all the bottles have to be imported.

All this has made life difficult, not only for the lodges but also for the hundreds of small farmers who grow the grapes even though the EU is now giving grants to grub up Tinta Negra Mole and the remaining lesser varieties There has never been a tradition of table wine in Madeira. The farmers have always made “vinho seco” rough and rustic and not generally on sale, although I have bought it from the stalls selling knitwear and souvenirs at the side of the moorland road that is part of the western tourist route. It certainly was not a good buy.  Now Madeira has well over half a million tourists a year, and most of them drink wine and most of this comes from the mainland. The Madeira Wine Institute and the Regional Directorate of Agriculture decided that it was time to try to establish some sort of table wine industry on the island. After all, the Port producers in the Douro turned their surplus grapes into more than acceptable table wine, so why not the Madeirans? The shippers were less than enthusiastic; they saw more profit from exported wine, pointing out that harvesting on the hillsides and setting up new plant in the wineries would be expensive for a limited market. The drinking of “vinho seco” was such an ingrained habit among the indigenous population that they could not see a large enough market. In 1992 The Madeira Wine Company had introduced a rosé called “Atlantis” made from Tinta Negra Mole” and a marginally better white from Verdhelo.

That having been said the Regional Directorate persevered. A microvinification plant was set up at Bom Successo, experts from the oenology departments of the universities of Lisbon and Evora were called in and wide range of grapes from mainland Europe were planted and vinified. Many proved unsuitable and it was decided that for the whites the local  Verdhelo and a Riesling cross from Germany called Arnsburger were the preferred grapes. For the reds Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca were the most successful. A winery was built at São Vicente in the north of the island, which is essentially a government run co-operative. The winemakers can use its modern facilities at cost. A VPQRD (quality wine produced in a delimited area) has been established and some very palatable wines under the “Enxurros”, “Casa da Vinha” and Casa da Lanço” labels, but the best wines are from “Rocha da Branca. They were served to the President of Potugal and theKing pf Spaon on a recent visit.

“Rocha da Branca” is owned and run by João Mendes, a man who spent most of his life as an engineer. For many years he worked for the diamond companies in Angola and the with the electricity authority back in Madeira. The family had vineyards and sold the grapes to the lodges but he decided to start making table wine in 1997. It took four years to get going. He took me to his Verdhelo vineyard in a deep, steep valley adjoining the eponymous white rock near São Jorge in the north of Madeira. He trains his vines on wires on a north/south axis as opposed to the usual pergola training found on the island. It was December and the vine leaves were a golden brown but invasive green weeds were growing almost as tall as the vines. This is only one of the problems; the warm, damp climate of Madeira encourages both mildew and oidium, so organic production is almost unheard of.  The harvest can be anything from August to October; it is often said that Madeira has four seasons in one day, so the growers can never predict just when to pick. 

Being a perfectionist, Engineer Mendes decided to get the help of one of Portugal’s leading oenologists, Antonio Saramago, who works both for Fonseca and Herdade de Colheiros in Alentejo.  His white Tapada de Colheiros was rated top Portuguese white in a recent international tasting. The Arnsburger grape makes the Rocha Branca, a well balanced wine with citrus and herbs on the nose and a crisp acidity and ripe fruit on the palate showing careful making with cool fermentation in stainless steel. The stars, though, are the Quinta de Moledo wines. The 2002 Verdhelo was awarded 16 points out of  20 by the “Revista de Vinhos” (the leading Portuguese wine magazine). For them this is a good score and I tend to agree with their assessment that it has rather an austere nose, but with a good presence of fruit. In the mouth it is full with both mineral and dry abrunhos flavours. (Abrunhos is a bitter plum used for making aguardente). “A good white from this noble Madeiran House”. The “reserva” has six months in 30% French oak and is a rich wine which went extremely well with the grilled swordfish we ate at lunch in a country restaurant near the vineyard.

The Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are grown in the Arco de St. Jorge, an eroded volcanic crater which provides and excellent micro-climate – the grapes ripen a good two weeks than elsewhere. They only bottle under the Quinta de Moledo label in good years; otherwise it is sold as Rocha Branca. The Moledo Cabernet Sauvignon has a little Merlot and is aged in French oak for six months. The 2000 was given 17 out of 20 by  “Revista de Vinhos” I drank this wine in 2002, and the 2006 more recently. Both could have done with another couple of years in bottle. That having been said they were both wines of quality, with excellent dark fruit and well balanced tannins and acid.  For the first vintages Mendes used the facilities of the Madeira lodge Justinho Henriques, but last year moved to the winery at São Vicente. The plan is to have his own winery in Funchal in order to increase production – and to sell directly to the tourists. There is at the moment only a small export trade, although some is sold in Denmark and a number of the top restaurants in Lisbon have it on their lists. If others in Madeira follow the lead of João Mendes there is a future for table wines in Madeira. In December 2009 I observed a proliferation of labels – with some good wines and some less good.  They will never be great wines and there will never be great volume, but they are already a welcome addition to the great pantheon of wines – and if this addition to the madeiran wine economy helps to keep it healthy so much the better.

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