Dulwich Wine Society

Prince of Fortified Wines

The anniversary of Barack Obama's inauguration brought to mind that the wine used to seal the Declaration of Independence was Madeira, that prince among fortified wines, which are woefully misunderstood and neglected. It is not the drink of ancient clerics or the lecherous old men of the Flanders and Swann song,  (although Congreve's Old Bachelor said "why this same Madeira wine has made me light as a grasshopper" in 1693) but a versatile, delicious and varied quaff.

It has a long history, but not quite as long as some people think.  Shakespeare had Falstaff "that Malmsey-nosed knave" selling his soul to the devil for "a cup of Madeira and a cold Capon's legge." Alas for anachronisms - Falstaff was in Henry IV and V and both were dead before Madeira was colonised in 1426. The Venetian explorer, Alvise da Mosto (ancestor of film maker and TV  star Francesco da Mosto) visited the island in 1460 and wrote "really good wines are produced here foe a new colony."  But the wine as we know it was to come later- some say by an accidental discovery.

The story goes that around 1720  a barrel of wine was forgotten in a ship's hold and after a long voyage across the equator and back it was discovered.  It was thought that it would be ruined and should be thrown away but the Captain hadn't reckoned with a sailor's enthusiasm for drink. Someone opened the cask, tried the wine and it was delicious. For some time captains were asked to take barrels of wine as ballast- the result being" vinho da roda"-wine of the round voyage. Winemakers on the island soon realised this was an unreliable way of "cooking" their wine - for that is what it was. They then started maturing the wine in "estufas" or "lofts".  That is what is still done today for the better wines. Lesser wines are heated by steam pipes.

The wine is fortified with spirit and the cooking oxydises the wine. Oxidation is a fault in most wines but is what gives Madeira its unique character and staying power.  I have tasted Madeira over a hundred years old which combined mature complexity and still preserved pleasing  acidity.

The main grapes for Madeira are Sercial for dry, Verdhelo for slightly sweeter, Boal for medium sweet and Malvasia (sometimes referred to as Malmsey) for sweet.  These were nearly wiped out by disease and were replaced by another grape -Tinta Negra Mole, but the wines were often sold as being of the classic grapes. New plantings  meant that the the classic grapes are now widely used and only wine made from these can bear the name on the label. Tinta Negra Moleis is used for lesser wines. It can mimic the styles of the major grapes depending upon the altitude at which it is grown and the way it is vinified.  Madeiras labelled just "3 Year Old" or "5 Year Old" are usually from this grape.  They are often good but do not have the quality and finesse of the others.

Many people think that Madeira is somehow always sweet and cloying. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sercial is bone dry, aromatic and with tangy acidity and makes a perfect aperitif. Verdhelo is also good as an aperitif but is a great wine for sipping with a few nuts or a piece of Madeira  cake. Boal is sweeter, nuttier and quite mouth filling. Great with cheese. Malvasia is lusciously sweet, but with a spine of refreshing acidity which means that it is never cloying. A great substitute for Port.

There are a number of very good Madeira "shippers" or makers.  The Madeira Wine Company sells wines under the names of Cossart Gordon, Leacock, Miles and above all Blandy's. Now largely owned by Symington, the Poet firm Blandys shave great influence. John Blandy set up business in Madeira in 1811 and the family is active in almost every field of commercial endeavour on the island. The Blandy name on the bottle always means a sound wine, as does Henriques and Henriques, Barbeito and d'Oliveiras.

My favourite is a tiny firm called Artur Barros e Sousa. Alas their wines are not on sale in this country, but if you go to Funchal visit them. It is run by the brothers Artur and Bernardo Ilim. It is like stepping back in time. Go down a corridor and you can see the almost victorian office; no computers here!  Don Bernardo may be hand bottling wine while listening to his 1940s radio. His brother is most probably tending the barrels in the loft -the estufa-where the sun breaks through the dust to warm the maturing wine. Here everything is done by hand and by tradition. The wines have the purity and honesty that one does not find in the bigger more commercial wineries. They also have a lesser known grape called Terrantez and until a few years ago they had the rare, sweet Bastardo but no more. However, there are a few bottles surviving in Dulwich.

Officially vintage Madeira should stay at least 20 years in barrel and two in bottle before release but it is now possible to buy wines of a particular year which have not been declared as vintage. It is possible, if you are rich, to find some very old wines. There are a few dating back two hundred years. I am told that they are really the wines of the gods.

Madeira lasts for months when opened, unlike sherry. Keep the bottle upright and enjoy for moments of contemplation. Good Madeira is not cheap but it is good value for money. Indulge yourself. There are a number of 50 centilire bottles to be had. Try Blandy's 10 year old  Verdhelo for around £14 or Henriques & Henriques 15 year old Malmsey - luscious, sweet with hints of nuts, coffee and caramel for £19. Even if this is beyond your price range for a first buy do try something less expensive. You won't regret it.