Reviewed: 31st May 2014
Madeira refers to an archipelago of islands (Madeira islands), the island of Madeira and the wine called Madeira. Whilst both dry wines and fortified wines are produced on the islands, it is the fortified, sweet wines that the region is famous for.
Madeira as we have come to know it, appears to be the result of serendipity. According to Jancis Robinson (The Oxford Companion to Wine), in the 17th century, Madeira was used as ballast on ships sailing across the equator to India. The wine was fortified to protect it for the journey. Over time, it became apparent that the wine was somehow improved as a result of the journey. Legend has it that a return journey improved the wine even further.
In modern times, this process has been replaced by using heated rooms or tanks to bring about the accelerated aging. The wine is subsequently aged for the requisite period in barrel before being bottled.
The grapes most commonly used to produce quality Madeira are Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey and are often referred to as the “noble” varieties. According to Robinson, the red skinned grape Tinta Negra Mole is the most commonly planted variety, and this is used for making lesser quality wines (though the variety was used in better wines until EU labelling laws demanded that, to show the variety(s) on the label, the wine needs to be made of at least 85% of that variety).
Higher quality Madeira will have the grape variety listed on the label, and this is an indication of the style of wine. Sercial and Verdelho tend to be fermented to near dry. Bual tends to be medium/sweet, whilst Malmsey tends to be the sweetest style, (although various techniques can be used to add sweetness to the drier styles).
As with Port, or indeed Australian fortified wines, the majority of wines are non-vintage, though there are small quantities of vintage wines produced. Quality is often indicated by the average age of the wine. (Wikipedia has a good article on this at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madeira_wine ).
In Australia, there is only limited availability of these wines. A quick trip to Dan Murphy resulted in the three wines that were sampled for this tasting.
Blandy’s – Bual – 5 Years (16.8). Tawny brown colour. Nose is quite muted. The palate, however, is a riot of spirituous fun, with some aged characters. With reasonable length and moderate sweetness, this is a pleasant drink, but it is not overly complex.
Blandy’s – Malmsey – 5 Years (17.2). Offers more interest on the nose, with dried fig, tea leaf and herbal notes. The palate has more obvious sweetness, yet still retains some of the rancio and spirituous notes. This is a decent drink, with good length and mouth-feel. Quite viscous, with drying acidity to close.
Blandy’s – Malmsey – 10 Years (17.8). Similar colour to the 5 year old, but there is much more intensity on the nose. Much better balance in the mouth, with the sweet fruit, spirit, aged characters and acid all combining to confer life on the palate. Good length and very more-ish.