Four Madeiras from Blandy’s

Hello friends. “What are some of the challenges your winery has faced?” It’s a pretty typical question I ask when doing research on our partner wineries.

This winery’s answers, however, were far from typical: Phylloxera. Wars, in particular the American Civil War, the Russian Revolution, World War I. Prohibition.

From those responses, you can likely glean that this is a winery with a long history, and one that is deeply entwined with American history. The winery, founded in 1811, is Blandy’s. And the wine they make is Madeira.

Our sharp-memoried list members may remember in our Lustau sherry offer from last May that, during the studying that led up to my March 2013 WSET Level 4 Diploma Unit 6 Fortified Wines exam (a step on the ladder towards the Master of Wine qualification), I blind-tasted a *lot* of the three major categories covered. Lots of port. Lots of sherry. And lots of madeira, which was the least familiar to me going in, and my favorite by the time I was finished.

I fell for it in part because it is unabashedly delicious and in part because it has such a uniquely American history.

Madeira (located here) was for many ships in the age of exploration the last port of call before heading for the Americas or the East Indies. To keep the wine from spoiling during the trip, Madeira winemakers fortified their wines with neutral spirit. What happened after that, however, was unexpected. Onboard the ships, the barrels of wine heated up as they traveled through tropical climes and sloshed around, exposing the wines to more oxygen. Winemakers in Madeira didn’t even realize the process was happening until they received some unsold wine that had made the journey to the Americas and back.

But the hearty souls populating this part of the world in those days couldn’t get enough of it. One famous piece of evidence that has come to light is the tavern bill from the founding fathers after they completed the first draft of the Constitution. It included: 60 bottles Bordeaux. 8 bottles whiskey. 22 bottles porter. 8 hard cider. 12 beer. 7 bowls of high-octane punch. And 54 freaking bottles of Madeira!

Please note the number of delegates ringing up this bill: 55. Fifty five! That is a lot of booze.

Now these days, producers in Madeira don’t send barrels off in ships, but their production process (called “estufagem”) replicates the effect by exposing the barrels to limited amounts of oxygen and storing them in warm upstairs rooms left to heat (or “madeirize”). The resulting wines contain a wonderful mix of fresh and cooked fruits, caramel, butter, and spice. They all have some residual sugar, and the range runs from Sercial (the driest) to Verdelho to Bual to Malvasia (sometimes called Malmsey).

Those names refer to the grape varieties used. Sercial, for instance, is mostly grown at the highest altitudes, so it comes in with the lowest ripeness and the highest acidity. All of the grapes grown on Madiera have outstanding acid structure, which helps to keep the finished wines from being too overtly sweet or cloying.

What makes Blandy’s especially interesting is that, of all the original founders of the Madeira wine trade, they are the only family still involved in owning and managing their original company. Chris Blandy recently visited the Full Pull warehouse, and he is the seventh generation of the family to work in the Madeira trade.

The tasting was marvelous, with strong values across the entire spectrum of wines Chris poured. We’ve selected four wines to offer today, one from each tier that Blandy’s offers and one bonus wine:

NV Blandy’s Madeira Malmsey 10 Year (500ml)

The 10 Year here refers to the average age of the blend, which comes from multiple vintages. Vinification according to Blandy’s: “Aged for 10 years in seasoned American oak casks in the traditional ‘Canteiro’ system, whereby the casks of this wine are gradually transferred from the top floors of the lodge, where it is naturally warmer, to the middle floors and eventually to the ground floor where it is cooler. During this totally natural ageing, the wine underwent regular racking before finally being bottled.”

This is a lovely introduction to the category, with a sweet mix of cherry and marmalade fruit alongside loads of dark caramelly/toffee/crème brulee goodness. It has the richness associated with Malmsey, but a lightning bolt of orange-peel acid electrifies the palate, adding tension and grace. Best paired with a cheese course in my opinion, if not simply contemplated on its own.

1998 Blandy’s Madeira Colheita Verdelho (500ml)

The Colheita category is one recently introduced by Blandy’s as a tweener category between blended-vintage and single-vintage wines. They do come from a single-vintage, but whereas Blandy’s vintage Madeiras are aged for at least 20 years in barrel, these Colheitas see 5-18 years.

This has a very Madeira nose, sometimes called “rancio,” which I think of as brown-buttered nuts. It’s unique and oh-so-appealing. In the mouth, it’s all intense lemon-butter-caramel, complicated by citrus-pith bitters, quinine, and mineral. The acid-sugar balance is pinpoint, and this just positively hums across the palate. “Wildly good,” my note says, and this is a fine sneak preview of the 1998 vintage wines, which won’t be released for another five years at least.

1968 Blandy’s Madeira Vintage Bual (750ml)

This is something special. Harvested back in 1968, this proceeded to spend 36 years in cask before being bottled in 2004. The nose is wildly smoky and funky, with brown butter moving towards smoky bacon fat and caramel and blood orange. The flavor profile in the mouth is very dark, with more smoky meaty notes married to buttered nuts, black cherry, and fig. The texture is sublime. With all elements in perfect proportion, this nearly half-century old wine just hums across the palate, carrying delicious history in its wake.

1976 Blandy’s Madeira Vintage Terrantez (750ml)

And now a real rarity. Terrantez is rarely mentioned in discussions of Madeira, because the grape is now nearly extinct on the island. But its rarity makes it that much more exciting for Madeira collectors. This ’76 saw 21 years in cask before being bottled in 1997. It begins with a nose of smoke, spice, caramel, braised beef, and lovely tropical fruit note, something like guava or papaya. The tropical notes continue on the palate, drenched in salted caramel and dusted with flower pollen. Again, the balance is beautiful here. This is a singular sticky and would be a fine addition to any cellar. Pair with nothing but a glass and good company.

Please limit order requests to 6 bottles of 10 Year Malmsey, 3 bottles of 1998 Verdelho Colheita, and 2 bottles each of the 1968 Bual Vintage and 1976 Terrantez Vintage, and we’ll do our best to fulfill all requests. The wines should arrive in about a week, at which point they will be ready for pickup or shipping during the next temperature-appropriate shipping window.

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