Madeira Magic

Nearly 175-year-old wine and more

By Panos Kakaviatos for

24 January 2018

Get set for a story about a special tasting experience of old and rare Madeira wines. While we won’t be boarding a 17th century sailing ship, the journey enters a wine time machine.

Historical wine expert Aaron Nix-Gomez proposed a master class tasting of old and rare bottles earlier this month, with fellow wine aficionados in the Washington D.C. area. He graciously opened the doors of his home for the afternoon session, after having sourced bottles primarily from the Rare Wine Company.

Before going to the main event, we enjoyed appetizers and excellent Champagne including Krug 2000 and Dom Perignon 1990. Aaron also provided a great meal after the tasting and fellow participants brought other wines including older Bordeaux and Napa Valley Cabs that we enjoyed over dinner. You can read more about these wines, here, on Aaron’s excellent website. But the focus here is on Madeira, and the list – as you can see in the picture below – looked amazing, ranging from mid 19th century wine to rare limited edition bottlings.

Madeira is a fortified wine available in a wide range of dry to sweet styles. It gets its name from the eponymous region of Portugal, an archipelago of four islands off the African coast. The green and volcanic main island of Madeira has pebbly beaches. Its capital Funchal is known for a large New Year’s fireworks show and Madeira wine? It gives off its own fireworks, as I discovered at this ring-in-the-new-year tasting.


Sailors to the Americas and the East Indies regularly stopped at Madeira for fresh water and supplies between the 15th and early 19th centuries. They brought on board wine barrels to provide needed sustenance for sailors, and to act as ballast. Of course no temperature control existed back then. It seems that both consumers and producers learned how the wine improved in quality as it traveled in hot tropical zones.

No need to cross the equator anymore.

The “Estufagem” aging process produces Madeira’s distinctive flavor. It is meant to duplicate the effect of the long sea voyages on the aging barrels through tropical climates. Three main methods are used to “heat age” the wine, used according to the quality and cost of the finished wine. The cheapest method is Cuba de Calor. High- end wines undergo the Canteiro process, by which wines are aged without the use of any artificial heat, being stored by the winery in warm rooms left to age by the heat of the sun. This process can last from 20 years to 100 years.

Madeira also became fortified. To prevent the wine from spoiling on long maritime treks, producers added brandy, a practice that took hold in the mid-18th century. The process continues today and all wines have in between 17.5% and 21% alcohol strength.

Which grapes?

Most Madeira is made from the red grape Tinta Negra (or Negra Mole). The four major white grape varieties are Malvasia, Bual, Verdelho and Sercial. Other grapes used include Terrantez, Bastardo, Complexa and Moscatel, although these are scarce, because of oidium and phylloxera. After the phylloxera epidemic, many wines were “mislabeled” as containing one of the noble grape varieties, which were reinterpreted as “wine styles” rather than true varietal names. Since the epidemic, Tinta Negra or Negra Mole is the workhorse variety on the island, and is found in various concentrations in many blends and vintage wines. Bastardo and Complexa are red grape varieties.

EU regulations mean that producers must use at least 85% of the grape that is indicated on the label. While wines from before the late 19th century (pre-phylloxera) and after the late 20th century conform to this rule, many “varietally labeled” Madeiras, from most of the 20th century, do not. Modern Madeiras that do not carry a varietal label are generally made from Negra Mole.

Two very good sites to learn more about Madeira include Wine Folly and Madeira Wine Company. Aaron also has excellent features about Madeira on his website.

Many of the wines we tasted cost at least $200 and one of them up to $1,000 per bottle. It is a pity that such great Madeira wines cost so much cash, but any wine aficionado should try to taste great old Madeiras at least once, to appreciate the magic.

Entry level class.

Tasting Notes 

As per usual, a wine in bold I liked in particular. If red and bold, even more. And if underlined, too, then wine nirvana!

First Flight

NV RWC Historic Series Library Company Madeira

Released in 2015 to honor the Library Company of Philadelphia, which is the oldest successful library in America, having been founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731. Henry Hill was a successful Madeira merchant who lived in Philadelphia and also knew Benjamin Franklin. As a partner in the firm Hill, Lamar, & Bisset, he sold Madeira to wealthy Americans including financier Robert Morris, signers of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll and John Hancock, and George Washington. Many of the business letters sent to Henry Hill reside at the Library Company. This wine we had was bottled in 2015. It gave off a sweet aspect, honeyed. The wine was likely made from 1950s Tinta Negra. Most all participants agreed that it is a very good “intro wine” and at $60 per bottle, a solid deal. Over time in glass, notes of spicy orange cake emerge. The texture is smooth and the finish long. And the overall impression is one of very pleasing richness. 92/100

1928 D’Oliveira, Sercial Madeira

Pereira D’Oliveira was founded in 1850 as a producer of wines. It operated as a partidista until the mid-1970s when it began to market wines under its own name. Over the years D’Oliveira has acquired other firms thus expanding its stock of old wines. This particular wine was acquired in barrel when D’Oliveira purchased the Adegas do Terreão collection in 2002. Terreão was founded in 1949 by Vasco Loja who also operated as a partidista supplying the major wine companies during the 1960s and 1970s. D’Oliveira keeps their wines in barrel until they are bottled for sale. This had been bottled last year. This 1928 exudes such fine acidity and freshness! And for about $500 per bottle, it well better! As it turns out, this may well be my overall favorite wine of the entire day as the 19th century wines seemed a bit more tired, and even if it lacked the grip of the (far) more youthful 1971. It exuded nougat and toffee on the nose. Luscious and deep, too, on the palate, which was gorgeous. Over time in glass, more toffee and light caramel beguiled me, but the palate always conveyed freshness and salinity. The wine exudes roundness and complexity. While a 1937 tasted alongside showed a bit more backbone, the 1928 seemed brighter and more nuanced. Fellow participant Darryl Priest spoke of Scotch aspects to both: peaty iodine. Aaron loved the nose of the 1928. “More excitement with the 1928,” Aaron said. 98/100

Excellent grip, but not as nuanced as the 1928.

NV Henriques & Henriques, Inauguration Wine Madeira

From the back label, “To inaugurate Henriques & Henriques’ new winery in 1994, winemaker Luis Pereira searched the firm’s stocks of old wine to find something “truly extraordinary”. The wine he chose had been vinified and blended in the 1950s by his mentor Peter Cossart—the father of John Cossart. Though the wine’s origins were uncertain, Pereira believed it to have the character of a great Verdelho or Bual. Pereira produced only 800 bottles, which were given to dignitaries attending the inauguration. This left a small amount to age in cask. In October 2006, 144 bottles were filled, and in April, 2008, another 168 bottles, each time for The Rare Wine Co. This is the 2006 bottling of which it is numbered 66 out of 144. And sadly I could not like it much at all as it exudes too much disagreeable volatile acidity, and, with time in glass; it got sharper and even harder to appreciate, almost like glass shards in the palate. Not a great bottle at all. Most participants agreed that the volatile acidity was too sharp. Participant Bill Moore quipped: “I have a lot of VA tolerance, but not for this.” Faulty?

1971 D’Oliveira, Terrantez Madeira

Acquired in barrel when the Adegas do Terreão collection was purchased in 2002 and bottled in 2017. Quite deep and rich. Excellent grip. About $300 a bottle and utterly delicious, the lime aspect on the finish. Lovely wine indeed, fresh. Compared to the 1928, it seems less complex. Still, when you go back to it, you encounter such ripe fruit and salty grip with burgeoning notes of tobacco. There is vibrant fruit including quince and lime. Seek this one out. And the alcohol is perfectly tucked in,” said Bill. 96/100

Nearly 175 years old. At least part of it.

1845 Cossart Gordon, Bual Solera Madeira

The 1845 Bual became a Solera in 1875, in response to the shortage of wine following the Phylloxera epidemic. It eventually became the first Cossart centenary wine marking the anniversary of the founding of Cossart Gordon. After Cossart, Gordon joined the Madeira Wine Association in 1953, the Soleras in wood were moved to stores at Rua Sao Francisco and no longer topped off. There were many bottlings of this Solera both in Madeira and in England. This bottling is by Evans Marshall & Co. who became Cossart’s agents in London in 1956. Oxidized notes but intriguingly lively too, in terms of concentration. Auction price could reach up to $800. I enjoyed a certain richness and density, but the overall feeling was just a tad dog-eared and I got far more pleasure from the 1971 or 1928 above. Taking into consideration the … considerable price, you are paying for the old vintage and scarcity, but I would seek other bottles out first. 93/100

A great lineup! (photo by Aaron Nix-Gomez)

Second Flight

NV Unknown, Padre Madeira of the da Silva Collection (Early 20th century)

This is believed to be all Tinta Negra. The Padre wine was in bottle for a long time, discovered in the… laundry room of the home of a Kassab relative on the island. Approximately 36 bottles were aired in demijohn for a few months then rebottled. Bottled in 2016. Well, it was not the most auspicious start to the next flight, as it seemed a bit too volatile. The palate is sharp edged. For about $300 per bottle, one can do better. Participant Tim O’Rourke of Zachys confirmed my feeling: “Not my favorite” 87/100

NV Barbeito, Bastardo 50-year-old Avo Mario Madeira

Barbeito was founded in 1946, which is run today by the third-generation, Ricardo Diogo Vasconcelos de Freitas. This wine is in homage to Ricardo’s grandfather and is a blend of Bastardo wines Ricardo made in 2007 and 2009. He mixed these wines with some old Bastardo that belonged to the Favilla family and Tinta Negra from 1950. This wine was bottled in 2017. Love the aromatics here of green olive, salty lime and even salty cashew. What an improvement over the previous wine. Bastardo! “It is a tough grape to grow, and a tough wine to make,” Aaron remarked. Indeed, only one or two hectares of Bastardo exist on the island. This wine fetches at least $400 per bottle. That’s lots of cash. But a very intriguing wine. Again, has a salty cashew aspect. Sure, some VA, but not as bad as the one before that. Did not overwhelm the group, but I liked this quite a bit, for its unique expression and length. 94/100

1929 D’Oliveira, Tinta Negra Medium Sweet Madeira

Another wine from D’Oliveira’s family stocks, this $500 bottle reveals an almost lactic and buttery aspect on the nose. A “starchy” balance of richness and high acidity, but it lacks some charm, both Tim O’Rourke and I agreed. A kind of “village idiot,” Bill went further and the word “foursquare” came up. Some appreciated its nose more than others. While certainly better than the first wine of this second flight, it seemed at first a bit boring. But over time in glass, I began to appreciate the wine’s emerging subtle flavors of burgeoning toffee, for example and its length. Not as impressive as the 1928 to be sure, and not as balanced as the next wine or as evidently opulent as the 1880. For the money, I would go elsewhere. 93/100

1986 Barbeito, Malvasia Faja dos Padres Madeira

And elsewhere would be here, for example, for a wine that costs less than half of the above. Malvasia encompasses several different grapes with Malvasia Candida the most prized. It is a difficult grape to grow and prefers particular locations. One of these locations is Faja dos Padres that was originally cultivated by the Jesuits. Located on the south side of the Island it lies at the bottom of a 900-foot cliff, which, until recently, was only accessible by boat. For centuries, this site was considered as producing the best Malvasia Candida wines. Malvasia Candida was nearly wiped out by phylloxera followed by a preference for growing bananas instead. By 1940 only a single Malvasia Candida vine survived at Faja dos Padres. It was cloned then planted at Torre. In 1979 the same vine was cloned again then planted at Faja dos Padres. An additional vineyard of 0.4 ha was eventually established. This is the first commercial bottling of Malvasia Candida from Faja dos Padres since 1921. It was aged in 800 liter casks aged by the Canteiro method. Bottled in 2012. And indeed, the best wine of the second flight, so far, as it conveys sweetness and richness, if not as subtle perhaps as the top wines of the previous flight. Nougat nose. Rich. It is smooth to be sure, along the lines of a Sherry; smoothness too, said Darryl’s wife Nancy. Very well balanced, with persistence and density. Lovely! And the price is certainly interesting at $225 per bottle. 95/100

A superb 1880!

1880 Companhia Vinicola da Madeira (CVM), Malvasia Madeira

Founded in 1870, CVM was eventually associated with Justino Henriques. The company was closed in 1984 and much of the stock sold off. This bottle bears a paper Junta Nacional do Vinho seal underneath the wicker capsule. The JNV seal would have been applied between 1937 and 1979. And at about $1,000 per bottle, the most expensive of all wines tasted today. The top wine of this second flight. And gorgeous! Depth. Tobacco and elegance. This has backbone! Nougat, toffee, straightforward nose but the layered and rich palate, so dense and opulent for a wine so old, cannot fail to impress. Bravo! 97/100

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