Blandy’s is spending the year celebrating their 200 year anniversary with special tastings in San Francisco, New York, London, and Madeira. The first of these special events was March 22, in San Francisco. The day started with a special tasting of 15 heritage, vintage Madeiras going back 200 years. This was an unprecedented opportunity to taste wines that spanned almost the entire history of the United States of America. I was lucky enough to be invited and I learned so much about Madeira and the history of Blandy’s.
Madeira is a small island off the coast of North Africa that is considered part of Portugal. Its products did well in the U.S. because it was the only port of call, at the time, which could access the United States that wasn’t British. As was the case for so many distinctive beverages that used to travel the world on boats, Madeira was fortified before leaving port to keep it from spoiling. The wine left the port in large casks called “pipes” and the heat and constant motion of the ships had a transformative effect. This was discovered when a shipment came back after a long voyage and it turned out the customer preferred the taste to the original. Today, that effect is duplicated by leaving the pipes up in the attics of the Madeira houses where the temperature routinely gets above 105 degrees in the summer. Because Madeira is both cooked and oxidized it maintains its flavors for many years, even after opening the bottle.
There are four major noble grapes of Madeira: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey (in the order of driest to sweetest) and these are the grapes that are used to produce vintage, single-grape Madeira. Because the aging process takes so long these wines can be prohibitively expensive and Blandy’s was the first Madeira house to produce Colheita Madeira, a younger vintage. After this great success, Blandy’s created Alvada, a unique blend of Bual and Malmsey. Many Madeira houses have since followed suit with their own Colheitas and blends.
In addition to the amazing wines presented, both Mike Blandy, 6th generation and Chris Blandy, 7th generation were there to taste the wines, comment on flavors, and tell people about the history of the winery or world history at the time of the making of the wine. The most remarkable wine at the tasting was the Bual Solera 1811. In Madeira they used to practice a system similar to Sherry where occasionally 1/10th of the wine is siphoned off, bottled, and an equal portion of a younger Madeira is added. There were 10 total additions allowed, with the final bottling of all product at the last addition. This wine was bottled in 1900 but still contained a least 1/3rd of the vintage 1811. In 1811 an earthquake in Missouri caused the Mississippi to flow backwards. When Portugal joined the EU the Solera process ended and it is no longer legal to use either the Solera system, or sell any Solera. Tasting notes from the 1811 Solera Bual: Cinnamon and spice, like a great cookie. Vanilla, elegant, fresh orange, cutting acidity and a flat cola finish.
While there are only four noble grape varieties in use in Madeira currently, they have also used Terrantez and Bonarda in the past. Terrantez was discontinued because it was a weak variety that only grew well in one part of the island, where it was very susceptible to rot. In the tasting Blandy’s featured three different Terrantez and one Bonarda. The Terrantez stood out as having a distinct eucalyptus characteristic. I was astonished to learn that in addition to the coffee, toffee, orange, and sweet flavors I am used to, Madeiras take on many savory flavors as they age like mushroom, dates, and oyster shell. All fifteen wines were still very robust and exciting.
Here were some highlights:
Bual 1863 – my favorite Madeira of the day, made in the year that the Civil War started in the United States, this wine had flavors of smoky mushroom, peat, cola and dried porcini powder. Only a few bottles remain in the company private collection.
Verdelho 1822 – the oldest vintage we tasted. Dark tan with some light bricking. Peat, meaty and mushroom earth, with a distinct orange peel flavor. 1822 is the year that Brazil claimed its independence from Portugal.
Sercial 1910 – 100 year old Madeira, definitely the driest wine we tasted the entire day. 1910 was the year that George V becomes King of England upon the death of his father, Edward VI.
Bual 1920 – this is the oldest Madeira they still have in wood (or pipes) in Blandy’s lodge. Orangey, elegant toffee, very spicy. 1920 was the year the NFL was founded.
Bual 1948 – only 1,167 bottles made and this vintage was the first year Madeira resumed exporting wine after WWII. We currently have this wine in inventory! Very dark, spicy notes, toffee and eucalyptus.
Next time you want a vintage dated wine for a special event think of Madeira before you think of Portugal.