Wednesday, July 21, 2010
But one thing I've found in my journeys through the worlds of wine is that if you think you don't care for a particular category of wine, just attend a tasting that gives you a chance to consider a wide range of that type of wine, and you'll find you're wrong about dismissing that entire category. So I went to the event, hoping to discover that I was wrong.
I was wrong! I may not like Port, but these Madeiras are absolutely spectacularly delicious!
Held at the Taj Campton Place Hotel in San Francisco, the 'class' consisted of a (very nice) five-course light lunch, each course accompanied by a particular style of Madeira wine. Blue provided a slideshow about the island of Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean West of Portugal, with a history that turned out to be more interesting and more strange than I had expected. Madeira is not just another wine, and this was not just another repetitive lecture on grapes and terroir and oak barrels and superior production methods (with the "not like those other guys" subtext). No, this was something of an eye-opener to me, and the wines were too.
Made exclusively on the tiny mid-Atlantic island, Madeiras are created from one of four specific grape varietals, none of which I had ever heard of.
A Sea-Voyage History
Some may be familiar with the story of Madeira's rise to prominence: Ships took kegs of Madeira to England's empire in India in the 1700s, and were surprised to find that, after a difficult and lengthy voyage, the wines, purchased in bulk because they were cheap, had improved in quality quite dramatically. This was doubly a surprise because the conditions on the ships were so bad one would have expected the wines to be much the worse for wear, rather than improved: The holds of the ships were very hot and humid as they passed around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, and the wines were sloshed around as the ships heaved and pitched.
However, the wines were so improved by these voyages that importers took to buying from the island and sending the casks to India and then back to England before bottling, just to take advantage of the beneficial abuse. These were known as Vinho da Roda, or Round-Trip Wines.
Madeira thus mistreated became quite popular among the upper classes in England and in the USA -- many of the US Founders were quite fond of it: The Declaration of Independence was toasted by George Washington with Madeira. Thomas Jefferson, a wine connoisseur, considered it his favorite. In later years, Winston Churchill was a noted devotee, enjoying during a visit to the island a glass from a cask of Madeira left over from Napoleon's exile.
Long before Churchill, however, the Madeira vintners got the bright idea of recreating the conditions of the sea voyage right there on the island. In a process called "estufagem," They put the wine in steel vats and heat them with steam running through copper pipes placed inside the vats. The wine is left to cook for three months or more, then left to rest for three months before being dosed with alcohol (to stop fermentation) and bottled.
Some of the wine is selected to be further aged, in the "canteiro" method: It is placed in wooden casks and stored in attics above the wineries for at least two years -- and since Madeira Island suffers from intolerably hot summers, the attics become broilingly hot -- as much as 110 degrees Fahrenheit! The combination of oxidative aging and evaporation makes the wine more concentrated, intense, and complex.
For some baffling reason, months or years in such apparently abusive conditions tune the Madeira wine to a delightfully delicious elixir. And an "indestructible" one, as one of the winemakers pointed out -- an opened bottle of Madeira stays unchanged in your cabinet for weeks while you sip a bit each day, which is nice for those of us who don't consume large quantities of alcohol.
Types and Styles
Madeiras come in a considerable variety of flavors, sweetness levels from dry to sweet, intensity, colors from pale to nearly black, years of aging, and quality levels -- far too many to analyze here and confusing to contemplate in any event. The main differentiation that might be useful when ordering Madeira are these four types: Sercial, or dry, which is lighter colored; Verdelho, or medium dry, which is more golden; Boal, or medium rich, which is fullbodied and fruity; and Malvasia, or rich, which is dark, the most fullbodied, and very rich and aromatic. All of these wines shine as aperitifs, can also accompany desserts and fruits and cheeses, but have enough acid balance to accompany meals too.
Tasting and Pairing
Though to me, Madeira seems the ultimate example of a cocktail wine -- that is, one that can and should be enjoyed on its own, supported by food -- today's tasting was a sit-down meal with a specific serving for each Madeira. It worked spectacularly well, though I couldn't help being distracted from the delicious food by the intense flavors of the wine.
So let's go over the wines. Since these are all Madeiras, though slightly different vintages and even different source grapes, they have more in common than not, of course: All are intense, varying degrees of slightly sweet, with excellent acid to balance the sweetness, and as rich as it's possible for a wine to be.
First course was veal sweetbread with almonds and paprika, and onion soubise (?), paired with a Barbeito Historic Series Verdelho Savannah Special Reserve. The wine was rich, light, lightly sweet, with orange overtones, and a nice acid balance with this food. Someone called the wine "versatile" because its acid allows it to stand up to anything -- for example, it actually went well with the bread-and-balsalmic-vinegar on the side, too.
List price is $45 -- we asked for prices as the wines were introduced but mostly they kept forgetting to tell us and we kept forgetting to ask.
(One thing I love about these high-end tastings is the exotically named foods, most of which I have never tasted before and some of which I've never heard of.)
Next, an artisan foie gras torchon with dried Bing cherry chutney, French mache, and toasted brioche, paired with an Henrique & Henrique Bual, 15 years old; it was lightly sweet and balanced, and rich.
Blandy's Madeira Malmsey 10-year-old was next, with dessert: Valrhona chocolate cremeux, and Meyer lemon vanilla ice cream. Yum to both. This one was the sweetest, since it was being paired with ice cream. It's concentrated, more so than the other Malmsey, with a dried-fruit/toffee/spice taste and nose. This one was really spectacular.
But not the most spectacular, as it turned out!
88 Years and Counting...
After the lunch, the public event began, which consisted of half a dozen Madeira houses, each with a table to show off their particular beverage. Vendors were Vinhos Barbeito, Blandy's, Henriques & Henriques, Justin's, and Pereira d'Oliveira. Since I had already tasted four top wines, I figured I'd skip the public tasting, lest I failed to navigate my way home (these wines are all 19% or so alcohol). But as I cruised by the tables, just to take a look, I overheard someone talk about the very old Madeiras one table was showing. I paused and asked the merchant, Manny Berk, if I could have a taste. He poured me a bit of their 1922 -- I think it was the D'Oliverias Reserva Boal. You can get it I believe at The Rare Wine Company of Sonoma, at $350 a bottle.
But what a bargain! Nine decades had compressed this wine down to its quintessence of flavor -- each sip was miraculous. It was what I call a thinking man's wine -- you take a sip, and then you have to stand there and think about it for a while, because the taste is so stunning.
I also took just a sip of their 1968, which is a mere $150 a bottle, and while it wasn't as overwhelmingly wonderful as the 1922, it was miles ahead of the 10 and 15-year-old Madeiras we were tasting at lunch!
When you think about it, this is an underappreciated wine. Could you get a 1922 Bordeaux that's at the peak of its perfection for a mere $350? I think not. You can't even get a 1968 red still wine of any kind that tastes as wonderful as this for $150.
I am converted. I may need to ankle up to The Rare Wine Company of Sonoma one of these days and see what my budget can permit. I have become, unexpectedly, a fan of Madeira.