A Steep Proposition
Touching down at Funchal airport is one of the more hair-raising landings I’ve experienced. The Madeirans are very proud of their smart, new, but rather short runway on stilts over the ocean, which features on many of the postcards available for sale on the island. This was just about the last flat piece of land we were to see for a whole week. Our hire car may not have been the most powerful around, but it is still disconcerting to find yourself having to change down into second gear on a dual-carriageway.
The Portuguese island of Madeira sits in the Atlantic Ocean, 750km from the coast of Morocco. Unlike the hot, dry climate of North Africa however, Madeira has warm, damp weather all year-round as a result of the unique combination of altitude and ocean. Warm, damp ocean air condenses as it is forced over the 1,800m peaks, which are in almost constant cloud even while the coast enjoys sunny, cloudless skies. We made the mistake of setting off for a day in the mountains in shorts and t-shirts only to find ourselves in a serious rainstorm, which was threatening to wash the road away as it ran off into the levadas. These are a network of irrigation channels which run for a total of 1,200 miles (bear in mind that the island is only 30 miles x 13 miles), bringing water down to the vegetable plots and vineyards in the valleys.
Vineyards & Picking
The vineyards themselves are quite unlike any others I’ve seen. This was certainly the first time I’ve ever seen bananas growing alongside vines. And very rarely will you see neatly pruned and trellised rows of vines. Most plots look like someone’s neglected front garden or an abandoned allotment. But appearances can be deceptive, because look more closely and, underneath the back-breakingly low canopies, you will find the whole family hard at work, picking the overhead grapes and carefully placing them in small plastic boxes. The canopies are designed to lift the vines away from the ground where they are susceptible to fungal diseases in the warm, damp climate. They also shade the berries so that full ripeness is by no means taken for granted here. The crucial thing to grasp is the fact that grape growing is a part-time occupation for the vast majority of these farmers – with the average plot being just over 1 acre, this is really just a hobby continued out of tradition rather than a commercial venture. There is a real problem that the younger generation do not see the point in continuing grape production in this way. Some firms which have a large vineyard holding of their own, such as Henriques & Henriques, are beginning to prune and trellis their vineyards in neat rows making vineyard work faster and more efficient. The slopes still preclude full mechanization however.
The vinification centre of the Madeira Wine Company (Blandy’s, Leacock, Cossart Gordon) is in the centre of the capital, Funchal. We were met by Ana Soares, PR manager, who took us straight to the grape reception area, where a lorry load of Tinta Negra Mole grapes were being unloaded. The boxes are weighed, and then checked over by the winemaker Felipe, before going into one of the two crushers. The farmers are paid on a sliding scale according to the variety and ripeness of the grapes from around €800/tonne for Tinta Negra Mole at the minimum legal ripeness, up to €1500/tonne for the classic varieties at high sugar levels. Felipe explained that in addition to checking the ripeness with a digital sacchrometer “to prevent any arguments”, he also visually assessed the grapes as A, B or C. This depended on the condition of the grapes, whether they had been crushed in transit, levels of botrytis or fungal diseases, time since picking, and level of extraneous matter such as leaves or mud from the vineyard. Also present were two members of the IVM, the governing body, who check that legal requirements are met at all stages of production, and the MWC’s agent for the village these grapes had come from. The agents are the MWC’s link with the hundreds of amateur vine-growers. They help the farmers to achieve better quality and ripeness, to get them the best price for their grapes, and they allow the MWC some control over the grape production.
The majority of the fermentation vessels are large autovinifiers as used in the Douro for the production of port. This allows speedy extraction without the labour costs involved in pigeage or remontage and reflects the fact that the majority of the grapes being vinified are the red Tinta Negra. The white varieties are vinified in smaller vats. The Douro is currently making a name for itself in very high quality table wine production, but there are limited opportunities for Madeira to do likewise. They simply do not, and are unable to, produce large enough quantities of the right kind of grape for this. Most table wine available in restaurants on the island is from mainland Portugal. One exception is an attractive rose produced by the MWC called Atlantis. Made from 100% Tinta Negra, we enjoyed this as an aperitif, and were also lucky enough to taste the ’09 which had nearly completed its fermentation: prickly, sherberty and delicious. Sadly, it is only available on the island.
It is after fermentation that Madeira takes on its unique character. Historically, Madeira was an important stopping point for ships, which used barrels of wine as ballast and sustenance on their long journeys. It was noted that having passed through the tropics, the wines took on a not unattractive caramelised character. Initially, this was thought to come from the swaying movement of the ship, and producers would hang their barrels in doorways so that each time people went through they would have to move the barrel! Some bright spark realised it was to do with temperature and producers have since found various ways of imitating the heating process. The cheapest method is the estufagem, huge concrete vats in which the wine is gently heated up over a period of months. The better quality wines go into the canteiro system, which is a series of attics above the estufagem. Here, wines mature more slowly in large wooden barrels, over a period of years or decades, taking on incredible complexity of flavour. The best barrels will be kept for as long as 50 years before being released as a Vintage. This is obviously a cash-flow nightmare, and the IVM has introduced a scheme whereby they will pay a subsidy for each barrel which is sealed for a certain amount of time. This is a great example of how subsidies can be used to encourage producers to improve quality, as there would otherwise be a huge temptation, and perhaps economic necessity, to release wines earlier.
Tasting and Conclusion
During our week in Madeira we tasted a great variety of its wines. Although it was exciting to try the rare and expensive vintages, the revelation of the trip was the generally high standard of even the basic wines. Since Portugal joined the EU in 1986, varietally labelled wines have had to be made from those grapes (until then, ‘Sercial’ on a label indicated an off-dry style of wine, most likely made entirely from Tinta Negra Mole). Since it doesn’t appear on labels, Tinta Negra has a slightly second-rate reputation, but can make excellent wines. Blandy’s Duke of Clarence (£7.99 Buy 2 = £6.99/50cl) is a great example. Made in a rich sweet “Malmsey” style, it has a smoky, dried fruit nose, and a tingling acidity which makes it an ideal after-dinner drink for those who find most dessert wine and port too cloying. Henriques & Henriques 10 year old Sercial is off dry but with a searing acidity which makes it great served chilled as an aperitif. It is a very versatile wine to match with strongly flavoured nibbles and antipasti which can be problematic with other wines. The quality and variety of these wines makes them overdue for a renaissance, and I would highly recommend the island as a holiday destination for its scenery, wines, food and extremely friendly locals.