Madeira Wine Makes me Humble

I was not made for consuming small portions, albeit in food or liquid form. I prefer draughts to sips, chunks and hunks to crumbs. Don’t give me your deboned quail-wing in Champagne jus, even if you have Michelins times ten. Give me it all, and I want it now.

This is a problem for drinking partners with whom I often enjoy a special bottle of wine. If you want your half-bottle share, you better keep-up with the big, thirsty guy. Moi.

Island of Madeira.

I’m thinking about this, wondering yet again whether large and capricious consumption is a vice, when I gaze across the room and spot the bottle over yonder, next to the cigar-clipper and the Nicole Krauss novel. It’s a bottle of Madeira wine, and it’s still all of two-thirds full, despite me having opened it over a month back. And it reminds me that I may be a lusty, over-eager imbiber of most things. But not Madeira.

The wine I’m looking at is a Boal, one of the four main styles of wines from the enchanting island of Madeira lying 1 000kms south-west of mainland Portugal. This bottle is from the house of Barbeito, a 2002 vintage that was drawn from the cask and bottled in 2020. Quite young, thus, for a style of fortified wine that has been known to last over 160 years in the bottle and ages for close-on a century in the barrel.

Provenance, history and heritage in Madeiran wine culture might be some of the reasons causing me to treasure small sips of this kind of wine rather than my usual energetic knock-it-back mode. Klap it, my broer. Maybe. But the real thing is, nothing tastes like Madeira. It can’t be replicated. Anywhere. And this is all the world has of it: wine made on that island from the 400ha of vineyards that grow there. Nothing more doing.

The word “Madeirised” is often, and incorrectly, used to describe the style of Madeira winemaking. This is a process requiring oxidation spurred on by exposing the wine to mild heat. By leaving barrels or glass jugs of fortified wine in the sun.

However, unlike Port or Sherry whose styles are comfortably replicated in other parts of the world outside of their native Portugal and Spain, Madeira can only come from Madeira. Because there is only one island with the geographical features allowing the four grape varieties to ripen to the correct degrees of acidity and phenolic characters to compose a wine with “Madeira” on the label.

The soils are volcanic. The climate struts tropic and Mediterranean, all-year mild and temperate with low levels of sunlight radiation, allowing grapes to mass the kind of acidity levels last seen at a Grateful Dead concert in San Francisco. The wine made from this earth, its robust rawness smacks of ocean and rock, is then exposed to barrel, sun and the ethos and culture from a society making this wine for centuries. That is what results in Madeira. And the result, when made well, which not all Madeiras are, is astounding.

Vineyards on Madeira.

Boal, the one standing here still two-thirds full, is the second sweetest of the Madeiran grape varieties. Sercial is the driest, followed by Verdelho. Bual slots in before the nectar that is Malmsey.

The feature of Madeira is the aforementioned acidity that allows all Madeiras, no matter what the age, to show a perkiness, a silk neck-scarf slashed with a silver, sharp blade. It is this honed edge that partly contributes to making Madeira conducive to my restrained drinking. And with the Barbeito Boal, the example I am having now, a haunting feast of flavours attach themselves to the senses. It is dried Jaffa orange peel soaked in honeyed mineral water. There is a gravelly, graininess such is found in toasted sourdough bread. Dried red flowers on stems withered by the tropical sun. A hit of ground coffee and the warm stub of a MonteCristo Havana cigar drifting to the ceiling of a Paris apartment with wood ceilings.

No man is an island. And no other wine is Madeira.

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