Madeira is a wonderful wine that is often misunderstood, certainly it is little known here in Spain. Whenever I am in Portugal, I try and stock up as it is very difficult to get much here. Recently, I was fortunate enough to taste a series of Madeiras from Henriques & Henriques, one of the top Madeira producers. We tried 3 wines, all 10 yr old single varietal Madeira. The four noble varieties of Madeira are (from sweetest to driest): Malmsey, Bual, Verdelho, Sercial. Wine from the noble varieties must be aged at least 5 years and will indicate the age and grape variety on the label. As with all EU wines, 85% of the contents must be from the designated grape variety in order to put it on the label.
The noble varieties tend to be grown at different altitudes on the island, altitudes that are most suitable for the style of wine they make. For instance, Sercial, which is the driest style, is grown in the highest altitude vineyards.
Many of the blended Madeiras, especially the less expensive are made from a number of lesser varieties that now dominate the vineyards, especially the most planted variety: Tinta Negra Mole.
Madeiras are cooked wines and after being fortified, most are heated for several months in estufas that gently heat the wine. The best wines are left to age slowly in oak barrels on the roof, being naturally heated by the sun. This natural method is a much slower, more natural process that gives fresher, more elegant wines. Due to the oxidative nature of the wines and the heating process, these wines are virtually indestructible. Very old bottles can be bought without fear. The oldest wine I've ever had was an 1865 Madeira…and it was fantastic!! They also stay very fresh for a long time once opened, which makes them an ideal bottle to have open for a pre-dinner or after dinner sip.
Madeira wines are known for a tangy acidity that makes even the sweetest ones refreshing. They are also known for their caramel and orange peel notes that come from the aging process. Estufa-heated wines often have stronger notes of caramel than the naturally heated ones.
I took a bottle of the Sercial home with me after our horizontal tasting and tasted it in detail. My detailed notes on the Sercial are followed by more brief notes on the Verdelho and Bual.
Wine: 10 yr old Sercial
Winery: Henriques & Henriques
Appellation: Madeira, Portugal
Grape variety: Sercial
Oak regime: 10 years aging in oak
Price: Around 25 euros in Portugal
Visual: Pale amber
Nose: Very intense nose…some volatile acidity, but overall very complex and attractive, with brown sugar, almond, marzipan, and orange peel.
Mouth: Off-dry, very smooth, bracing acidity…these are the first impressions. Very complex, orange peeel with a slight caramel…very tangy. Lingers endlessly in the mouth, with a slight, pleasant bitterness cleaning up the mouth.
Food: This is certainly not a dessert wine…more of an aperitif wine with Spanish jamon and other tapas.
Conclusion: This Madeira is outstanding...complex, yet refreshing. I tasted this with an expert on Spanish sherries and he said the nose was similar to many Spanish fortified wines, but that the bracing acidity in the mouth set it apart. My favorite of the series! Rating: 9/10!
10 yr old Verdelho: Next level up from Sercial in terms of sweetness. Medium amber color. Nuts and orange peel, rubber, and a touch of raisin. Very complex, long mouth…a touch more bitter at the finish than the Sercial. Rating: 8/10
10 yr old Bual: Sweetest of this tasting…only the Malmsey Madeiras are sweeter. Not very sweet overall…I would still not pair this with many desserts. Medium-dark amber color. Raisin notes dominate the nose, also notes of hazelnut and candied orange peel, caramel and coffee notes. All these notes were reflected in a complex, long mouth. Rating: 8.5/10