Madeira: the ‘niche of the niche’ in fine wine

Pergola-trained Tinta Negra vineyard

When you’re speaking about fringe wine regions, you can slot Madeira at the top of the list. ‘It’s the niche of the niche,’ says Chris Blandy, whose family are the largest producers on the island by some distance.

Here’s a film of the visit:

But it wasn’t always the case. Back in the 18th Century, Madeira was one of the most important wines in the world. Of late, its image has been tarnished by cheap versions used for cooking, with a small amount of premium wines hiding in the cellars of collectors. However, recent advances in technology, marketing and wine quality has primed this unique wine for the spotlight once again.

This rare, fortified wine is only produced and bottled on a small sub-tropical Portuguese Island in the Atlantic, geographically closer to Morocco than it is to mainland Portugal. Steep and mountainous, Madeira covers 740 square kilometres, rising steeply from sea level up to 1862 metres at its peak, and it is home to seven different microclimates spanning cold Atlantic to subtropical, dictating where vineyards are planted.

Vegetation is lush, polyculture dominates, and bananas are the main crop. The slopes and soils make much of the land difficult to reach and work, therefore terracing and hand harvesting is normal. It’s as common to see a mini banana belt in someone’s front yard as it is a few rows of vines; the average size of vineyard is only 100 metres squared, and there are 1700 registered vineyard owners accounting for the 490 hectares of vines planted. Growing rights and inheritance laws makes it virtually impossible to purchase existing vineyard land, and with little viable land available, expansion isn’t an option. Even Blandy’s, the largest Madeira company by far, only owns 8 ha of vineyards. 99% of their production is from the 580 growers they have contracts with.

A Verdelho vineyard

Vineyards are grown across the island, taking advantage of the different climates and soils. The island is virtually divided in half by a mountain range. The north side of the Island is cooler, more humid and lush, while the south side is warm, drier and sunny. The volcanic based soils are fertile, acidic, and clay based, rich in iron and phosphorous and poor in potassium, which aids with the trademark acidity of the grapes and the longevity of the wines. Chris Blandy, seventh generation of Blandy’s Madeira, maintains that ‘the whole essence of Madeira is long term aging.’ As our fast-paced culture yearns to slow, this obscure, hand-raised wine of time seems a proper fit. Sales of Madeira have grown 20% in value over the last 5 years, with 5-year-old and older categories seeing the most gains. The entry-level 3-year-old sales have remained flat.

Chris Blandy

History and Process

It was this longevity that made Madeira famous in the first place. The island of Madeira was a standard port of call for ships heading to the New World or East Indies in the age of exploration. Wine barrels accompanied the sailors on these long journeys in the 15th and 16th century, considered as much as a necessary ration as they were ballast. To prevent the wine from spoiling during the long sea voyage, brandy was added to fortify and preserve. As legend has it, on one round trip to India, the barrels were untouched, and the wine returned to Madeira in cask. It was discovered that the wine had improved considerably to the quadruple crossing of the equator, and the hot temperatures “cooking” the cask wine in the ships’ hull. For centuries after, shippers continued to send casks of wine on long sea voyages to develop similar character. As demand grew, producers needed to find ways of replicating the heating process in a more timely and economical manner. In the 18th century, Dr. Pantelião Fernandes invented the estufagem process, where the fortified wines were warmed in large tanks called estufas, up to 45C. Wines were kept heated in the estufas for four months, after which they were cooled and left to age for two years in 9000 litre inert Brazilian satinwood vats. The process continues today for the entry-level, 3-year-old Madeiras, made exclusively with the sole black grape, Tinta Negra.

The premium wines are predominantly produced with traditional white grapes – Sercial, Verdelho, Terrantez, Bual and Malmsey. For these wines, 5, 10, 15, 20 and above, the canteiro process is used, whereby wines are aged in seasoned American oak cases in lofts for a minimum of four years. American oak has greater porosity, necessary for evaporation. The humidity and temperature varies depending on the floor of the loft, with the heat coming naturally and gently from the sun. Over time, the casks are moved from the warmest, attic level, the Sotão de Amendoa, down to the lower cooler floors via a process of trap doors and pulleys. The casks are not topped up, allowing the wine to slowly oxidize and concentrate. Chris Blandy approximates they lose 3% of volume each year due to evaporation; that’s a lot of happy angels.

A Sercial vineyard with the vines trained low to the ground

With today’s stainless steel fermentation and use of 96% neutral grape spirit for fortification, coupled with the lengthy canteiro process, premium Madeiras are said to be indestructible, and will last easily for a year once opened. Blandy’s chief winemaker, Francisco Albuquerque, has just marked his 27th vintage with the company, and has been involved in a detailed research project with the local university since 1997, monitoring the effects of the estufagem on the quality of the wine. His research in controlling the pH, dry extract and tannins through temperature control have proven very promising for quality, eliminating the need for fining agents, and lowering the volatile acidity. The results of his research will raise the quality and consistency of the estufagem Madeiras, and they’re trialing the use of white grapes with the process, which could significantly increase the availability, and one would surmise, decrease the price.

Grapes and Styles

is a varietal wine by legislation, still based on the grapes planted by the initial Portuguese settlers in the 15th century. Though there are only 15% white grapes planted on the Island, these are the ones used exclusively for the long-lived, premium Madeiras. The sole red, Tinta Negra, is highly productive, and used predominately to make the three-year-old wines. Tinta Negra leapt into the lead after phylloxera hit the island in 1872, as the thick-skinned grape was quick and easy to replant and flourish.

The grapes have come to typify the style of Madeira. Sercial originates from Bucelas, near Lisboa, where it was known as Esgagna Cão, or Dog Strangler, due to its high acidity. This fresh white, thin-skinned grape is always used to make dry Madeira.

Verdelho has been grown on the island since the 17th century, and is the white grape with the largest plantings (47 ha) today. Before phylloxera, Verdelho accounted for 2/3 of plantings. With low yields, moderate sugar levels and marked acidity, it is always used to produce medium-dry Madeira.

Terrantez is an ancient, low-yielding, thin-skinned, late-ripening variety that nearly disappeared after phylloxera, though replantings have been increasing in recent years. The oldest bottle that has come onto the market is a 1715 Terrantez, reflecting its lengthy heritage.

Bual is cultivated mainly in the southern coast, and is a vigourous, late budding variety. The grape produces wines with spicy, dried fruit notes, and is used for medium sweet Madeira.

Malmsey, also known as Malvasia, was introduced to the island in the 15th century. This early-budding, late-ripening grape produces the sweetest Madeira.

There are two main categories of Madeira: blended and dated. The balance of the blended wines is entirely up to house and winemaker, and authorized blends are 3, 5, 10, 15, 20, 30 and ‘more than 40 year old’. The years reflect the average age of wine in the bottle.

The dated wines are further broken down into two subcategories. Colheita was a term introduced in 2000 by the Blandy family, and influenced by Port wine. The aim was to release an outstanding wine prior to it becoming a 20-year-old vintage.

Vintage, or Frasquiera Madeiras, are the highest quality tier, and must age for at least 20 years in cask before being bottled and released. There is no maximum aging period. The oldest madeira Blandy’s has in cask is a Bual from 1920. ‘Thankfully most of the old family stocks on the island have been bottled,’ according to Chris Blandy. ‘There is nothing sadder than finding old stocks that have been spoiled through neglect.’

Francisco Albuquerque (winemaker) with Chris Blandy

Looking Ahead

In order to prevent any semblance of neglect, Blandy’s made a massive move in 2016 from their headquarters in the heart of Funchal, where the winery had been functioning since 1811, to a new, spacious and consolidated warehouse on the outskirts of town, near the airport and main shipping port. They painstakingly moved 1.5 million litres of wine to the new facility, as well as relocated all the bottling, packaging, and company offices. The new facility has a 3 million litre capacity, which sounds a lot until you reflect on the lengthy aging process required to make fine Madeira. And with Chris driving production, Francisco Albuquerque pioneering research and both aiming their team at quality over the very long term, the dark days of historic Madeira appear to be a thing of the past.

We spent three days with Blandy’s, touring vineyards across the island, and tasting current and library releases. Blandy’s controls the Madeira Wine Company, and was in partnership with the Symington’s from 1989 until a few years ago. The Company also oversees the brands Cossart Gordon, Leacock’s and Miles.


Blandy’s Alvada 5 Year Old Rich Madeira
This is a relatively new product from the historic Madeira house of Blandy’s, and a daring one at that. Breaking from an exclusive mono-varietal tradition, this modern Madeira is a 50/50 blend of malvasia and bual, aged in the traditional cask and loft canteiro system for five years. Potent fruitcake, rancio notes, aged wood, sugared plums, maple syrup coat the round and juicy palate, thankfully lifted with a lime marmalade cut and carried by a smoothed, sweet mid to a fiery, orange-oil finish. Ideal for cocktails. This is ready to drink now, particularly if you’re looking for an alternative to youthful tawny Port or sweeter oloroso. 88/100 (TR)

Blandy’s Madeira Duke of Clarence Rich
Pouring a golden brown hue, with notes of salt-roasted nuts, sanded wood and lighter molasses on the nose. The soft palate is overwhelmed by abundant caramelized brown sugar, before coffee, marmalade, sweet tobacco and orange pith brighten. I reckon Duke of Clarence must be the most recognized Madeira the world over? Rich is the fullest category of Madeira, and this softer, simple Rich is accessible to all. A very sweet, historic wine, finishing with a spirited warmth that welcomes fruitcake or gingerbread pudding. 87/100 (TR)

Blandy’s 10 Years Secial Dry NV Madeira, Portugal
Richly aromatic with bright citrus, orange peel and date on the nose. The palate has zippy acidity and lovely intensity with a bit of sweetness countering the high acidity and complex notes of dates, raisins and citrus fruits. 92/100 (JG)

Blandy’s Sercial Dry 10 Year Old
Light brown hue, with roasted nuts, orange oil, clementine, aged wood, lovely oxidized and roasted wood notes. Fine, dry, great length. Lighter bodied. Finessed and salty, with tobacco lingering. 91/100 (TR)

Blandy’s 10 Years Verdelho Medium Dry NV Madeira, Portugal
Wonderfully aromatic nose with some tropical fruits, toast and hazelnut. Beautifully balanced palate has real elegance and purity with subtle raisiny richness and lovely fruity characters. There’s an amazing sense of balance here: it’s off dry, but the sugar and acid are in harmony. Lovely. 94/100 (JG)

Blandy’s Verdelho Medium Dry 10 Year Old
Orange brown hue. Rum roasted banana, pineapple, baked oranges, light nutmeg spicing. Fiery with a bit of a grip and great spicy on the finish. Quite tropical. 90/100 (TR)

Blandy’s 10 Years Bual Medium Rich NV Madeira, Portugal
Complex nose of raisins, nuts and old casks. Refined and detailed, with some whisky notes. The palate is complex and rich yet stays fresh, with a harmony to the detailed, spicy citrus peel and honey characters. Long nutty finish. 94/100 (JG)

Blandy’s Bual Medium Rich 10 Year Old
Deeper orange brown hue with flecks of green. Burnished orange, some medicinal notes colouring the sweeter wood tones. Prominent sanded wood, light caramel, honeyed walnuts, well-integrated tannins, and orange oil, with tobacco notes entering in the lengthy, fiery end. 91/100 (TR)

Blandy’s 10 Years Malmsey Rich NV Madeira, Portugal
Rich and intense with appealing sweet raisin and spice characters. Hints of tar and treacle, as well as old casks. Broad, spicy, detailed and very rich with nice sweetness. Long finish. 93/100 (JG)

Blandy’s Malmsey Rich 10 Year Old
Walnut hue, with flashes of orange. Brandied walnuts, roasted almonds and hazelnut paste aromas carry to the palate, where fine, grippy brisk tannins structure. Acidity holds the sweetness very well. Worn woods close the finish, along with great white peppery spicing. 93/100 (TR)

Blandy’s Sercial 2002 Madeira, Portugal
Harmonious and elegant with nuts, citrus fruits and a slight raisiny richness. This is fresh and because of the high acidity it tastes quite dry, although there is some sweetness. Detailed, refined, nutty and elegant, this has lots of interest. 94/100 (JG)

Blandy’s Sercial 2002
Concentrated and fiery, with orange oil, well integrated wood notes, ample saltiness and verve. Streamlined, with elegance and a fine grip through the fantastic length. 92/100 (TR)

Cossart Gordon Bual 2008 Madeira, Portugal
Old wood, almonds and raisins on the nose. Supple, citrussy palate is fresh and expansive, with complex flavours of wood, spice, raisins and marmalade book ended by sweetness and acidity. Old cask flavours on the finish. 93/100 (JG)

Cossart Gordon Bual 2008
Dominant orange / green flecked hue. Floral notes, blunted orange and wood – very cedar box. Toasted cereals lead to a fiery palate, with hints tangerine and marmalade. Star anise, Szechwan spicing on the snappy finish. 89/100 (TR)

Blandy’s Malmsey 1999 Madeira, Portugal
Complex treacle and raisins on the nose. Nutty, spicy and intense on the palate with raisiny richness and a long, warm, rich finish. A bold sweet style with sweetness but also refreshing acidity. 94/100 (JG)

Blandy’s Malmsey 1999
Deep orange hue, this lures with potent, honeyed walnuts, roasted almonds and ample sea salts. Brisk with acidy, and grippy with fine tannins, a savoury marmalade, pervades the generous palate, with tangerine oil lingering on the lengthy finish. Lovely concentration and balance throughout. 94/100 (TR)

Blandy’s Bual Medium Rich 30 Year Old
Brown orange hue, with potent, orange compote raisins, walnuts, and evident wood. Very concentrated palate, with, fine tobacco and brisk salts. Still quite lively in the mouth, belying its exceptional concentration, and continuing through its exceptional length. 94/100 (TR)

Leacock’s Tinta Negra 1995
Reddish brown hue, with boozy and porty raisins anchoring this, deep and potent palate. Walnut oil, bitter coffee notes, aged wood and marmalade fill out the palate, to a moderate finish. More rustic styled. 90/100 (TR)

Blandy’s Bual 2003 Madeira, Portugal
Nutty and intense on the nose with some raisin, spice and old furniture character. The palate is off-dry with the sweetness nicely countering the acidity, and some raisin and marmalade richness. Long, intense finish. 95/100 JG)

Blandy’s Bual 2003
Golden brown hue. Super potent nose, with walnut honeyed, roasted hazelnuts, layers of almond paste with cedar sanded wood. Burnished orange peel and marmalade on the silky palate lead into tobacco and worn wood notes. Big flake salts on the fiery, lengthy finish. 93/100 (TR)

Blandy’s 30 Years Bual NV Madeira, Portugal
The nose is multifaceted, aromatic and intense. Sweet raisin and treacle aromas merge with savoury nutty, leathery, earthy, woody hints. Concentrated yet light on its feet, this wine has a complex palate of raisin, honey, old casks, treacle, dates and marmalade. Such elegance and complexity. Thought-provoking. 96/100 (JG)

Leacock’s Tinta Negra 1995 Madeira, Portugal
So intense and vivid, this shows massive treacle and marmalade characters. There’s lovely depth and richness, with raisins, nuts and spices. It’s just a wall of rich, intense, sweet flavour. Lovely. 93/100 (JG)

Blandy’s Sercial 1975 Madeira, Portugal
Taut citrus pith and almond nose with some date and cherry notes. The palate is dry, lively and intense with a pronounced nuttiness and lovely depth. Fresh, detailed and really complex, this has a long nutty finish. Powerful and vivid, its really hard to spit. 95/100 (JG)

Blandy’s Sercial 1975
Orange hue. Caramels, almond shell, ample flake salts, subtle worn wood. Bright, complexed and dry, with massive concentration and finesse. Some bitter wood / wormwood notes eclipsed by a lingering mandarin oil finish. Precise and alive still. 93/100 (TR)

Blandy’s Verdelho 1979 Madeira, Portugal
Complex nose of treacle, old furniture and raisins. Quite dark with a hint of roast coffee too. Rich, intense, raisiny palate with lovely intensity and high acidity balancing the sweetness. There are really intriguing burnt molasses notes, too, adding a sweet and savoury character at the same time. Some iron notes, too? 94/100 (JG)

Blandy’s Verdelho 1979
This beguiling, savoury wine is layers of aged wood and ample salts, through a very earthy, almond guise. This has traded some of its sugar intensity more increased oxidized, citrus oil concentration and complexity. 94/100 (TR)

Blandy’s Terrantez 1980 Madeira, Portugal
Fresh, vital and energizing with superb acidity integrated into the sweet core of this wine. It combines marmalade, apricots, plums and raisins, with lemon and grapefruit freshness, finising with a spicy, cedary, raisiny warmth. Covering just so many areas of the flavour spectrum, this is a wine for contemplation. 96/100 (JG)

Blandy’s Terrantez 1980
Brown orange hue. Very potent, moderately oxidized nose of salted almonds, hazelnuts. The palate is delicate and silken, graceful and elegant, but with this potent concentration through an exceptional length. The ideal combination of slim and powerful. 95/100 (TR)

Blandy’s Terrantez 1977 Madeira, Portugal
Rich and raisiny on the nose with a sweet fudge and date edge. The palate has real elegance with some sweetness, but also beautifully integrated acidity. This is harmonious, dense and rich in style with a spicy intensity and a long finish. So impressive. 95/100 (JG)

Blandy’s Terrantez 1977
Deep brown orange hue. Richer and rounder in the mouth with nut butter, golden raisins, subtle woods, orange oil and nuts. Oxidized, with a slightly off nut character, though remains fine and graceful on the concentrated palate, though the lengthy finish. 92/100 (TR)

Blandy’s Bual 1966 Madeira, Portugal
Rich, sweet, spicy and vivid with raisins, casks and nuts. Broad and mouthfulling with lovely richness and intensity. Lively and bright with a vigorous, citrussy, raisiny finish. Mellow, mature and complex. 95/100 (JG)

Blandy’s Terrantez 1977
Deep brown orange hue. Richer and rounder in the mouth with nut butter, golden raisins, subtle woods, orange oil and nuts. Oxidized, with a slightly off nut character, though remains fine and graceful on the concentrated palate, though the lengthy finish. 92/100 (TR)

Blandy’s Terrantez 1977
Deep brown orange hue. Richer and rounder in the mouth with nut butter, golden raisins, subtle woods, orange oil and nuts. Oxidized, with a slightly off nut character, though remains fine and graceful on the concentrated palate, though the lengthy finish. 92/100 (TR)

Blandy’s 50 Years Malmsey NV Madeira, Portugal
Complex, mellow nose of old libraries, fudge, tar and honey. There’s a bit of tea leaf here as well. The palate is sweet and mellow, and incredibly concentrated with a creamy texture and very rich raisin and old wood characters. Notes of wax and leather on the finish. Just lovely. 96/100 (JG)

Blandy’s Malmsey 50 Year Old

Potent and concentrated, this wine is all about the savoury, umami notes, balancing out the remaining sugar. Earthy, mushroom, stock and dried mushrooms, with roasted hazelnuts and walnuts, mineral salts and ample spices through the exceptional length. 95/100 (TR)