Wine Club: A fiendishly good prize

New vineyards overlooking the sea
New vineyards overlooking the sea
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Our quiz winner had a fantastic time sampling the tastes of this sunny isle and Christine Austin was there to help out.

It would be difficult for Andrew Rees, winner of the Yorkshire Post Fiendish Quiz to be more enthusiastic about his trip to Madeira: “Absolutely superb, fantastic, a real privilege”, he summed up about the two days he and his wife, Anne were guests of Blandy’s, producer of some of Madeira’s top wines.

I went along, just to watch their reaction to touring the lodge, the vineyards, the island and of course, to share the experience of tasting some fabulous Madeira wines. For me, too, this was a privilege.

It was a cold, rainy autumn morning when we left the UK but when the aircraft doors opened after our flight to this gem of an island just 350 miles off the coast of Morocco, it was a balmy 23 degrees and the sea was glinting blue in the sunshine.

Our first appointment was at Casa Velha do Palheiro, an historic quinta in the hills above Funchal which has been in the Blandy family for over 100 years. Now run as a five-star hotel and spa, this was a luxurious way to start the trip. Chris Blandy, the seventh generation of the family to run the company, joined us for lunch and gave us the background on Madeira’s unique location and its wines.

Madeira is a mountainous volcanic island, with sheer cliffs rising out of the sea. It lies on the natural sea route that sailing ships used to take between Europe and America and its sheltered harbour of Funchal provided a safe place to trade and to re-stock with food and wine. This has been the key to the success of Madeira wine.

Local wine was taken on board and to ensure it reached its destination in good condition, merchants added some spirit to each cask. The odd thing was that the wine improved on its journey and this started the most bizarre period in any wine’s life. Casks of Madeira wine were sent on long journeys to aid maturation until someone had the bright idea of leaving the wine in one place and maturing it in conditions which mimicked the slow rise and fall in temperature experienced by the wine on a long journey. This is the process which gives Madeira its unique character and taste.

Instead of maturing wine in cool cellars underground, Madeira is aged above ground, in lodges several storeys high. We headed to the Blandy lodge, right in the centre of Funchal to see stacks of ancient casks, each one sealed by the Madeira authorities to ensure proper ageing. As we toured the different floors of the lodge, the aromas of aged wine wafted in the air. We ended up in front of a large safe door set into the wall and our guide Sofia produced a key. Hauling the door open we could see bottles from 1863, 1880, 1915 and 1918 standing on shelves, in perfect formation. These remaining bottles act as a library of tastes from the past, opened on special occasions. Sadly there was a metal gate between me and those bottles so I wasn’t able to liberate one.

We were, however, treated to a tasting of Madeiras and Chris Blandy explained the grapes and styles. There are four main white grape varieties used for Madeira; Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malvasia, plus a red grape Tinta Negra Mole which was widely planted after disease wiped out many of the island’s vineyards. Tinta Negra is used only for young Madeiras. All wines that declare the grape variety on the label are made from that named grape.

We tasted through the range, from the dark, figgy flavours of a three-year-old Duke of Clarence (£12.49, Waitrose), through the lighter, dried fruit and caramel notes of five-year-old Alvada (£12.99 for 50cl, Waitrose) and then on to the 10 year old wines.

The 10-year-old Sercial was a delight. I had enjoyed it before lunch for its dry, nutty complexity and fresh, clean finish, but in the tasting it showed its balance and clear, citrus, mouth-cleansing style. This makes a perfect aperitif, served with salted almonds, smoked salmon or nibbles of ham. The 10-year-old Verdelho was deeper in colour, nuttier in style, richer and rounder, yet still with a freshness in flavour. This is a wine to enjoy chilled, pre-dinner or with cheese after dinner.

Bual has long been my favourite style of rich Madeira and the 10-year-old Bual did not disappoint. With layers of raisins, spice and toffee yet still fresh on the palate this needed fruit cake or a slice of Madeira’s traditional honey cake alongside. The Malmsey – as the wine made from Malvasia is known – is rich and concentrated with notes of Christmas cake and spice. All these 10-year-old wines are available from The Halifax Wine Co. at £18.50 for 50cl.

The real treat was the 1976 Terrantez made from an ancient grape variety which is gradually being rescued by Blandy’s. It has a salty, almost minerally edge with the fatness of Brazil nuts and a fine, elegant finish. Difficult to find in Yorkshire, it costs more than £100 a bottle.

The way Blandy’s are rescuing the old grape varieties could be clearly seen when we headed next day for a tour of the island. With their supply of grapes in the hands of hundreds of small farmers, Blandys are gradually purchasing and leasing specific sites to ensure their supply of top-quality grapes. They are remaking the old terraces on the slopes, and planting classic grape varieties but also adding a few rows of the old varieties such as Terrantez and Bastardo.

If you are planning to escape the Yorkshire winter then Madeira, with its year-round sunshine, great wines and fantastic seafood, is a great place to go. Email me if you would like tips on where to stay and where to eat.

And a final word from Andrew Rees about the trip. “I actually had some help with the quiz from a friend, but he let me put my name on the entry form, so I won the trip. I wonder if he would like to share a glass or two of Madeira when we get back home?”