“[W]hen of the best kind, a most delicious wine.” An historic 19th century Malvasia Madeira tasting
On April 11, 2015, I attended The Majesty of Malvasia Tasting in New York City. This was the fourth in a series of definitive annual Madeira tastings organized by Mannie Berk (The Rare Wine Co.) and Roy Hersh (For The Love of Port). In the post “Very rich and old”: Malmsey in America at the turn of the 19th century I published the article I wrote for the tasting booklet. This post features my tasting notes.
“…where the Americans beat us out of the field is their Madeira, which certainly is of a quality which we cannot procure in England. This is owing to the extreme heat and cold of the climate, which ripens this wine; indeed, I may almost say, that I never tasted good Madeira, until I arrived in the United States.” Marryat, Frederick. A Diary in America. (1839).
This spring I attended the fourth in a series of incredible Madeira tastings organized by Mannie Berk (The Rare Wine Co.) and Roy Hersh (For The Love of Port). The previous tastings focused on the varietals Terrantez, Verdelho, and Bual so it was natural that Malvasia would be the most recent subject. The tastings have always been held in New York City, which while convenient for travel by plane and rail, is historically home to some of the best Madeira cellars. Thus on April 11, 2015, I walked into the basement of Del Posto restaurant to taste 20 wines. The youngest of the wines was only bottled less than two months prior. Incredibly, it was from the vintage of 1882.
Readers of this blog will know that I frequently write about the history of Madeira during the 19th and 18th centuries. Despite my historic knowledge, my previous experience drinking old Madeira was limited to just two wines shared by Mannie Berk, one being the stunningly aromatic 1846 Leacock Terrantez and the other a youngster from the 1897 vintage. You can imagine that there was no choice to be made upon receiving an invitation to the tasting.
These Madeira tastings encompass around 20 different wines organized into flights. Legendary bottles mixed with unknown bottles, playing off of vintage similarities as well as by firm. Thus it takes considerable effort each year for Mannie and Roy to organize these tastings. They consider the best bottles from the best cellars which means the wines and the attendees come from all over the world. For our tasting, some wines were known to exist in quantities of up to 1,000 bottles but most have only been cataloged from a few hundred down to just two dozen bottles throughout the last 40 or 50 years. For a few selections, only a handful are known to have existed through contemporary times. These are seminal tastings never to be repeated in such depth.
As a wine historian my attention was caught by vintages we were to taste. The very oldest year 1808, appears in the correspondence of our fourth President James Madison. The later years fall into a period written about nearly a century later by the Madeira expert Charles Bellows and consumed by the Baltimore Madeira connoisseur Douglas H. Thomas. For most of the 18th century and much of the 19th century Madeira was the one wine obsessed about by affluent Americans. As a result, there is a rich history detailing Madeira orders with various vintages and names appearing in invoices, menus, and advertisements. In a unique fashion many bottles even bore tags or labels detailing their own history.
Despite all of this documentation inventorying these treasured wines and how to take care of them, there is maddeningly very little about how these wines actually smelled and tasted. Most descriptions are limited to pungent aromas and whether the wine was bruised or pricked. It was, however, the color of the Madeira that was captured in description.
Color was of such importance to the Founding Fathers that their Madeira wines were often colored with James Madison preferring those of “deep colour”. Deep color appears to remain in favor as we move forward in time. Henry Vizetelly published a great range of descriptions in Facts About Port and Madeira (1880). He wrote of tasting a circa 1820 Henry Dru Drury Malmsey as “deep-tinted” and a circa 1835 Henriques & Lawtons Malmsey as “of ruby brightness”. At the close of the 19th century, Charles Bellows introduced the styles of Madeira with “deep colored old Malmsey” in Bonfort’s Circular. Ward McAllister writing in Society As I Have Found It (1890) took a different tact, characterizing the range of Madeira styles to color, “As in painting there are the Murillo and Correggio schools, the light ethereal conceptions of womanhood, as against the rich Titian coloring”. For the wines we drank I found the colors to be variations of amber with some leaning towards walnut and others cola. Given that our youngest wine was over 130 years old a shift in color is to be expected.
I should clarify that despite drinking vintages written about in the 19th century, we did not taste the same wines. Our bottles crossed the Atlantic Ocean within the last several decades if not months, instead of in the warm hold of a 19th century sailing ship. Beyond the increased age of the Madeira at the tasting, there is another notable difference between what we drank and that of the Founding Fathers. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson typically bottled their Madeira from cask for immediate consumption. James Madison aged his casks of Madeira for six or seven years before bottling them after which he aged them further. Much of what we drank was aged in cask for decades and even over a century before additional aging in demijohns. From demijohn the wines were then bottled.
Richard Mayson has already published background information on Malvasia and his tasting notes in his post The Majesty of Malvasia. You will find the history of each bottle as described by Mannie Berk preceding each of Richard’s tasting notes. I strongly encourage you to read these descriptions. Roy Hersh has published his tasting notes from the previous events in The World of Fine Wine Magazine. I will update this post once he has done so for this tasting.
I must admit it was hard not to get excited by sitting in a room filled with the aroma of old Madeira but at the same time I knew I was up for a challenge in describing a range of wines new to me. By the end of the tasting I felt on better footing. Unfortunately, I went through a fair amount of my pours to get there. This did not matter to me for incredibly, only a couple of wines were distinctly less interesting which left many in the captivating and mind-blowing category. Where else but Madeira can a wine from the 1880 vintage taste young and a series from the 1830s taste incredible, each with their own personality? Likewise, some of the most drinkable wines were a blend of vintages.
As for my tasting notes you will find them below in the order tasted. For each flight I have reproduced the vintage comments from Noel Cossart’s Madeira The Island Vineyard (2011) that was lovingly revised by Mannie Berk. In a future post I will take a historic look at some of the vintages and wines that I tasted. Many thanks to Mannie, Roy, and everyone else who attended in making this the tasting of my lifetime.
1882 Very small, some fine Bual
1880 Malmsey of this year was extremely fine
1882 Barbeito Malvasia “RR”
There was a vibrant, medium amber color. The nose revealed tobacco and pungent citrus aromas. In the mouth there was a tart, tobacco infused start with pungent acidity, and racy flavors delivered in a clean and lighter manner. The wet tobacco flavors added good complexity before the earthy aftertaste. ***(*)
1880 FC Malvasia
Not as vibrant as the previous wine with a medium amber color that had more brown in it. The nose was a little meatier then funky, rusty, and dusty. The heavier aromas were more akin to a very old wine. There was a softer entry with clearly more mature flavors, old wood, and a short finish of high-toned flavors. ***
1880 Blandy’s Malvasia
This was the darkest of the first five wines being a medium amber-brown. There were heavier aromas on the nose with underlying fruit, more funk, and an almost lactic note. In the mouth were round, weighty flavors with a rather tart start, a pineapple-citrus finish, and acidity coming out in the end at the back of the throat. The acidity was more assertive but the interesting, floral middle caught my attention. ****
1880 Barbeito Malvasia “MMV”
There was a similar color to the 1882 wine but was a touch richer and more vibrant. The nose was fresh, aromatic, and complex with very fine textured musk. It offers more than the 1882. In the mouth were tart, round citrus and tobacco infused flavors. There was a lot of immediate presence on the tongue. This fresh wine had prominent, sharper, citrus flavors, salivating acidity, and some heat in the aftertaste. Tastes young! ****
1879 Herdeiros Dr. Castro Jorge Malvasia
This was a medium brown amber with a cloudy hint. The nose offered hints of tobacco, old wood, horse…it was like walking around historic Mount Vernon. There was a soft, weighty start with old wood flavors, underlying acidity, and a tart, citric finish. This was not the most complex wine with a simpler aftertaste. There was a bit too much tart acidity in the finish. ***
1875 Henriques & Henriques Special Reserve
This was almost opaque with a medium-dark brown color and very fine sediment. The nose was of pure butterscotch that picked up some fine wood aromas. In the mouth were sweeter fruit, ripe citrus, and a ripe texture. It appeared to have the most residual sugar yet encountered. There was a fair amount of youthful components and structure but with a soft edge. It was a dark, cola-like finish and simpler end. ***
1875 D’Oliveira Malvasia
This was a vibrant, medium plus rich walnut and amber color. The nose was slightly higher-toned yet had rich fruit, butterscotch and some articulate aromas like the 1875 Barbeito. In the mouth was seamless integration of ripe and tart fruit, acidity, and weight. There was a lot of presence in the mouth with burnt sugar and tang in the finish followed by a long aftertaste. This powerful wine left racy flavor on the lips. ****(*)
1875 Barbeito Malvasia
There was a dark, vibrant cola color. The nose was deep, slowly building, finely articulate, and sported “Barbeito style” darker fruit. In the mouth the wine was weightier with savory flavors, tobacco, a software expansion, clean finish, and a cinnamon note in the aftertaste. ****
1870 Small, generally good, especially Sercial
1864 Small, generally good, especially Bual and Malmsey
1862 Small, Terrantez of this year is considered very fine, also Malmsey
1870 Blandy’s Malmsey Reserve
The color was a medium amber with walnut. The nose was low-lying yet fresh. There was a powerful, mouth filling start with tang, power, and concentration. This was matched by plenty of acidity and creamy flavored finish where the fruit returns. ****(*)
1864 Barros e Sousa Malvasia Faja
This was a medium, slightly lighter amber. The nose was almost sweaty with finely, articulate aromas, musk and a medicinal bit. There was immediately presence in the mouth with acidity, old school perfume, some grip, and a never-ending finish. ****
1862 Blandy’s Malvasia Velha
This was a light to medium walnut. There were fresh, yet subtle aromas of mature fruit and butterscotch. This was a dense, racy wine with tobacco, old wood and a spicy, cinnamon finish. This was a whopper of a wine with a chewy finish and some heat in the end. ****
1839 Generally very good, especially Malmsey
1836 Generally very god, especially Sercial
1839 Blandy’s Malvasia Faja dos Padres
This was a slight less vibrant, medium amber color. The nose was fresh with musk and wood notes. In the mouth was slowly building ripeness, density, and a sweeter middle. The acidity was integrated. This improved well in the glass become a lovely wine with a vintage perfume note, sweet density, and a long aftertaste. ****(*)/*****
1836 Acciaioly Malmsey Special Reserve
There was a lighter edge around a cola-walnut center that was generally redder than the other wines in this flight. The nose was subtle with butterscotch and apple aromas. In the mouth were darker flavors that were less sweet. This wine had vigor with a salty middle, some baking spices and bitter notes, and a bit of heat in the end. ****(*)
1830 H.M. Borges Malvasia
This was a medium walnut color. The nose was evocative of apple pie spices with wood and overall complexity. Tang on the nose. In the mouth were old wood flavors and sweeter, wine fruit. There was a fair amount of flavor, tea notes, glycerin, and citrus notes. The wine was both solid and soft. ***
1830 Quinta do Serrado Malvasia
This was a medium plus walnut color. The nose smelled of butterscotch and burnt caramel. In the mouth was almost searing acidity with some heat and a lot of power. The wine was very tart and took over the mouth so much that it was too much for me. But with air it developed lovely flavors, citrus, and saline qualities. ****/****(*)
1808 Generally very good, Malmsey best ever known. Sercial fine.
1811 Malvasia Candida
This was the lightest of the flight being light amber. There was a subtle nose of musk and cookies. In the mouth were lighter, simpler flavors, a short finish, and notes of dried nuts in the aftertaste. This became sour with air. A curiosity. **
1808 Leacock Solera
This was a light to medium walnut color. The light nose was minty then developed a honied aroma. In the mouth were forward, ripe and sweet flavors that came in a dense start. This wine had power and a dry finish. With air it showed burnt caramel and black tea flavors. ***(*)
1808 Blandy’s Malvasia Solera
This was a medium walnut color. The nose was subtle with old wood aromas. In the mouth were power, very round and dense, tart fruit flavors. The wine had a good tang with a powdery, honey note. I particularly liked the savory and saline aspect. ****
Henriques & Henriques Malvasia Candida
This was a medium, vibrant amber color. The nose was fruity with floral highlights and pretty aromas of Mandarin oranges. In the mouth the fruit took on roundness with a lighter body and less noticeable acidity. There was a sweet tea note, tangy acidity, and tannins that were left on the back of the gums. After the softer finish the orange flavors persisted. ****(*)
Henriques & Henriques Malvasia Reserva
This was medium to dark with very fine sediment. The nose was very subtle with stinky mulch aromas. IN the mouth were darker flavors and slowly building power. The wine was a little chewy with more tart flavors, more acidity, and a simpler finish followed by some heat in the aftertaste. ****(*)