“I dream of wine every day”: A Madeira tasting to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the partnership between Mannie Berk and Ricardo Freitas
Twice last year I found myself in the company of Mannie Berk (The Rare Wine Company) and Ricardo Freitas (Vinhos Barbeito) tasting old Madeira dating back to the early 19th century. The first time was at The Majesty of Malvasia tasting held during the spring of 2015 in New York City. The second time was at the Plume Restaurant in Washington, DC. The Plume Restaurant is located in The Jefferson hotel. It is an apt place to hold a Madeira tasting for the core wine list is based on the wines which Thomas Jefferson drank. This means the Madeira selection is particularly deep with such selections by the glass as the 1882 Barbeito, Malvasia “RR” and the 1720 H.M. Borges, “Palther”. However, we were not there to plunder the restaurant’s cellar, we were there to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the partnership between Mannie Berk and Ricardo Freitas.
When Mannie and Ricardo first corresponded, there was soon trouble. Mannie had faxed an order for Madeira which was full of old vintages. The Barbeito family had never sold old vintages as part of their regular business and Ricardo was afraid to fill the order. He knew it would take many months to bottle, seal, and label the wines for this order alone. A few months after the fax was received, Mannie arrived on the island, meeting Ricardo for the first time.
Just one decade earlier, Mannie had come across hundreds of cases of ancient Madeira owned by Hedges & Butler, a British wine agent that had just been bought out by a large brewer. The Madeira was being sold off at absurd prices and Mannie bought every single bottle. It is these bottles which became the nucleus of The Rare Wine Company. Mannie’s focus on Madeira continued with purchases at the great Quinta do Serrado and Acciaioly auctions held in London during 1989. At this time the Madeira market was bad and prices were low. Ricardo’s mother had attempted to sell some Madeira at auction shortly after the Acciaioly sale. What constituted the market then was, in effect, saturated so the sale did not go well. Thus there were plenty of old vintages at Barbeito when Mannie’s fax arrived.
Ricardo’s mother was a good taster and appreciated the old bottles. She drank old Madeira every day be it from the 1960 vintage or the famous 1795 Terrantez. She always bought wines here and there, for she was crazy about these bottles. She felt they were something to have fun with. However, she took the time to take care for them, carefully transferring the bottles to demijohn. Indeed, Ricardo’s first experience with old Madeira was transferring these bottles to demijohn before eventually re-bottling them. This is a technique he still employs today.
Vinhos Barbeito was founded by Mario Barbeito in 1946 during the difficult post war years. When he passed away in 1985, his daughter Manuela not only took over running the business, she became the winemaker. Her son Ricardo joined the family business in 1991 and became the winemaker in 1993. It was Ricardo who ceased bulk operations to focus in on high quality individual wines.
Mannie did not solely focus on selling ancient vintages of Madeira. The Madeira imported into America was of average quality and knowledge of Madeira’s important role in American history was all but forgotten. Within a few years of the first fax, in 1998, Mannie and Ricardo began the collaborative “Historic Series” of wines. These wines highlight American’s historic thirst for Madeira by offering complex, aged Madeira, evocative of historic styles. All of this at affordable prices.
Ricardo commented that the Historic Series are difficult to make. These blends are based on his large library of old vintages purchased by his grandfather and mother. Ricardo dreams of wine every day not just of their pleasure but also how they will taste as a blend. With limited quantities of old wine, he has a difficult task in searching for the right balance of components to achieve the end result. It would be a waste to constantly use old wine to produce experimental blends. Ricardo might taste a few casks or demijohns to refresh his memory before his mental blending begins.
Madeira is a wine with a rich history that cannot exist without America. Ricardo feels that the Historic Series brought Madeira back into American history. It also uniquely binds Mannie and Ricardo together as they share new adventures working on blends inspired by historic research. For this celebration, we not only tasted the earliest collaborative blends but we explored wines that were not originally owned by the Barbeito family, some of which came back to Ricardo by accident. There was a great amount of information relayed by both Ricardo and Mannie which adds important context for each of the wines. I have organized any relevant information and my tasting notes by flight.
The First Flight
The first flight of wines highlighted Ricardo’s earliest wines and two of the early collaborative blends between Ricardo and Mannie. The 1992 Barbeito, Sercial is Ricardo’s first vintage wine and one of his very first wines in general. He loves this wine because it went against the grain. Grapes were traditionally picked with a minimum potential alcohol of 9°, which was regarded as the minimum level required to make a good wine. Ricardo feels that is not the case pointing out how well the 1992 Barbeito, Sercial is developing in the bottle. Today, a 9° potential is a requirement, so he aims for 9° -9.5° to have extra acidity. Acidity is everything to Ricardo. The NV Barbeito, Terrantez Reserve marks Ricardo’s first blend for America. Mannie wanted a blend of Terrantez so this was produced from wines 25 years of age when bottled. Our third wine, is the first bottling of the NV The Rare Wine Company, New Orleans Special Reserve and first special bottling in the Historic Series. A year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Mannie wanted to create a wine to raise money for culinary and cultural activities in the city. He wanted the wine to be Terrantez and was particularly keen on a specific 60 liter demijohn. Mannie soon created a problem because he wanted 50 cases of wine which is nearly 8 times the amount represented by that demijohn! In the end the New Orleans blend contains 25% of the very same Terrantez used in the 2000 bottling of NV Barbeito, Terrantez Reserve. There are just a few other Terrantez blended in for there was not much available to work with at the time. Ricardo even bottled some of the original demijohn for Mannie to compare the blend to. Incredibly, the blend tasted very similar to the original and the wine became legendary.
1992 Barbeito, Sercial
Bottled one or two years ago. The nose is brighter and pungent with dried herbs. In the mouth, there is gobs of acidity which grabs the back of the throat. The wine then shows some weight with bright and tart flavors, lighter tea notes, and simpler herbs. It wraps up with watering acidity and an earthy/foxy aftertaste. ***(*)
NV Barbeito, Terrantez Reserve
Bottled in 2000. This wine is sweeter, darker, and creamy with an element of cola-like freshness. The rounded start bears ripe flavors on the sides of the tongue before softly draping the tongue in flavor. Definitely an attractive mouthfeel. There are notes of dry wood. It finishes with a sense of freshness. ***(*)
NV The Rare Wine Company, New Orleans Special Reserve
First bottling. This is bright and pungent on the nose, certainly more aromatic and complex. There is a round, rich start before drier flavors and acidity comes out hitting the back of the throat. Though lighter in style, the wine has attractive tension between the combination of acidity and richness. It shows more perfumed flavors. ****(*)
The Second Flight
Tinta Negra is often added to a blend, frequently to bring acidity. After several years in bottle, the other components will dominate the savage parts of Tinta Negra bringing harmony to the wine. Since 1995, Ricardo treats Tinta Negra like any of the white varieties, taking care of it as it ages. He came about this realization after finding aged Tinta Negra in his grandfather’s and the Favilia family’s inventories. The NV The Rare Wine Company, The Wanderer is pure Tinta Negra sourced from the last 60 year old liters owned by Ricardo. When Mannie first tasted the wine he told Ricardo he would kill him if he blended it away. So instead it was bottled for Mannie! The 1889 Barbeito, Verdelho is a wine that originated with Ricardo’s mother and one he never expected to drink. There were 100 bottles of this old Verdelho, carefully treated, labeled, and sold by his mother in the name of Christopher Columbus. What we tasted represents the last few bottles and it is an interesting wine. Old Verdelho is typically sweeter because it has concentrated in wood. This wine is medium dry, which is unusual, because it was stored for some unknown duration in demijohn until Ricardo’s mother bottled it in 1989. The 1912 Barbeito, Bual, Quinta do Sao Joao was cloudy which marred the nose. It was produced from a property owned by his brother-in-law in a very small village at Jardim do Mar. Located near the sea, this area produced good wine in the 19th and early 20th century. When his brother-in-law and sister passed away, there was still some wine left in demijohns. Completely forgotten about, this wine was bottled 15 years ago.
NV The Rare Wine Company, The Wanderer
The vibrant, dense color makes way to a stinky nose. It is rich and creamy in the mouth with a lipstick note. It exhibits power with a lovely middle before gently approaching the finish. Quite different with no hard edges. ***
1889 Barbeito, Verdelho
This piercing wine is both zippy and spicy with the acidity noticeable on the tongue. The acidity is in fact incredible, mushrooming through the aftertaste. There is fruit and ripe flavors that bear out in the end. The acidity is prominent but the sweetness balances it out before the citric and tart aftertaste. It became more piercing with air. ****
1912 Barbeito, Bual, Quinta do Sao Joao
It has a dark, cloudy color. There are ripe fruit and tobacco notes evident on the nose. This is more wine-like with hints of red fruit, a burst of ripeness with expansive mouthfeel, and integrated, very pure acidity. Both cream and cola builds until there is a ripe texture in the finish. It wraps up with tea, tobacco, and old wood notes. ***
The 1891 Barbeito, Bual, Favilia Ribeiro Real is a wine that came from a few demijohns owned by the Favilia family that were only bottled three months prior to tasting. The Ribeiro Real is a very large property for Madeira, located in Cama de Lobos in the south. Many farmers worked that area which has become one of the best places for Tinta Negra. The property once belonged to Count Ribeiro who did not have any sons. He left the property and all of the wine to his lawyer who was the first of the Favila family. The wine, which was in casks and demijohns, was moved to an old warehouse in front of the family home in Funchal. It is a special place to age wine but more importantly, one of the best private winemakers took care of the wine. The wine was in demijohns since the 1960s. Ricardo found a slight imbalance in the wine and suspects the winemaker noticed this and realizing he might lose the wine if kept in cask any longer. Thus it was transferred to 12 liter demijohns. These beautiful demijohns are still used for emptying bottles into before rebottling. Ricardo found that the 1882, which we tasted later on, bore a similarity, partially due to terroir and partially due to the upbringing of this great winemaker. The 1866 Barbeito, Bual came from a demijohn that Ricardo brought to his tasting room. It was slightly cloudy so he used a manual filtration system invented by his mother. The 1837 Barbeito, Bual came from his sister’s collection. She had 30 or 40 various bottles from his mother’s and grandfather’s favorite wines. His nephew’s sold the wine when she passed but there were a few leftovers including this one.
1891 Barbeito, Bual, Favilia Ribeiro Real
There is a deep, lovely nose both sweaty and pungent that is remarkably fresh. In the mouth are rich, concentrated, powerful flavors that become spicy and dry towards the finish and tobacco accented aftertaste. It is a bit electric from acidity. *****
1866 Barbeito, Bual
The nose is primarily perfumed with floral aromas but the pungency is there as well. This is a harmonious, balanced with lively acidity, dry texture in the finish, and a pervasive aftertaste. ****(*)
1837 Barbeito, Bual
The nose is the shyest of all the wines. The wine itself is the most mature. It picks up sweetness in the gentle and simpler finish but does become more vibrant. It has some cream-cola hints and a tobacco smoke note. ****
Last Flight of Six Wines
The NV Malvasia, 40 year old, Mae Manuela is a blend Ricardo made four years ago as an homage to his mother. Of the blend, 7% came from a 60 liter demijohn of Malvasia from 1880 that belonged to his mother. For the second time Ricardo was almost killed, this time by the great Madeira expert Paul Day, who thought Ricardo was crazy for blending in such an old wine. But Ricardo felt it was a good wine, not great, and he wanted to make a blend that bore the mark of an old wine with more maturity than he had even done. It was difficult to blend. He worked with wines 40 to 60 years of age, first creating the idea in his head then blending four or five wines together. These were then finished off with a further three wines to complete the blend. The 1955 Barbeito, Moscatel is the youngest Moscatel that Ricardo has tasted because Moscatel has not existed on Madeira for some time. This wine was bottled 15 years ago. It is not as sweet as those on the continent and it has more acidity. The 1950 Barbeito, Malvasia, Favila Veiira is owned by the Favilia family just like the 1891 and 1882. The fruit for the 1950 came from different vineyards located on the north coast. This area is well known for Sercial and Verdelho. The 1926 Barbeito, Malvasia, Vasconcelos was owned by Ricardo’s brother-in-law and as such was aged in the same old warehouse in the center of Funchal as the 1912. It was made with fruit sourced from a different vineyard but more important it was made in a manner unique amongst all of the wines we tasted. The family who made the wine owned a traditional sugar cane plantation from which they also produced rum. This very rum was used to fortify the wine!
We moved back in time again for our last two bottles of Madeira. The 1900 Barbeito, Malvasia highlights one reason why Ricardo moves a wine from cask to demijohn. It is the sweetest wine of the tasting with 200 g/L of sugar in it. It is both extremely sweet and also very high in acidity, both of which are perfectly balanced. It is also the darkest wine that we tasted. This color is due to both the high caramelization of the sugar and the concentration of the wine from time in casks. It would only get darker with further cask age. It was then, for Ricardo, the perfect time to move this wine from cask into demijohn. This is the oldest wine that Ricardo has bottled the most of.
Finally, the 1882 Barbeito, Malvasia “RR” came from the same family as the 1891 Barbeito, Bual, Favilia Ribeiro Real. Both of these vintages were moved from cask to demijohn during October 2014 then bottled three months later in January 2015. There are unfortunately only 140 bottles or so.
NV Malvasia, 40 year old, Mae Manuela
The soft aromas mix tobacco with sweet, sweaty notes. The wine begins with subtle spicy flavors, tobacco, and watering acidity. The rounded orange-citrus and tobacco return in the finish right before the acidity kicks in during the aftertaste. ****
1955 Barbeito, Moscatel
The candied flavors with cream are piercing, showing less balance and a shorter finish. **
1950 Barbeito, Malvasia, Favila Veiira
The stinky nose is pungent with fruit. There is a sweet bit at the start before lively flavors build in power. It is a lovely wine, with vibrant texture, lemon citrus flavors, and density that almost reaches a glycerin level. ****
1926 Barbeito, Malvasia, Vasconcelos
The nose really is like rum. The flavors are an interesting mixture of tobacco, smoke, and spicy notes. It wraps up with caramelized and spirituous flavors. ***(*)
1900 Barbeito, Malvasia
An explosive start bring a dry, dusty, old tasting frame of a wine. It turns a little hollowing with heat in the dusty finish. The sugar and acidity are balance. ***
1882 Barbeito, Malvasia “RR”
This is a heavy, sweaty, pungently aromatic wine. With a familiar smell it is articulate in its youth. There is a core of flavor throughout, picking up sweetness, sugar, and dark flavors. It is a wine for the ages. *****
In true Madeira party fashion, Mannie presented a blend made from the remnants of the 2010 tasting in homage to Ricardo’s grandfather.
Mannie Berk private blend, lees from the 2010 tasting
A little cloudy. The wine has prominent acidity, a little hollow in the mid-palate, as it turns dry and old tasting. Spicy.