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The Sensational Sercial Tasting 1875-1800

December 23, 2016 Leave a comment

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On April 30, 2016, I attended The Sensation Sercial Tasting in New York City. This was the fifth in a series of definitive annual Madeira tastings organized by Mannie Berk (The Rare Wine Co.) and Roy Hersh (For The Love of Port).  It was only one year prior that I was fully immersed in the world of fine, old Madeira when I attended The Majesty of Malvasia tasting.

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A single glass of old Madeira can perfume a room for hours.  Some 400 glasses containing 20 different wines for 20 people is downright intoxicating.  However, tasting Sercial can be a bit difficult for the naturally high acidity level combined with lower residual sugar can produce a trying wine.  Some of the wines would have been better with food for the sheer quantity of piercing acidity.  Other wines were quite sweet, leaving one taster to jokingly comment that perhaps the “S” does not stand for Sercial.

My four favorite wines spanned the century and also support the notion that either a purported single vintage or a blend can produce outstanding wines.

1875 Blandy’s Grabham’s Sercial
1864 Henriques & Henriques Sercial
1808 Braheem Kassab (BAK) “SS”Sercial
NV Henriques & Henriques Reserva “H.H.” Sercial

All of these wines are historic but two of them have particular American connections. The 1810 Monteiro Old Sercial Reserve is mid 20th century bottling of a house whose wines were imported into America since at least the late 18th century.  There is also the elegantly bottled and labeled 1852 Sercial Selected by General Sherman on his visit at Madeira, 1871.  It is not the most exciting wine to drink but certainly one very important to taste.  There are but few surviving American bottled Madeira in existence.  As a result there are no living experts experienced with this type of Madeira.  I will follow up with a short post detailing a bit more history behind the Sherman Sercial.

Advertisement for Monteiro Madeira from 1796.

Advertisement for Monteiro Madeira from 1796.

It is also important to point out that at least one of our wines was fake.  The 1869 Blandy’s Sercial is not known to have been at auction.  Though the red lead capsule bore the Blandy’s name, it covered both a T-stopper and a contemporary paper seal.  There is also some question about the 1825 “S” Sercial.  It is purportedly a Braheem Kassab (BAK) Madeira but it lacks the embossed capsule.  I shall focus in on these bottles in later posts.

You will find my tasting notes below in the order tasted.  Though we sat down to all of the wines, we tasted through them in flights.  As usual, we silently tasted through the flight then openly discussed the wines.  For me, far more important than the tasting descriptors, are the unique insights provides by a handful of the attendees.  While the provenance of a wine in general speaks to the legitimacy of the bottle and storage conditions, with Madeira it also speaks to how the wine was raised.  Great old Madeira is not the product of one person, it is the result of multiple generations.  From the original blending of wine from multiple families to the different people or families who cared for the wine from cask to demijohn to bottle and perhaps back to demijohn before final bottling.  Unlike 19th-century example of ex-chateau Bordeaux, Madeira may also purposely spend portions of its life in different buildings, gently influencing its character.

While my tasting notes will clearly reflect my preferences, it is the bottle histories that are more important.  Mannie Berk compiles these histories in the tasting book we each receive.  You may find excerpts from these histories in Richard Mayson’s notes in his post Sensational Sercial.  Roy Hersh publishes his tasting notes from in The World of Fine Wine Magazine.  More of the histories will appear in his article. I will update this post once he has done so for this tasting.

Tasting organizers Mannie Berk and Roy Hersh.

Tasting organizers Mannie Berk and Roy Hersh.

Flight #1

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1875 D’Oliveira Sercial
Amongst the darkest of this flight but still brilliant. The pungent nose was finely articulate with underlying sweetness balanced by fresh, high-toned aromas. In the mouth is piercing acidity at the start which returns on the throat in the aftertaste. There is a fine, developing flavors with a certain earthy accent and dried herbs in the aftertaste. It is very acidic in the end. It is a little bit rough right now suggesting the need for further development. ****

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1875 Blandy’s Grabham’s Sercial
The aromas are lower lying with web tobacco, inviting one to take another sniff of the complex and long-lasting aromas. There is a sweeter start with fine cedar and wood intertwined. There is watering acidity which carries the butterscotch flavors through the sweeter, tobacco accented aftertaste. This is a fine, old Madeira with very good balance leaning towards some sweetness. ****(*)

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1870 Ricardo Vasoncelos Sercial “RV”
The nose is funky, sweat which is not pungent, and dark and sweet aromas. It responded with air becoming more properly pungent. There is a rounded, glycerin marked start with integrated acidity. The wine tastes older but sports a racy end just as the acidity shows through. With air the wine does improve leaving a sense of fruit at the start and a wood note. ***(*)/****

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1869 Blandy’s Sercial
This has the lightest color of the floor but is almost slightly cloudy. It smells like old wine mixed with lactic funkiness. In the mouth are the leanest and driest flavors encountered. The flavor lacks through the aftertaste when heat comes out. Not Rated.

Flight #2

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1865 Torre Bella Sercial
This is just lightly the darkest of the new flight. The nose offers up some must then a combination of dried and fresh floral aromas, perhaps lavender, and eventually sweet potpourri. The wine is salty and savory with rapier like acidity. The acidity almost hurts the mouth, overpowering the lavender flavor. Both spirity and hard to drink. Poor.

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1864 Torre Bella Camara de Lobos Sercial
There is a piercing nose of sweet fruit with a touch of wood. This wine is richer with a core of concentrated flavor. The piercing acidity moves through the dry, citric finish only to return on the back of the throat. The wine offers more acidity than fruit but shows substantially better balance than the 1865. In fact, it comes across as lively. ****

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1864 Henriques & Henriques Sercial
The pungent nose is complex with sweeter aromas that are gently sweaty and not distracted by a lactic hint. The wine is tangy with a fruity start. There fruity weight continues with dry floral notes and a mid level of acidity compared to the others. This emphasis the fruit before the very dry finish. It has a hint of wood. It reminds me of the Grabham and is clearly the best of the flight. ****(*)

Flight #3

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1862 D’Oliviera Sercial
This wine is pungent and fully aromatic, bringing forth articulate sweet fruit. This is a full-bore wine with a fruitier start and a fair amount of acidity before the wine rounds out. The sweetness seems separate from the wine leaving a sense of oddity. Despite the wood note the wine is simpler by the middle. ****

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1860 H. M. Borges Sercial
The high-toned nose is hard to describe with a menthol-like and floral set of aromas. Haunting in a way. There is a sweet start to this round wine then a tobacco and floral accented middle. Caramel flavors come out in the finish as well as a little tannic and grippy personality. The acidity hits the back of the throat leaving an aftertaste which is sweeter than expected. ****

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1860 Avery’s Sercial
The nose low-lying with dense aroma eventually becoming more pungent with air. There is a vigour start with savory flavors that become drier towards the finish before acidity marks the path down the throat. The start is great with some fat that makes for a great promise. But the wine shows less balance in the end. Better in flavor than in aromas. ***

Flight #4

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1855 Adegas do Tormeao “S”
The nose is a little lactic with some tea and sweet aromas eventually smelling like an old wine. The nose is consistent with the soft and simpler start and even the short finish. There is a little sweet black fruit with some texture on the sides of the mouth. Better in flavor. **

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1852 Sercial Selected by General Sherman on his visit at Madeira, 1871
The nose is higher-toned with leather and peat notes suggesting spirit. The peat follows through in the mouth where the wine is thicker than expected. It is gently fading and short in finish but managed a savory note and some balance. Curious. **

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NV Henriques & Henriques Reserva “H.H.” Sercial
This wine is clearly in good condition with attractive, pungent aromas. In the mouth this flavorful wine builds in power with wonderful integration. There is a citric grip in the middle with a very fine, racy mineral note. The acidity is only noticeable in the finish. This is ultimately exuberant with sweet concentrated and a slightly short finish. ****(*)/*****

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1810 H. M. Borges Sercial
The lightest of the four in this flight. The nose is freshly pungent, aromatic and strange. The nose is echoed in the mouth with tangy, rather salivating acidity, and a bright, alcoholic finish that continues into the hot aftertaste. This is the most powerful wine of the flight but is unfortunately becoming unknit in the end. Wood hint. ***(*)

Flight #5

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1827 Perestrello Sercial
A unique nose of sweet pizza crust. Again, the nose echoes in the mouth but in rounded, soft form. The softness and low acidity continues for a bit but the wine eventually tightens and becomes a little racy. ***

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1825 “S” Sercial
There is a subtle nose of menthol, tea, and funk. This is a ripe, rich fine wine with a complex blend of wet and dry florals before the stemmy, short finish. The flavors clearly taste older with unique brighter fruit leaving a bizarre impression that is still tasteful. ***

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1810 Monteiro Old Sercial Reserve
There is some sweetness followed by a lactic hint, butterscotch, and foxy aromas. The wine is a little chewy with noticeable acidity, a short finish, and a tobacco note in the aftertaste. **(*)

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1808 Braheem Kassab (BAK) “SS”Sercial
The nose is fresh but not rich with some smoke. The saline start bears sharp acidity. The wine is powerful with both mineral and citric flavors. It is a little short in the finish but a beauty to drink. ****(*)

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1805 Teixeira Sercial “Roque”
Perhaps the darkest wine of all this nice. The somewhat pungent nose mixes heavy aromas of butter and sweet cookies. The wine is saline and almost salty with powerful pungency. The acidity burns through this potent and piercing wine. There is some prune flavors too. ***

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1800 (believed Araujo) Sercial
The gentle yet good nose smells like old wine and leather. The wine starts with a little pungent vibrancy with lively, old flavors. The watering acidity carries through as the wine settles down to a foxy finish. The finish is a little short but the wine is balanced and enjoyable. ****

“very Scarce” Sercial in America at the turn of the 19th century.

December 21, 2016 Leave a comment

On April 30, 2016, I attended The Sercial Tasting in New York City.  This was the fifth in a series of definitive annual Madeira tastings organized by Mannie Berk (The Rare Wine Co.) and Roy Hersh (For The Love of Port).  This post is the article I wrote for the tasting booklet.

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During the late 1700s and early 1800s, Madeira was typically ordered not by grape variety but by level of quality: from India and New York Market at the low end, to Old London Particular at the high end.

But it was always possible to buy a small barrel of single-varietal Madeira, especially Malmsey, Bual and Sercial. And for at least one early U.S. President, James Madison, Sercial was particularly prized.

Madison had developed a life-long love for Madeira, typically ordering the finest and oldest London Particular quality.  As Secretary of State under President Thomas Jefferson, he expanded upon his usual orders by purchasing a hogshead of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite Brazil quality Madeira.  When Madison became President after Thomas Jefferson in 1809, he purchased the remaining bottles of Jefferson’s Madeira that lay in the White House cellar.

But that wasn’t all he did to stock the White House cellar. Just one week into his Presidency, he placed an unusually large order of Madeira including old and new London Particular, Tinta or Madeira Burgundy, Malmsey, and Sercial.  The Sercial was the only type of Madeira in his order described as “very Scarce” and as such was shipped in a quarter-cask.  This is the first known order for Sercial amongst our Founding Fathers and one of the earliest in America.

Madison placed another order for Sercial a year later in 1810.  Still being scarce, it could only be sourced from the private stock of Count Joao de Carvalhal who was considered the richest man on Madeira with “the best plantations.”  Madison received his order the following year in 1811 and found the wine “very satisfactory.”

It is possible that Madison had to wait until he was President to afford Sercial.  The British Factory established the prices for all Madeira shipped from the island by British firms.  Madison paid £60 per pipe for old London Particular and the equivalent of £72 per pipe for Sercial.  A year later in 1811, the Factory maintained the price on London Particular but the price of Sercial rose to £94 per pipe. Sercial was the most expensive type of Madeira which could be purchased.

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Sercial was believed to stem from German vines at Hockheim and at times was called Madeira Hock.  It only grew well at particular locations and altitudes on Madeira.  Sercial was considered “superior to any dry wine, much esteemed on account of its scarcity and high flavor.”  It was, however, unpalatable when young, requiring six to eight years before becoming drinkable.  James Madison’s Sercial was seven years of age thus considered ready to drink.  If scarcity raised the price then the requirement for age drove it up even further.

Advertisements for Sercial in American first appear in 1799 when one butt was offered for private sale.  It is not until 1805 that Sercial was periodically advertised for sale.  These advertisements continue through the beginning of the War of 1812 between American and Great Britain.  It is possible the war prevented James Madison from placing a third order.  Sercial essentially disappears from advertisements until 1816 when trade largely resumed.  It now fetched a price of £100 per pipe.

James Madison’s Presidency lasted only one more year after the resumption of Madeira imports in 1816.  We do not know why Madison did not continue his orders for Sercial.  One possibility is that there was no affordable old Sercial to be had.  In a normal year it could be difficult for a shipper to obtain even just two or three casks.  In 1816, drinkable Sercial would have been from the 1809 or 1810 vintages.  These were amongst a run of four bad years.

Count João de Carvalhal was considered to have wines as fine as any other on the island.  In 1801, he purchased and developed the Palheiro estate in the hills near Funchal (and now owned by members of the Blandy family).  It is here that Count Carvalhal kept his store of wine.  When the Portuguese royal family moved back to Portugal from Brazil, a power struggle broke out.  The new governor of Madeira confiscated the Palheiro estate, sending some 700 pipes of Count Carvalhal’s old wine to Lisbon.

The Madeira of Carvalhal was soon to return to America.  “Carvalhal, vintage 1815, confiscated and sold under Don Miguel, in 1828” appears on wine lists and auction announcements beginning in the 1840s.  The most famous of all Carvalhal wines is the 1808 Lomelino Carvalhal Sercial.  This was the “highlight” of Sir Stephen Gaselee’s Madeira collection, bottles of which still survive to this day.

Incredibly, this vintage would have lain in Count Carvalhal’s cellar when James Madison’s Sercial orders were filled. It was not yet ready to drink so James Madison was sent the 1802 vintage.

“163 Bottles of old Madeira Wine”: I am waist deep in research

October 18, 2016 Leave a comment

You have probably noticed my haphazard posting as of late.  While I never slack on generating tasting notes, my usually posting time is now largely dedicated to research.  One area I am curious about is General George Washington’s Madeira purchases during the Revolutionary War.  When George Washington was home at Mount Vernon he usually purchased his Madeira by the pipe.  But during the war, when he was at headquarters, he typically purchased his Madeira by the bottle.

Receipt for Madeira purchase. Thomas Mifflin to Caleb Gibbs, October 18, 1776. [1]

Receipt for Madeira purchase. Thomas Mifflin to Caleb Gibbs, October 18, 1776. [1]

To be specific, General Washington’s aide de camp, Captain Caleb Gibbs, Captain Commandant of the Guard, purchased his Madeira.  It is fortunate for us is that Captain Gibbs kept all of his receipts.  On October 18, 1776, some 240 years ago to this day, Captain Gibbs purchased 163 bottles of “old Madeira wine” for $163 from Levinus Clarkson.

Levinus Clarkson was a merchant in Charleston, South California.  He had Dutch connections with whom he traded with during the war.  From his correspondence we can see that he imported Madeira, amongst other goods, then forwarded the wine up to his business partner David Van Horne in New York.  Levinus Clarkson would eventually become a Continental Agent in Charleston where he traded.  Appointed during the fall of 1776 he was responsible “to supply any of the Ships or Cruizers with whatever Provisions, Stores or necessarys they may be in want of when they put into or arrive in any of your ports”.  Congress told him he was “in short do all things in this department that you think will serve the Continent and promote the service of the Navy”.  Clearly this included supplying the Commander of the Continental Army with old Madeira.


[1] Thomas Mifflin to Caleb Gibbs, October 18, 1776, Revolutionary War Accounts, Vouchers, and Receipted Accounts 1. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 5 Financial Papers. URL: https://memory.loc.gov/mss/mgw/mgw5/117/0600/0661.jpg

Another Historic Auction of President Jefferson’s Madeira in 1841

September 20, 2016 Leave a comment

Advertisement from Commercial Adviser, November 30, 1841. [1]

Advertisement from Commercial Adviser, November 30, 1841. [1]

Last year I wrote about Historic Auctions of Thomas Jefferson’s Madeira.  In this series of posts I describe four auctions containing Madeira attributed to Thomas Jefferson.  They are the 1997 Sotheby’s auction of Thomas Jefferson’s three bottles of Madeira, the 1890 Wethered estate sale, the 1852 auction of Josiah Lee’s wine cellar, and the 1839 auction of John Gadsby’s extensive wine collection.  I have just found a fifth auction containing a parcel of Thomas Jefferson’s Madeira.

It is largely known that bottles of wine claimed to have been owned by Thomas Jefferson’s were auctioned off in 1987.  We now know that these bottles were faked by Hardy Rodenstock.  In 1997, three bottles of Thomas Jefferson Madeira were auctioned off without much scrutiny because the labels matched the published description of bottles served by Douglas H. Thomas in the early 20th century.  Thus there is no reason to doubt that these three bottles of Madeira came from the parcel owned by Douglas H. Thomas.  There is, however, no documentary evidence that Thomas Jefferson ever owned the bottles Douglas H. Thomas so carefully served.

John Gadsby’s wine was first auctioned off during his retirement in 1839.  As the proprietor of Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria, Virginia, and the National Hotel, in Washington, DC, John Gadsby acquired a massive 10,000 bottle collection.  His death in 1844 prompted a final series of wine auctions.   The wine cellar of Josiah Lee, the notable Madeira collector, was auctioned off in 1852.  Finally, Douglas H. Thomas purchased his bottles in 1890 at the sale of the Wethered family estate.

Heretofore unknown to me, on December 17, 1841, wine belonging to “a gentleman going to Europe” were put up for auction.  This auction consisted of a significant volume of Madeira in bottles both imported privately from Madeira and purchased in America.  Of the later bottles, they were “purchased at different times from private stocks in this city [New York City]”.  This included the oldest parcel which was a dozen bottles of wine that was “procured in Madeira, imported in 1822, and must then have been 80 years in bottle”.  With a century of age that would make the Madeira from 1740 or earlier.

Included in the private stocks is the “do 1811, imported by President Jefferson”.  This lot could have been purchased at the John Gadsby auction in 1839 which was held at the City Hotel in New York City.  Now there are no vintage, imported, or bottling dates of 1811 amongst the Jefferson Madeira advertised in the 1839 auction.  However, when John Gadsby’s cellar was auctioned off in 1844, the advertised lots were more specific and include “Mark on Cork, O. M. Y. W. – Superior old Madeira, from Newton, Gordon, Murdock & Co., imported expressly for President Jefferson, in 1807, and bottled in 1811; bought by J. Gadsby in 1819.”

Thus the Europe bound gentleman could have owned the 1807 “O.M.Y.W.” bottled in 1811.  Newspaper accounts of the auction results passed over the Thomas Jefferson bottles.[2]  Instead they focused in on the parcel of “Cole’s Madeira”, which was recorked in 1800.  This 18th century wine sold for $117 per dozen.  As the most expensive Madeira sold, it was calculated that 14,000 bottles could buy the entire United States Bank stock valued at $35,000,000.

What happened to the gentleman’s dozen bottles of Jefferson Madeira remains a mystery.


[1] Advertisement. Date: Tuesday, November 30, 1841 Paper: Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York) Volume: XLIV Page: 3

[2]Unparalleled Distress in New-York. Date: Monday, December 27, 1841 Paper: Boston Courier (Boston, Massachusetts) Volume: XV Issue: 1844 Page: 1

“a Sloop…is taken by One of our Cruizers, so Wine, & Punch will not be wanting to the Sons of Liberty.  Let the Sons of Slavery get them how they can”: Madeira in the years prior to the Declaration of Independence

Quotation from Brigadier General Horatio Gates’ letter to Benjamin Franklin, November 7, 1775.

George Washington placed one order for Madeira during the years shortly before the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  This order was for four pipes of the very best Madeira from the house of Lamar, Hill, Bisset, & Company.  Placed during the summer of 1773 these pipes represent George Washington’s last Madeira order for many years to come. Madeira was soon to become increasingly difficult to obtain.

In June 1774, the British closed the major ports of Boston and Charlestown using the Royal Navy to enforce the blockade.  George Washington’s four pipes of Madeira made it safely to Virginia that very same month.  The First Continental Congress soon met to address Colonial issues, finishing up during October 1774.  One outcome of this meeting, in part due to the British blockade, was an economic boycott of Great Britain.  Thus a non-importation declaration was passed which also banned the import of Madeira wine.

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Any Madeira that did make it to the colonies in American ships was liable to be seized and sold off.  One of the earliest examples is the schooner Polly which arrived into Annapolis in December 1774, just two weeks after the non-importation declaration.  The Polly was carrying 23 pipes of Madeira.   All of the Madeira was sold off with the owners compensated for their expense but all of the profit went towards the relief of the poor in Boston who were suffering from the blockade.

There was Madeira for sale during this period but with each year advertisements in Colonial newspapers became less frequent.  In the three years just prior to the banning of Madeira imports, some 300 to 400 Madeira wine advertisements were placed annually in newspapers from Boston down to Williamsburg.  Many of these advertisements list “choice old” and “excellent old” Madeira wine.  In 1776, less than 200 advertisements were placed largely for plain Madeira wine.

Colonists largely obeyed the order to not import Madeira.  The volume of Madeira shipped from the island to the colonies plummeted and so did prices.  However, a significant volume of Madeira still reached American shores but it was intended for British troops.  When the British occupied Boston in April 1775, George Washington, as Commander of the Continental Army, set up headquarters in nearby Cambridge.  He used his troops to cut of land access for the British troops.  The British could only be supplied by ships.

Obtaining supplies was important as winter approached in 1775.  The Continental Navy had just been formed and the capture of British ships was approved.  Both Continental cruisers and privateers could profit from capturing a British ship.  It was also the only way to obtain new pipes of Madeira. Gathering supplies was of importance to the colonists but perhaps not so much for the British. One British captain was ordered to “burn & destroy every Vessel that shall appear to be fitted out from any of the Colonies with such traitorous designs”.

The approach of winter also meant it was nearing the end of advantageous weather for privateering.  One ship wrecked in a gale on its way to Boston during November 1775.  It was carrying 120 pipes of Madeira and all but two pipes were saved.  This wreck and the Madeira in particular were widely discussed.

Boston was still occupied by British troops so it was believed that the Madeira was intended for the British.  George Washington was immediately asked if the Madeira should be sent to headquarters in Cambridge or to remain where it was.  George Washington decided to have the Madeira sent to Cambridge where the pipes were to be sold off for public use.  Two weeks later it was determined the Madeira belonged to a gentleman of Philadelphia and was not intended for the enemy.

A few weeks later the sloop Polly and Ann met with bad weather en route to Boston becoming stranded on a beach in New Jersey.  The sloop was laden with supplies which were confiscated.  When the sloop was inventoried it was found that all of the labels on the packages, casks, and boxes were torn off.  The captain of the sloop later confessed that several of the labels were directed to General William Howe in Boston.  General William Howe was Commander in Chief of the British Army in America and oversaw the siege of Boston.  It turned out that amongst the unlabeled cargo were three quarter-casks of Madeira belonging to General Howe.  They cost him £22 10s each.

During February 1776, John Hancock, President of the Second Continental Congress, perhaps desirous for Madeira suggested to Congress to allow it to be imported.  According to one gentleman, the proposal was not taken up because John Hancock was simply trying to please the southern delegates who wanted wine.

In the June 1776, the Portuguese monarchy aligned with the British and forbade any American colonial ships from calling on Portuguese ports.  With the colonists remaining Madeira supply effectively cut off, it became imperative to capture any ships carrying Madeira intended for the British troops in America.   Just two days after the Portuguese decree (and purely by coincidence) a large cargo of Madeira was captured.  In this instance two privateers took three West India ships headed to London with 70 pipes of “best Madeira wine” in the ship Reynolds.  This was seen as the opportune season to begin seizing West Indiamen on their return home to London.  Robert Morris fancied the British would “have Cause to Repent” for they had more property to lose than the colonists.

George Washington was once again informed of the prize ship Reynolds this time by John Hancock.  George Washington’s order was not awaited as the rules regarding prize ships had been established when the Continental Navy was created.  The prize ship Reynolds eventually made its way to Bedford where the ship and cargo was auctioned off during August 1776.

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There was little Madeira for sale in the weeks leading up to the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776.  Francis Johnston had a few quarter casks in Baltimore, John Mease had “Excellent old Madeira” in Philadelphia, and Philip Kissick had a bit in New York.  Later that month another prize was taken with just over 50 pipes of Madeira.  This lean period for Madeira was to persist for several more years.  Even George Washington and his family ran out of Madeira in 1779.

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

1862_Wanderer

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.

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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. ***

Third Flight

 

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.

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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

 

1851_Vasconcelos_NYPL

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.

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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. *****

Extra Flight

 

In true Madeira party fashion, Mannie presented a blend made from the remnants of the 2010 tasting in homage to Ricardo’s grandfather.

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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.

A closer look at two different bottlings of 1811 Malvasia Candida

October 27, 2015 3 comments

The 1811 vintage in Madeira was harvested during the second occupation of the island by the British during the Napoleonic wars.  The War of 1812, between the Great Britain and America, meant that regular supplies of Madeira to America were soon disrupted.  While the 1811 vintage may not have arrived in a timely manner, it eventually did, making the wine lists of Delmonico’s and Aster House as an example.  For the last several years bottles of Madeira labeled “1811 Malvasia Candida” have reached both American and English shores, some of which have appeared at auction.

All of these wines bear the same label and until recently, were only found in Burgundy-shaped bottles sealed with a rust-red wax seal.  It appears that perhaps a year ago, a new variant appeared in a Bordeaux-shaped bottle sealed with dark gray wax.  This year I have had the opportunity to taste both bottlings of this 1811 Malvasia Candida, first in New York City and second in Washington, DC.

NYC bottle on left. DC bottle on right.

NYC bottle on left. DC bottle on right.

The earliest record I can find of this wine appears in Alex Liddell’s “Madeira” published in 1998.  Here he describes it as “From a private island source.  Old, machine-made green glass bottle. Labelled. “P W” stencilled on bottle.  Hard wax seal with JNV authentication seal superimposed.  The most shrivelled (relatively long) cork I have ever seen, not adhering to the sides of the neck, but kept in place by the wax seal. Heavy crusting.”  His tasting note finds the nose as “not wholly agreeable” with flavors “dried out and hollow”.  He found it “difficult to believe it is really Malvazia.  Patently old, but not evidently fortified – though it probably was.”

NYC bottle on left. DC bottle on right.

NYC bottle on left. DC bottle on right.

It was on April 11, 2015, at The Majesty of Malvasia Tasting in New York City that I first tried this wine.  This particular bottle came from a private island source.  This bottle itself was in “an old Burgundy or Champagne style bottle with a rust-colored wax capsule”.  It is possible that the capsule bore an impression “from a JNV Seal”.  The bottle was stoppered with a “[r]elatively long cork”.  Alex Liddell does not describe the bottle shape nor the color of the wax.  His bottle was labelled and stenciled whereas ours was only labelled “1811 Malvasia Candida” followed by “Vinho de Malvazia / Bebe pouco / E viverais com alegria”.  Richard Mayson, in his post The Majesty of Malvasia, translates the label as, “Malvazia Wine / Drink a little / And you will live with happiness”.  This seems to be a mix of Portuguese proverbs.

NYC bottle on left. DC bottle on right.

NYC bottle on left. DC bottle on right.

While we cannot state for certain that Alex Liddell’s bottle is the same as the New York City bottle, the tasting notes appear similar.  Richard Mayson even comments “I questioned if this had been fortified”.  Here is my tasting note:

1811 Malvasia Candida, Madeira
[New York City. Burgundy shaped bottle with red wax.]  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. **

DC bottle.

DC bottle.

Both Alex Liddell’s and the New York City bottles had relatively long corks.  The Washington, DC, bottle had a very short,  1-3/8″ in length, tapered cork which is still soft and springy to this very day.  The cork is branded with “TRADEMARK” at top, a castle tower like image in the middle, and “MADEIRA” at the bottom.  The cork is only stained at the narrow end from the wax.  The cork still smells like sweet old wood and vintage Port.

DC bottle.

DC bottle.

The Washington, DC, bottle is listed as lot #943 for the May 21, 2015, Acker Merrall & Condit Auction from which it was purchased.  It appears in a grouping  of six bottles divided into four lots which is pictured on page 215 of the auction catalog.  The wax capsule appears exactly the same as lot #941 1842 H. M. Borges Terrantez and potentially the same as lot #942 1715 H. M. Borges Terrantez.  You may view the catalog here.

At Zachy’s Spring Auction on May 9, 2014, appears lot #821, a bottle of “Madeira Malvasia Camica 1811” that had “very top shoulder” fill.  I have not seen a picture of this bottle but I suspect “Camica” is actually “Candida” and that the fill implies a Bordeaux-shaped bottle.  On Pinterest, you may find images of the Burgundy shape bottled here and the Bordeaux-shaped bottle here.

A number of old Madeira bottles were recently auctioned off at Christie’s King Street auction on October 22, 2015.  Amongst these bottles is included a collection from “a private cellar on Madeira”.  From this collection comes lot #243, a bottle of 1811 Malvasia Candida that is described as “‘Recorked at O.P. Brothers Private Collection May 2015″. New wax capsule.”  The tasting note continues “Medium sweet pure fruit driven and youthful.  Could this be a glass aged vintage as it has such a pure red fruit character? Seductive, hardly what you expect from a 200 year old wine.”

DC bottle.

DC bottle.

Whether the Christie’s bottle looks like our Washington, DC, bottle is not yet known but the description sounds similar.  I would be curious to learn if the Washington, DC, bottle ultimately came from the O.P. Brothers Collection.  The Washington, DC bottle was decanted the night before and arrived at our dinner table in a decanter.  One sniff of my glass revealed, youthful, ripe fruit that immediately told me this was a different wine than what I tried in New York City.  Indeed, in the mouth the wine was ripe, sweet, youthful, and contained a pure thyme note.  In short, it was enjoyable.  Here is my tasting note.

1811 Malvasia Candida, Madeira
[Washington, DC. Three-part molded Bordeaux bottle, dark green glass, sealed with dark gray wax.  Heavy sediment on bottle.  Very short tapered cork.] Acquired from a private collection Acker Merrall & Condit auction May 21st, 2015, New York.  This was very sweet on the nose and with air, a prominent thyme note came out.  In the mouth this wine was sweet, concentrated, vibrant, with a hint of Big Red flavors and a bit of greenhouse.  There was sweet sugar and lots of thyme flavors.  Way too young to be an 1811 and of the wrong flavor profile.  Nevertheless, whatever was in the bottle, provided a tasty experience. Not Rated.

The night before our Washington, DC, dinner I tasted bottles of 1867 and 1833 Barbeito Bual that had been imported by Mannie Berk (Rare Wine Co.) from Ricardo Freitas (Vinhos Barbeito).  Thus they bore perfect provenance.  Incredibly, the 1811 tasted decades younger than the recently bottled 1867 and 1833!  I can appreciate the need for a new cork, new wax, and perhaps some topping off.  But the Washington, DC, bottle did not taste youthful solely from topping off.  That the Bordeaux-shaped bottles taste different then the Burgundy-shape bottles is acceptable.  But the extreme youth of the wine coupled with the fact that both type of bottlings have the exact same label makes me suspicious.

On a positive note, if you have purchased one of these recently waxed Bordeaux-shaped bottles you probably will not be disappointed.  Our bottle was a big hit, which is saying something because the New York City bottle was the worst of all the Madeiras we tasted that day.