February 10, 2007

The Tasting of Madeira Wine

Some general thoughts about Madeira wine tasting
To be able to assess a wine most objectively, it is important to mind a few things. The setting has to provide you with the best possible conditions for tasting. That means that the room should be well lighted with a rather neutral white and indirect lighting. You will need a white background to be able to judge the color of the wine. If the tablecloth is not white, some white paper or cardboard can do. The room should be free of smells because the excessive use of perfume or smoking will impair your ability to judge the bouquet of the wine. To drink some water between the different wines can help to neutralize the palate. Also a little dry bread or crackers in between will be fine. It makes no sense at all to eat something with a strong taste when it comes to the tasting of different wines. So any cheese, dried tomatoes, olives, hors d'oevres and other things should wait until after the tasting. The glass should be a plain glass of a medium size to provide you with enough room to swirl the wine. The best shape is a tulip like glass to concentrate the volatile aromas in the opening. Madeira does not need refrigeration, in fact it should never be refrigerated before tasting, since this would slow down the evaporation of aromas from the wine. It is crucial to decant old Madeira wine at least 24 hours before the tasting, especially to get rid of the sometimes rather high volatile acidity (VA). Even a cheap 5YO blend will benefit from three hours in the decanter. Simply pulling out the cork will not do the job. The decanting into the decanter and back into the bottle after a few hours will be enough in most cases, but some old Madeiras, especially after a long time in bottle will need more than that.

Even though some aspects of the color, nose and palate are quite unique to Madeira wine, there are some general characteristics in a wine that can be assessed. These will lead to an overall impression of the quality of the wine. The following characteristics and many of the aromas further down are quoted from Alex Liddell's "Madeira", extended with some aspects of my personal experience with old Madeira wines. Taste is a very personal thing I know, but in most of the tastings I have been, it was surprising (well, was it?) to see, that most participants could agree on the order of rank of the wines. So there must be some basic aspects that make some wines better than others. And as I have said many times before, any reader who really wants to go deep into Madeira wine, especially with tasting and tasting notes just can not do without Alex' "bible"; please refer to the bibliography section of this website for more details.

pale : dark
opaque : bright

high on VA : low on VA
simple : complex

light : weighty
dry : sweet
fruitless : fruity
flavorless : flavorsome
high acidity : low acidity
coarseness : finesse
simple : complex
unbalanced : balanced
short finish : long finish
simple finish : complex finish

Apart from these general characteristics there are a few characteristics typical to Madeira wine (and some other fortified wines too). These typical features need some explanation:

Volatile acidity (VA)
Volatile acidity is best described (in my humble opinion) as a distinct smell of an acetone-like or paint-thinner-like spirity vinegar. While just a little of VA can lead to an extra dimension and enrichment of the nose and even the palate of a wine, to much of it will be rather unpleasant. As mentioned above, decanting helps with VA. Some people are more sensitve to VA than others, so the wine really needs to be decanted well in advance. Swirling the wine in the glass will bring out any remaining VA again. Volatile acidity or acetic acid is produced by a certain bacteria called "acetobacter" that lives best at 40°Celsius/100°Fahrenheit and oxidizes alcohol to acetic acid. Given the fact that Madeira wine has lots of alcohol and is heated during the estufagem or the canteiro process, it is not surprising that some Madeira wines have a rather high volatile acidity.

Non-volatile acidity = acidity
Madeira is a rather acidic wine. Keep in mind that the Sercial grape is called "Esgana cao", dog strangler, on the Portuguese mainland. Especially with a long concentration in cask, this can sometimes lead to an almost unbearable acidity. Four different acids make up most of the non-volatile acidity: tartric acid, citric acid, malic acid and lactic acid. The first three acids are predominant in Madeira wine. In some white wines and in most red wines, the so-called malolactic fermentation will lead to a reduction of malic acid and an increase in lactic acid. This does not change the chemically detectable overall acidity, but will lead to a softer and rounder impression of the wine. Madeira wine of course never undergoes malolactic fermentation, so the acidic character of the wine remains. There are other wines that exceed Madeira wine in total chemically detectable acidity (like German Rieslings, especially icewine), but only few wines are percepted as acidic as Madeira wine. As with VA, decanting also helps with non-volatile acidity, since some time with air helps the other aromas to develop and thereby leads to a more complex impression of the palate. As long as the acidity is counter-balanced with enough fruit and/or sweetness, high acidity will not be a problem.

Because of the high alcohol content of about 20% of volume, Madeira wine is sometimes judged as spirity by people who are more sensitve to alcohol. A higher amount of alcohol leads to more weight and body, as long as it is well integrated. With prolonged age even Madeira can become dried out and the impression of a spirity wine increases because little flavor is left to balance the high amount of alcohol, especially since the amount of alcohol increases with long cask ageing. Also of course there are faulty bottles that can display all sorts of unpleasant smells and flavors. The alcohol of these wines often gives an impression of a paint thinner like aroma.

Sotolon [3-hydroxy-4,5-dimethyl-2(5H)-furanone] is an organic compound from the family of lactones and has a strong aroma of fenugreek or lovage at higher levels and caramel or burnt sugar at lower levels. Madeira wine is the wine with the highest levels of sotolon (or sometimes written sotolone) anywhere in the world, so sotolon adds to the unique characteristics of Madeira wine. The levels of Sotolon rise with cask ageing, so older wines display more sotolon. Also Madeira wines with a higher residual sugar content have higher levels of sotolon.

Madeira wine as an aphrodisiac?
Over the last fifteen years I have heard numerous stories about the aphrodisiac-like effects of Madeira wine. The general impression was, that even when you subtracted the effect of the alcohol itself, there was still a considerable ability to turn on people in an erotic way. In the beginning I though these were only stories, but after a discussion thread in the FTLOP-MWG forum, I set out to do some more research. If it was indeed a feature of Madeira wine to arouse people more than other wines, then it had to be attributed to the aromatic profile of Madeira wine. Some other fortified wines have the same alcohol content and some wines even have more alcohol, so alcohol alone could not explain this. Reading in an old pharmacists book about herbs for kitchen use, I came about an entire chapter on lovage. And this might well be the solution: Madeira wine has the highest amount of sotolon, an aromatic lactone that is present in lovage. As the name suggests, lovage has been used for centuries to arouse peoples sexual desires. In most of the different European languages lovage carries a name associated with its arousing capabilities. In German it is called "Liebstöckel" (love sticklet), in Czech its name is libeček, and the Polish name is lubczyk, both meaning 'love herb' and the Swedish name is libbsticka (love stick) again. In the middle ages girls from Franconia carried a small bouquet of loveage under their dress to bewitch their lovers. Loveage was also supposed to protect against evil sorcery. So in general I get the impression that these 'special qualities' of Madeira wine (if they really do exist) can largely be attributed to the unique aroma-profile, especially to the high content of sotolon.

In the following some features are described to look out for in a Madeira wine. Especially with the nose and the palate it can be helpful to really focus on just one of the features to try to detect it in the wine. Experience of course will help you a lot. But even without much experience, it can be helpful to memorize the taste of candied orange peel for an example, focus on that taste, take a sip of wine and try to find it in the wine.

Often found colors in a Madeira wine are tawny (like in a tawny Port), orange, mahogany (a rather cold brown, sometimes almost a little purple), iodine (a warmer color then mahogany), bronze, amber, gold, even yellow and green. Of course the color should be judged against a white background. Some white paper will do the job. Looking at the surface of the wine in an angle that the light is reflected by the wine can give you some reflexes of a different color. The rim of the wine in the angled glass can also show a different color.

Shades of pleasure.

Shades of pleasure.

Nose and palate
Often found aromas in the bouquet of a Madeira wine can be devided into groups. From a strictly biological point of view the ability of the tongue to taste is very limited. Most of the tasting, especially of the more complex aromas is done in the nose. So it makes sense to describe the aromas of nose and palate together. Some aromas are more volatile than others and this will lead to a stronger impression in the bouquet. But of course the aroma will also be present in the wine when tasted in the mouth, even though it may not be as evident as in the nose. Vice versa this is the case with the not so volatile aromas that will have a stronger impact on the palate than the nose. Swirling the wine in the glass will bring out the more volatile aromas as well as the volatile acidity. Chewing the wine and breathing in though the wine-filled mouth will do the same. After you swallowed the wine it is worth waiting some time, since the fading of the taste can bring out some not so evident notes that were before covered by the stronger aromas. Also working with your tongue into the far corners of the mouth can sometimes be surprising.

The different groups of aromas and flavors are:

Wood flavors
Pinewood, eucalyptus, oak.

Phenolic flavors
Vanilla, turpentine, varnish, balsamico, martini rosso, coconut.

Caramel flavors
Black treacle, toffee, barley sugar (an old fashioned english hard candy made by boiling down sugar with an extract of barley added), honey, malt, coffee, chocolate, root beer, caramel, maple syrup.

Cinnamon, cloves, saffron, pepper, nutmeg, lovage, curry.

Nutty flavors
Almonds, walnuts, pistachios.

Dried fruit flavors
Apricots, plums, raisins, figs, peaches, orange, lemon.

Smokey flavors
Ash, burnt coffee, toasted bread, roasted onions.

Other flavors
Yeast, seaweed/brine, salt.

Of course these are just some of the many aromas and flavors to be detectable in Madeira wine. That is what tasting in a group is all about, to get some different ideas and opinions and then work with these. So this is the place to say thanks to Stefan for the discovery of Martini Rosso in an old Malmsey in 2001 and to Eric LeVine for the roasted onions comment at the 2007 Seattle Madeira Wine Tasting!

Cask aged Madeira vs. bottle aged Madeira
Bottle aged Madeira wines are something that had long haunted me. Ever after having read Alex Liddell’s “Madeira”, at the end of chapter 12, I wondered if there really was a difference between bottle aged and cask aged wines. For years I had tried to find the same wine from different bottlings, at least 20 years apart. I had tasted two bottles of the Barbeito 1834 Malvasia and the 1863 Bual, about 15 years apart, but I had not been able to tell the difference. May be my palate had not been finely tuned enough or the difference in age had not been big enough? After all what are 15 years for a wine 170 years old?
But in 2007 I purchased a bottle of D’Oliveiras 1922 Bual at auction that carried a JNV paper seal, indicating it had been bottled prior to 1980. I had another bottle of the same wine, bottled in 2005, so I hoped that 25+ years would make a difference this time – and it did.
Of course you have to consider the fact, that the JNV bottle had been stored in a private cellar, so these storing conditions might not have been perfect, but after all it is Madeira wine, so let’s hope it was not severely affected in any way.
The bottle aged wine seemed very much like a smaller brother of the cask aged wine. It was not as concentrated as the cask aged wine which spent about 30% more time in wood. The cask aged wine was richer, opened up a lot faster and was easier to drink being rounded with very nice toffee, butterscotch and crème brulee notes. The bottle aged wine took a whole day to open up, had much more volatile acidity and was leaner; more subdued, but at the same time left a more elegant expression.
Before that, I had thought that all the talk about bottle aged Madeiras was may be just about a difference in concentration, due to the extra time in wood for the cask aged brother. But –at least from this single experience- the difference is obviously more.
I definitely preferred the cask aged wine. Those 25+ years of extra time spent in wood turned a good wine into an outstanding wine, because of more concentration, more depth, and more different layers of aroma.