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Roy Hersh's Great Seattle Madeira Tasting 1/2007

Roy Hersh, one of the world's leading Port and Madeira wine experts and editor of www.fortheloveofport.com certainly kicked off the new year in style. Being a great Madeira wine lover for a long time he organized a remarkable tasting in Seattle that will set the standard for years to come. I consider myself very lucky for having been able to attend to this tasting. The event took place at Kaspar's Restaurant and was crowned by a delicious dinner cooked by chef Kaspar Donier. The table wine line-up itself would have been good for a major tasting. The people participating in this event had not only generously brought their old Madeira gems. They also went really deep into their cellars and dug out some very impressive wines for the dinner, covering southern France, the Bordeaux region, California and Washington, Australia and Germany. This Madeira wine tasting was perfect in any way, except maybe for the tasting glasses for the Madeira wine, but that was only a minor dissapointment. The staff of Kaspar's, Jaci and Dennis, poured the wine perfectly and were very helpful.

Roy had divided the tasting into three flights and after a short introduction from everyone attending, the tasting started with a 1862 D'Oliveira Sercial. In general the tasting featured 17 old Madeira wines, the youngest being 80 years old, the oldest being 180 years old. With a medium age of the wines of 133,2 years, we tasted our way through 2264 years of Madeira wine history. Each flight ended with a discussion round and there was plenty of room for questions, opinions and comments which was very helpful to put the wines into the right perspective. During the tasting you would occasionally leave the room for a break. Entering the room again, the power of the aromatic smell was so intense, it made you believe being in the cellar of one of the Madeira wine producers. In fact there was some discussion about the wine's qualities as a possible perfume, because of its wonderful nose. In a paper accompanying the 1850 D'Oliveira Verdelho they tell you that some victorian ladies used old Madeira wine as a perfume on their handkerchiefs.

The impressive line-up at the Seattle Madeira tasting.

The impressive line-up at the Seattle Madeira tasting.

The following tasting notes appear in the original order of the flights. You will also find them in the chapter "tasting notes", sorted in chronological order of the vintage year. The overall quality of these Madeiras was just overwhelming and it is only by comparison that some of the wines seem to do just a little better than the others. I am sure however, that each wine had it been tasted on its own, would have been perfect for itself. I will not award points to these old beauties, that would seem unfair to me. However I will pick my least favorite and the winner of each flight.

First flight:
1862 D'Oliveira Sercial
What a beginning! This wine was a little cloudy, displaying a iodine color with a little red in the center. Lots of glycerin there. The nose had some volatile acidity that did not bother at all. In fact many of the following wines had quite a lot of VA and I liked that. Other aromas I could detect in the nose were burnt coffee and orange peel. The palate was quite explosive with lots of acidity, counterbalanced by some richness and a nice roasted coffee taste that seemed a little atypical for Sercial. The finish was very long and bitter with an ashy taste to it. For me this was the better of the two Sercials and the second best wine in the first flight.
1898 Barbeito Sercial
This Sercial came from the Afonso family in Camara de Lobos and was bought by Barbeitos and bottled in 2002. The wine had at least spent 80 years in wood and had then been transferred to demijohns. The color was just a little lighter than the 1862 D'Oliveira Sercial, being more of a golden tawny with golden rim. The nose displayed some burnt toffee and a muddy saltiness that seemed a little to much like wet cardboard. I do not think that this was a bottle stink because the wine had only been bottled 4 years ago and this muddiness was only just detectable. The palate was a little lighter and less acidic than the 1862 D'Oliveira Sercial, some nuttiness there and a nice bitter finish.
1850 D'Oliveira Verdelho
This wine had spent 138 years in cask before being bottled in 1988. The bottle had stencils on one side and a very colorful label of the German importer on the other side. After having been opend and decanted the day before there was a little bottle stink, but it cleared up well. The wine was very cloudy, probably because of the recent transport by plane into the U.S. just a week ago. The color was a nice medium dark mahogany with tawny rim, again lots of glycerin on the glass. The nose had quite a lot of volatile acidity and was very rich, with toffee, dried fruits and some caramel. On the palate this wine was very rich, with a good sweetness and well balanced acidity. There were also toffee, caramel, coffee and orange peel, all very harmonious but multilayered. The finish was slightly bitter at the end, very long and just a little hot. This wine was my personal favorite of the first flight. For me this was also one of the top three wines of the tasting!
1885 Barbeito Verdelho
This wine had a clear and bright mahogany color with slightly orange rim and lots of glycerin on the glass. The nose for me was the most favorite of all the Verdelhos because it was very accessable, very mild, round and harmonious, no VA, but a nice toffee flavor to it. On the contrary the palate seemed to be rather one-dimensional and light, with toffee, very little orange peel and a rather short finish. In my opinion this was the weakest wine of the first flight.
1900 D'Oliviera Verdelho
The 1900 Verdelho displayed a clean mahogany color with a iodine rim and just a little glycerin on the glass. The nose had some volatile acidity, ginger bread and some nice burnt flavors to it. In the mouth there was a pleasant balance of sweetness and acidity and some coffee, but the wine lacked a little depth. The finish was rather short.
1912 D'Olivieira Verdelho
This Verdelho came from the year the Titanic sunk. When tasting old Madeira wines it is sometimes difficult to shut out the historic background of the wines and the fascination that arises from it. The color was a medium dark mahogany with tawny rim. In the nose you could detect sweet dried fruits with ginger bread, but it seemed not quite clean to me. On the palate there was coffee and then some chocolate, good balance of sweetness and acidity and a nice rootbeer flavor, but just at the end you had a subdued taste like decaying wood.

The liquid gold of old Madeira wine.

The liquid gold of old Madeira wine.

Second flight:
1927 D'Oliveira Bastardo
This Bastardo wine came from the Adegas de Torreao in Funchal. After the owner Vasco Lojas had died and none of his descendants wanted to take over the company, D'Olivieras bought most of the Torreao stock of old wines. The low yielding Bastardo grape seems to be extinct nowadays and only a few vintage wines are still around. This wine displayed a slightly red iodine color and in the nose you had dried fruits, some coffee and I also detected a strange almost strawberry like flavor. The palate showed some bitter toffee aromas, coffee again with some sweet richness but then a dry finish of medium length. I do admit that I was a little dissapointed because I had expected more from this particular wine.
1827 Quinta do Serrado Boal
For me this was definitely the winner of the second flight! This wine from Camara de Lobos had been matured in oak casks until 1935 and had then been put into demijohns. Just before the sale at Chistie's in 1989 it been bottled in 1988. The color was a brilliant dark mahogany with tawny rim. In the nose this wine was all vanilla and syrupy molasses, very rich, rounded and harmonious. On the palate this Boal was super concentrated, with maximum acidity yet well balanced with considerable sweetness. There were lots of vanilla again, toffee, brown sugar and maple syrup. The multilayered finish just went on and on and on. For me this was one of the top three wines of the tasting!
1863 Barbeito Bual
The color was a clear iodine with tawny rim. The nose started with a little vanilla and dried fruits, but then some vegetable-like rather dirty smell with rotten strawberries. In the mouth you had some vanilla again, also toffee and balsamic vinegar that also showed in the rather short finish. Clearly this was the weakest wine in the second flight.
1903 D'Oliveira Bual
This wine had a dark mahogany color with orange rim. The nose was very strong and harmoniuos, vanilla, toffee and a little beef bouillon. The palate was complex with vanilla, toffee and dried fruits, powerful and still seemed a little raw like it needed even more time to develop (and that after more than 100 years...). The long and powerful finish displayed some bitter coffee aromas at the end and seemed also a little raw. Well, may be it does need more time?
1907 Blandy Bual
This 1907 Boal was of a dark mahogany color, just a little darker than the D'Oliveira 1903. The nose also displayed some darker aromas, more on the roasted side with coffee, vanilla and toffee but very soft and rounded. The palate was very accessable, easy to drink with good acidity but very harmonious, then some vanilla and butter fudge, very creamy and soft.

The tasting group at work.

The tasting group at work.

Third flight:
1846 Blandy Terrantez
I was a little worried at first to see this wine so cloudy. It had a medium mahogany color with muddy orange rim and some glycerin on the glass. The nose was very high on VA but rounded and harmonious with brown sugar and some orange, very complex. The palate was amazing again, overwhelmingly powerful (exactly like in 2003 when I had recorked this bottle), very much acidity with brown sugar, lemon fruit and a vanilla richness that lead to an almost sweet impression. This wine was all about concentration, with an extremely long and slightly smokey finish. A very concentrated and powerful wine and for me the winner of this flight as well as one of the top three wines of the tasting!
1830 Quinta do Serrado Malmsey
This wine had a brilliant iodine color with a slightly redish center, a little lighter than the other Malmseys. The nose showed vanilla, toffee, some figs and was very rounded. On the palate you had a very impressive balance of power between acidity and sweetness, together with toffee, some leathery aromas and concentrated brown sugar. The finish was very long and I liked this wine a lot and gave it the second place in this flight.
1834 Barbeito Malvasia
This is the oldest wine of Barbeitos now available in Funchal after they bottled up all of the 1795 Terrantez. The color is of a medium tawny, with a strange chemical nose that had marmelade, honey and dried fruit. The strange note would not clear and I think Roy hit it best with calling it an artificial "plastic" note. The taste was rich with coffee and toffee, but also had a strange quality to it, something oily, leathery, artificial. May be this was a faulty bottle? I have had this wine several times before and it can definitely do much better.
1836 Acciaioly Malmsey
Unfortunately Acciaioly went out of business half a century ago, so their wines get harder to find all the time. This Malmsey had an intense medium dark tawny color. The nose displayed marmalade flavors with cherry and a little soapiness that did not really bother. The palate showed a high concentration, lots of toffee aroma and a wonderful creamy, almost oily finish.
1900 Barbeito Malvasia
This wine was a little cloudy from transport. The color was a rather cold mahogany and the nose had a strong marmalade flavor with some strawberry and tomato to it. It tasted very powerful with lots of vanilla and brown sugar, very concentrated with rich sweetness and good acidity. The finish was just a little hot.
1875 D'Oliveira Moscatel
The only Moscatel in the tasting showed a dark iodine, almost mahogany color. The nose was rather subdued, none of the typical Moscatel flavors, a little dried fruit and raisins only. The palate was very sweet and concentrated, good acidity, a little cacao and cadied orange peel. The finish was rather short. Compared to other desert Moscatels like moscatel de Setubal I wonder were all the typical Moscatel flavors went.

Empty bottles and glasses after the tasting, but the discussion went on.

Empty bottles and glasses after the tasting, but the discussion went on.

As a summary I was surprised that many of the wines had so much volatile acidity, even after being decanted a day in advance. One can not put enough emphasis on the importance of early decanting when it comes to old Madeira wines, especially with a long time in bottle. The Verdelhos were a positive surprise for me (because I usually go for the Boals), and I was really elated (again) to see just how good the Terrantez was. We had a discussion going on, why the shippers and growers would not replant the Terrantez grape, because even though it is difficult and not very lucrative to cultivate, Madeira wine seems to be at its best with this particular grape. The Bastardo wine was a minor dissapointment for me, but probably just because I had expected more of this wine. And in my opinion as with other tastings before Malmsey (or Malvasia) prooved to be not the ideal grape for the beginning Madeira wine enthusiast. Even though it is widely regarded as the most typical Madeira grape, I find it rather difficult to analyze and I think that Boals and Verdelhos have the easier access.

Peter Reutter and Roy Hersh at the Seattle Madeira tasting.

Peter Reutter and Roy Hersh at the Seattle Madeira tasting.

I would like to express my gratitude to all the wonderful people involved with this event. Thank you Roy for organizing this outstanding tasting. The depth of vintages, grape varieties and producers will make this the standard for years to come. Also I wanted to thank all the people attending to this very special event for their generosity not only with their Madeira wines but also with their table wines. A big thank you goes to the staff at Kaspar's, especially to chef Kaspar Donier for his outstanding cooking. Last but not least a big thank you goes to my brother Hans for driving me home...

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