« August 2011 | Main | February 2012 »

November 13, 2011

Creating your own Madeira blend

Ever since starting to collect Madeira wines I had dreamed about creating and maturing my own blend. The initial plans were to buy a small wooden cask, import about 100 liters of Madeira wine and mature the wine in cask for a couple of years. Since the bulk export of Madeira wine is prohibited by European laws these days, the only way todo this today is to buy the wine per bottle. After long talks with friends in the wine producing business, I realized that a very small cask would add a heavy wood flavor to the wine much too strong. The ratio of wine to cask surface would require at least a cask of about 80 liters in volume. As I made plans to buy the cask, I soon found out that this was going to become a very expensive experiment. 80 liters would require about 115 bottles of 0,7 liters of a good quality 10 year old blend, adding up to 115 x 25 Euros = 2875 Euros. Adding a cask of medium quality would make a total of about 3000 Euros. So this project came to a sudden death before it even started.

By accident I found a 10 liter demijohn, when I cleaned out the cellar of my parent’s house. It had a very old-fashioned wicker-case around it with two big handles and so this thing asked for being taken away. The inside was covered with the crusty remains of some old wine and at first it would be very hard to clean the demijohn on the inside. Finally my mother came up with the idea of using strong chlorine bleach to clean it. So I filled the demijohn with a mixture of water and chlorine bleach for 36 hours, after that a high pressure water gun did the rest. Of course you can get new demijohns in all sizes, but since I had the “antique” one at hand, I wanted to put it to use.

Having realized I needed to start at a small scale, at a long weekend in February 2009 I set out with the 10 liter demijohn, 12 bottles of a 10 year old blend and a wide variety of old vintage Madeiras to add certain characteristics that the blend should later have. Like the 1835 Nicolas Brown Madere for acidity, or the 1900 Torreao Boal for a bitter coffee taste. This might sound a little too simple and I admit it took me two weeks of repeated blending of small batches (28 batches of the size of 50ml) before I even came close to what I had wanted in the first place. It took another couple of weekends in March and May and then (with all the limitations of a non-professional) I had finally created something worth repeating on a larger scale. So at the beginning of June I filled the glass bulb with about 10 liters of the MadeiraWineGuide blend. If you take the 10 year old blends with an exact age of 10 years, the medium age of this first version of the blend was 30 years, 29.6 years to be exact. If you take the 10 year old blend as one wine, a total of 7 different wines went into the blend.
It was my strong impression that the small batches of the first blending try-outs always improved with a few weeks of rest. So I planned to let the blend rest for a half a year, then do some fine adjustments if necessary. Since the wine was not in cask further maturing would be minimal of course, but my guess was that it would take some time for the different wines to blend together into a new, harmonious Madeira. Visiting the U.S. in June 2009, I brought a bottle of the blend for Roy Hersh who flattered me by rating the blend with 94 points when tasting it in February 2010.

MadeiraWineGuide blend

Having been encouraged by the positive results I nevertheless wanted to perfect the blend a little more and do some fine-tuning. I had used to add portions of 100ml to the 10 liter total, so that the added wine would be exactly one percent of the whole amount. I certainly do not have a professional palate/nose, but when tasting and comparing a sample taken before the adding of a new wine with the result afterwards I could tell the change. So I stepped down to adding just 50ml (1/2 percent of the total volume) and this worked much better.
Another problem was acidity: Being limited to a 10 liter total I added rather concentrated wines to the blend because I was starting to run out of space in the demijohn. However all these concentrated wines pushed the levels of acidity up to scary levels. I'm an acid freak and I still like the level of acidity in this blend, but I'm afraid I can't add much more.

After adding a few small amounts of different wines, the second version of the blend is made from exactly 10 different wines (counting the 10 YO as one wine). The base is the 10 year old Boal blend from Barbeito, about 8 bottles of it. Other wines in the blend include the Nicolas Brown Madere 1835 for acidity, 1900 Adega de Torreao for a bitter coffee note, Borges 1935 Boal for a molasses finish, 1907 Blandy Boal for vanilla, 1878 Justino Fanal (probably TNM) for orange peel and so on. And by the way, when you count the 10 YO as exactly 10 years, the wine now has an average of 42 years, so I changed the name to 40 year old, and because of the little amounts of wine added, there is still the complete 10 liters left.

Right now I am not sure about what to do with the blend, now that it seems to be finished. Will I just let it rest there in its demijohn or should I bottle it completely and sit in my cellar and congratulate myself for the suddenly stuffed shelves? We will see…

PS: Judging from the auction lists of the huge American Madeira sales like the selling off of Habersham’s cellar and others, it seems to have been common practice to save the “lees” of old Madeira wines and collect them in demijohns. Even though this was surely not for the reason of blending, it still gave the owner the opportunity to gain another few bottles of Madeira wine. It might well be, that the lees of different wines were put into different demijohns, depending on a rough classification of sweetness or character. Nowadays you would have to be a heavy Madeira wine consumer to be able to produce enough Madeira wine leftovers to even start a demijohn with “lees”, but why not start at a smaller level with a single empty bottle and save the leftovers from a tasting?