August 06, 2010

Edward Vernon Harcourt: A sketch of Madeira 1851

The following text has been taken from Edward Vernon Harcourt’s “A sketch of Madeira”, published in 1851. The chapter V, titled “On the agriculture of Madeira” gives a precise overview of all the island’s cultivated plants, including vines. Harcourt seems to be well informed with the only exception that the Terrantez grape is not mentioned in his book. I have no explanation for this, especially since the Terrantez grape was commonly regarded one of the best grapes for making Madeira wine even though it was difficult to cultivate. It is a strange coincidence that in the same year Harcourt published his “A sketch of Madeira”, Oidium infected the vines in 1851. Before the wine industry had recovered, the second plague Phylloxera hit the island in 1872. As we know today, the wine industry took decades, better centuries, to fully recover.

A sketch of Madeira
By Edward Vernon Harcourt, published 1851
Part of chapter V
On the agriculture of Madeira
Pages 94 to 99

Cultivation of the vine
The staple of the agriculture of Madeira, and the principal object which occupies is population, is he wine. Vines were formerly planted at a depth of only twenty inches, and sometimes, though never generally, by means of a plough. The instrument was dragged over and over the same ground, till the required depth was attained. Such a practice has long since ceased; indeed, there are very few places in the island, from its rocky nature, where a plough could penetrate twenty inches into the soil. The vine in the south is now always planted in trenches, varying from four to six feet in depth. The depth of the trench is regulated by the nature of the soil. The object in cutting so deep is to allow the roots of the vine to penetrate sufficiently far through the fresh turned earth, to prevent their being dried by the effects of the sun, and a long-continued season of drought, when water for irrigation is scarce. Lumps of pedra molle, and other stones, are placed at the bottom of the trench to keep the earth loose, and prevent the roots of the vines from reaching the stiff soil below. The trenches are filled up slantingly one-third of their depth, the bacello, or cutting, never being planted lower than two-thirds of the depth opened. The new roots shoot mainly from the upper part of the bacello, and at no great distance from the surface of the ground: the part below the roots decays and rots off. When rooted vines are planted they are not put in so deep, although the ground is trenched in the same manner as for bacellos.

Different soils
The names given to the different kinds of soils in which the vine is planted are saibro (decomposed red tufa), cascalho (stony soil), pedra molle (an arenaceous soil, of decomposed yellow tufa), and massapes (clay resulting from the decomposition of dark tufa). The vine lasts the longest in saibro and cascalho. In pedra molle and massapes it produces at first more freely, but the wine is weaker in body, and the plant is soon worn out. The best soil, both for wine and the endurance of the vine, is saibro with a mixture of stones, the plant being always partial to stony or rocky ground.

Best wine districts
The fines wines of Madeira are produced in the parishes of Camara de Lobos, Sao Martinho, and Sao Pedro; in the lower parts of Santo Antonio, the Estreito de Camara de Lobos, Campanario, Sao Roque, and Sao Concalo. The upper parts of the last five parishes produce only second and third-rate wines. The finest Malmsey and Sercial are from the Faja dos Padres, at the foot of Cabo Girao, and from the Paul and Jardim do Mar.
The best vine to graft on is the stock of Malmsey. The best vine to pant in the south is the Verdelho. It is obtained either in the north or from Curral das Freiras.
The length of time that a vineyard will last depends as much on the cultivator as on the quality of his soil. Where the farmer is careless, or intent only on his bemfeitorias, the vines are often huddled into the ground close together, when they often grow up weak and sickly, yield comparatively but little fruit, and die off in eight or ten years, unless forced to exist a few years longer by parsimonious doses of manure. A prudent cultivator will plant his vines ten or twelve palmos [a palmo is about 8 to 9 English inches, depending on the area of the island] apart, when in the same ground, with proper treatment, the plants will yield better, and last from fifty to a hundred years.
The vines, excepting in the north of the island, where they luxuriate wild on the branches of the chestnut trees, are trained on a sort of trellis-work made of the Anundo donax, to which they are bound by split shoots of willow. This framework, when the leaves are off, has the appearance, as you look down upon it from the hills, of nets spread on the ground. One or more walks intersect each vineyard. Along these walks, wooden pillars of about seven feet high are erected at regular distances, to support frames which slope down from them on each side to within two feet of the ground. At this elevation the reeds extend over the whole vineyard. There is barely room for men to creep under these lattice-works either for the purpose of weeding, pruning, or gathering the grapes.
An alqueire (15,625 square palmos) of ground, being soil of the best description, and well cultivated, will produce in an average year from twelve to fifteen barrels of wine, of which twelve go to the pipe. If the soil is of medium quality. And well cultivated, it will produce from eight to ten barrels. Ground of either the best or medium quality in bad hands will not procure more than one or two barrels. In bad land, of course, no vines are planted.
The exportation of wine from Madeira and Porto Santo during the last three years has averaged 6738 pipes, whereas the amount grown has averaged 15,887 pipes. This leaves the large amount of 9149 pies annually consumed in the island, or converted to brandy. The largest amount is drunk by boatmen and burroqueros, who spend about one third of their means in a liquor, which comes under the denomination of low wine. Of the wine exported from the island one-third may be considered of the finest quality, one-third of a medium quality, and one-third as low wine. The first cost of the wine at the press (before fermentation) has this year been from £2 10s to £12 10s per pipe.

Kinds of wines
The names of the different kinds of wine produced in Madeira are – Malvasia, Sercial, Tinta, Boal, Verdelho, Bastardo, Negrinho, and Maroto, all made from grapes bearing those names. The three last are seldom seen, and the Negrinho and Maroto are a bad species of grapes, always used in the manufacture of vinho verde, or refuse wine. The wine called Madeira is made principally from the Verdelho grape, with an admixture of Tinta and Boal: the first gives it body, the two latter flavour. The ordinary Bastardo is a black grape, which yields only a light-coloured wine; the Bastardo branco is rare. The Tinta, or, as it is sometimes called, Negra molle, gives a dark colour to new wines. When it is made into wine by itself, the husk is separated from the stalk and fermented with the juice of the grape, otherwise the Tinta wine would be wanting in the peculiarities of colour and flavour which distinguish it.

Manufacture of wine
To make fine wine it is essential that the grapes should be fully ripe. The ripeness is judged of by the softness of the bunches, which lose their rigidity when the sap ceases to enter them. All unripe grapes, and those of inferior sorts, must be carefully picked out and put aside for the vinho verde. When the wine press is full the grapes are trodden, and then pressed under the beam of the lagar (wine press). The must is carried away in goat-skins and transferred to casks, there to undergo fermentation. When the violence of the fermentation is over, that is to say, in ten or twelve days, it is approved practice to throw into each cask two or three pounds of powdered gypsum, stirring it up in the wines daily for the next ten days. The gypsum is said to take up the watery particles of the wine, and prevent its becoming ropy: the fermentation then gradually subsides, and at the end of six or eight weeks the lees are racked off, and a gallon or two of brandy added to each pipe.
Madeira wines are considerably advanced and matured by heat. It is a common thing to give these wines a passage to the East or West Indies, before they are landed in England.
The heat of a ship’s hold in India, or of a sugar-laden ship in Jamaica, sometimes exceeds 110° of Fahrenheit. By some, the wine is ripened at home in stoves; the abuse of which, by giving a false appearance of age to inferior wines, has at various times been prejudicial to the trade of the island.
The countrymen calculate that one-tenth of the produce of a vineyard is destroyed by flies, lizards, and rats.