Grape Varieties

The grape variety indicated on the label does not only name the grape that the wine was made from, but also indicates a certain taste. There is the dry Sercial, the mild Verdelho, the medium sweet Bual and the rich and oily Malmsey. Terrantez and Bastardo are usually medium dry but difficult to obtain these days since very little is grown on the island. If one of the before mentioned grapes is mentioned on the label, the contents have to be at least 85% of this variety. The Tinta Negra Mole, a red grape, is not mentioned on the label and can have tastes from dry to sweet, depending on the elaboration of the wine.

 

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Just until a few years ago there were noble and good varieties, but today you speak of traditional varieties. These are: Sercial, Verdelho, Boal or Bual, Malvasia or Malmsey, Terrantez and Bastardo. Moscatel, Listrão and others are also called traditional.

All the above-mentioned grapes are European varieties from the Vitis Vinifera family. Most of the lesser grapes, planted after Oidium and Phylloxera are from the American Vitis Labrusca or Vitis Aestivaldis family. Their main members are: Jacquez, Herbemont, Isabella, Othello and Noah. A simple table wine is produced from these grapes and sold on the island only, since the European Community does not allow export of wines from Vitis Labrusca. The strawberry-like taste or so-called fox-taste makes the distinction to the real Madeira made from Vitis Vinifera very easy.

 

Sercial

The English name Sercial is used for the Portuguese Cerceal. Sercial was not grown very much after Phylloxera, but the number of vineyards with Sercial is growing again. They are the vineyards with the highest altitude, situated in Seixal and Ribeira da Janela on the northern coast of the island. Some people say that because of the high level of acidity Sercial is the same grape as the German Riesling, but this is certainly wrong from an ampelographic point of view.

The grapes are very compact, about 18cm long, weighing 170grams. This variety ripens late, producing a wine with volatile fruit and good, sometimes burning acidity. The medium-size leaves have a hairy undersurface and are made of three main parts in the middle with one smaller part to each side.

The high level of acidity makes Sercial almost undrinkable in its youth. In the 16th century, this wine was called "Esgana Cão" - dog-strangler. To obtain a maximum aroma as a counterpart, Sercial is harvested as the last of the grapes, often as late as the beginning of October. Sercial has to mature for a long time, before it is drinkable. The minimum of twenty years in cask for vintages will just be enough to soften the piercing acidity. Once this wine has found its balance, it makes a perfect aperitif but it can also hold its own very well. On the island, Sercial is often served with soup, nuts, crackers or other snacks. The cocktail "Madeira on the Rocks" is made of 2/3 dry Madeira of a lesser quality and 1/3 Campari. Sercial also goes well after Champagne.

 

Verdelho

Verdelho is also a white grape, the taste being medium dry, tasting between Sercial and Bual. Just like the other Castas Nobres it was very little grown until 1980, when it began being planted again. Verdelho, also known as Gouveio in Portugal, gives a medium dry wine. The grape is also cultivated in Australia. There also is a red variety of Verdelho, the Verdelho Tinto. Verdelho is grown on the south side of the island from Funchal west to Estreito de Câmara de Lobos. On the north side it is grown in the more sheltering pergola style in Ribeira de Janela and São Vicente.

The grapes are larger than Sercial, about 20cm long. They are good table grapes and give a mild wine with slightly nutty flavor, becomming more and more dry as it matures. The vine is very strong and relatively high and difficult to cultivate. The leaves are of medium size with small hairs on both surfaces.

Verdelho is the main ingredient of a medium dry light wine called "Rainwater" which is very popular in the United States. The cheaper qualities are made from Tinta Negra Mole. The legend around the name tells that the contents of a shipment to Savannah, Georgia, were diluted when a heavy rain hit the casks still standing on the beach. The recipient of the shipment liked the lighter taste and ordered more.

Verdelho is also used to make the Atlantis White, one of the two official table wines made on the island.

 

Bual

Bual is the English name for the Portuguese Boal. Bual is a white variety producing a medium sweet wine. The name was used for a whole group of grapes but today is usually connected with the Bual de Madeira. Grown on the north side around São Vicente and on the south side at Campanário and Câmara de Lobos, it took over for Malmsey in many vineyards.

The grapes are large, heavy and are good table grapes because of their sweet aroma. The medium sized vine has three-part leaves like the Sercial.

Bual is a good start for those having their first experience with Madeira wine. It is medium sweet but not to sticky, very aromatic with some acidity balancing the sweetness.

 

Malmsey

Malmsey is the most famous Madeira wine for sure. The English name Malmsey is used for the white Malvasia grape which has its roots in the Greek islands. Malvasia, or more precise, Malvasia Candida spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and went down in numbers in the Baroque period. However, around the world sweet and fortified wines are still made from Malvasia.

The large grapes with small elliptic berries weigh up to 400 grams and are grown on high and solid vines. The grapes are liked for their sweet aroma as table grapes. The variety ripens fast but can stay on the vine for a long time as they do not easily rot. The vineyards are the lowest in altitude, about 250 m above sea level. The grapes are grown in São Jorge and Santana on the north coast and in Câmara de Lobos and Estreito de Câmara de Lobos on the south coast. The leaves are made of five parts equal in size.

There are many stories around Malmsey which was exported as early as the 15th century. On the European continent the widely grown Malvasia of the middle ages had already found many friends like Martin Luther and minnesinger Oswald von Wolkenstein. In times when sugar was not known, this golden and sweet liquid sun fascinated the people. When later the more robust Madeira Malmsey entered the market, it was a complete success. It combined sweetness and aroma with good keeping and easy handling like no other wine.

In 1478 the Duke of Clarence preferred death by drowning himself in a cask of Malmsey to the death by sword. In the works of William Shakespeare's you can find many hints to Malmsey. In "Henry IV." Poins accuses the Prince of Wales to have sold his soul for a glass of Malmsey and a chicken leg. One of John Falstaff’s drinking friends is named after his Malmsey-reddened nose. Even Napoleon, stopping over on the island on his way into exile on St. Helena in 1815, took some Malmsey to brighten his days. Before on his military operations he had also carried some Malmsey with him. In the 19th century Malmsey really came en vogue. There was the "Morning Malmsey" to begin the day and many other rituals revolving around the golden wine. Even today, long after Oidium and Phylloxera, a good Malmsey crowns a perfect meal like no other wine. It also makes a good vino da meditazione. The combination with coffee, cookies or nuts is classical, as is the taste together with a very good bitter chocolate. But also on its own, Malmsey itself is an excellent desert. António Batalha Reis said: An elixir to be drunken by the gods, no drink for mere mortals!

 

Terrantez

This white, medium dry variety is hardly grown anymore. You can still find it in vintages or soleras.

 

Bastardo

This variety is still widely grown in Portugal and is identically with the French Trousseau. It is also a grape in the Douro valley used for Port. It is the only red grape among the Castas Nobres and you can only find it in old vintages and soleras.

 

Moscatel

Moscatel is the white wine of the Moscatel of Alexandria grape, counted among the castas boas. It is apparently not longer grown, but you can still find it in some old vintages. Pereira D´Oliveira has a 1900 Moscatel vintage that was still available in 2000.

 

Listrão

Listrão is one of the authorized varieties for Madeira wine and is cultivated in small quantities on the neighboring island of Porto Santo. Barros e Sousa makes a five year old fruity wine of Listrão.

 

Old Wine

This does not name a grape variety but a vintage that does not consist of one single grape variety as the rules of the IVM say. This happens, when a year was good enough to declare it as a vintage but the yields of the different varieties were not enough to put them in cask and mature them at an affordable cost. In this case, as an example Bual and Malmsey will be matured together as "Old Wine" since the regulations don't know a Bual-Malmsey vintage. Sometimes Tinta is added as well.

 

Tinta Negra Mole

Tinta is a red grape and is very versatile. Often called the working horse amongst the different varieties, it is one of the reasons for the decline of Madeira wine in the 19th and 20th century. It is counted among the Castas Boas, the good varieties. Tinta is grown around Funchal, São Vicente and Câmara de Lobos and is the most widely grown grape on the island. More than half of the total production is Tinta. Depending on the height of the vineyard and the processing of the wine it can imitate the other varieties to a great degree. This makes Tinta so tempting for many producers, but the class of the other traditional varieties is not fully reached by Tinta, which is said to be a cross of Pinot Noir and Grenache. Some vineyards with Tinta are cleared today and replanted with other traditional vines, but it is still widely used, especially for the three year old blends.

However Tinta is not of low quality, as many good three, five and even some ten year old blends show. It simply does not quite reach the excellent quality of the other grapes in my opinion. I have to admit though, that Bartholomew and Michael Broadbent think Tinta just as good as the other grape varieties, if not better.

The vine is robust with durable wood, medium size leaves and small black berries. The must is red at first but the estufagem procedure clears the color so that it acquires a green-white shine. Besides being used for blends, selected Tinta grapes from Campanário are also used for the Atlantis Rosé.


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