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.
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.
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
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 "
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
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
Verdelho is also used to make the Atlantis White, one of the two official table wines made on the island.
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
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
Malmsey is the
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
This white, medium dry variety is hardly grown anymore. You can still find it in vintages or soleras.
This variety is
still widely grown in
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 is one of the
authorized varieties for
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
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.