It was only last week that I learned in the UK Wine Forum of the demise of the smallest Madeira shipper Artur Barros e Sousa Lda (ABSL). Well, they will not totally disappear off the face of the earth, but the business was sold to their next door neighbours Pereira d’Oliveira in November 2013. Apparently wine already bottled will keep its ABSL label, and is already becoming something of a collector’s item, but the stock in barrel will probably be sold under the d’Oliveira name. It seems d’Oliveira plan to use the ABSL canteiro as a tourist centre. I suppose d’Oliveira is the obvious choice as new owner. Not only it is literally right next door, but there has been a good relationship between the two shippers, and d’Oliveira has been pressing ABSL’s grapes for some time.
The the time it took for the news to reach me probabky reflects the general lack of interest in ABSL shown outside of Madeira and Portugal, which is understandable as they exported little, especially more recently. Indeed they produced little. MadeiraWineGuide gives the annual production as 8,000 to 10,000 litres a year, which is about 30 litres a day. When we wandered around the canteiro in 2007, Edmundo was sitting at a table with some bottles, manually applying the wax seal. We realised later that the bottles on that table probably represented the day’s production!
ABSL was a real pleasure to visit. The door from the street is easy to miss, and I know people have done just that despite being told it is right next door to the very obvious entrance to d’Oliveira’s tasting room. But when inside, we were warmly welcomed by Artur (pictured below in the blue check shirt) and invited to explore by ourselves. We started in the small courtyard, where a variety of Madeira grapes grow. Noble ones, such as Terrantez, Malvasia, Boal, Sercial, Verdelho. Also the less-distinguished Tinta Negra, Carão de Moça, Listrão, Moscatel, Alicante de Málaga, and Bastardo.
Then we climbed two sets of rickety stairs or ladders, noting the barrels on each floor. It was on the way down we saw Edmundo sealing bottles, and then we moved on to a tasting offered by Artur. Most of the time we were there, we had the canteiro and tasting room to ourselves; it was only towards the end of our tasting that another couple arrived.
I cannot remember what we tasted, but Artur seemed willing to offer us something from practically any bottle he had if we asked. But considering that we could not carry many bottles home we did not have the cheek to ask for too much. We bought the Verdelho Reserva Velha for around £27, and the Sercial 1998 for £18 or so. The Reserva Velha was of uncertain age, but said to be something like 20 years old and from a single vintage.
During my time on the island I discovered I did not like cheaper Madeiras, even wines like Henriques and Henriques 15 year old Verdelho for example, which many seem to rate quite highly. On the other hand I really enjoyed some of the older vintages – Leacock’s 1959 Sercial was one of the best wines ever to have passed my lips. I found ABSL’s more recent vintage wines filled the middle ground very nicely, and offered excellent value for money. I remember the light delicate touch of their wines – nothing too robust and obtrusive.
As many others before have commented the atmosphere in the canteiro was very special. The building itself was originally a Jesuit house. But it was taken from them when the Jesuits were expelled from Portugal in 1759, and it eventually passed into the hands of the family who started ABSL. The barrels, floors and stairs in the canteiro are still obviously very old. Even the most modern of their technology seemed to date from the 1950s. That atmosphere is impossible to fake, and also impossible to preserve. Perhaps that is no bad thing – it is just something to be experienced while you can – a bit like the wine produced there, and indeed wine in general. Let’s just hope that d’Oliveira’s tourist ambitions manage to keep at least some of the canteiro‘s charm. It must be difficult to resist the urge to over-restore in the creation of a safe and manageable place for tourists.
I cannot help feeling sad about the demise of ABSL, but it is clear that the brothers Artur and Edmundo Olim could not keep running the business for ever, and I wish them a happy retirement.
Acknowledgements, sources and further information: Apart from the sources linked to above, I also got information from an interview with Artur that was published in inews, julho 2013, semestral no 7, a magazine of the Instituto do Vinho do Bordado e do Artesanato de Madeira. For further information about ABSL, and evocative images, I can recommend Mad About Madeira. Also, Alex Liddell’s book Madeira, in the Faber and Faber series, has a good section on the company. Finally, I should thank my good friends John and Inger, for allowing me to use the photos from their visit in 2013 – unfortunately I did not take any myself in 2007.