Madeira: The islands and their wines – book review

madeira islands winesThe book is Madeira: The Islands and their wines by Richard Mayson. If you are expecting a wine book, don’t worry about the subtitle: apart from brief sections on tourism, it is actually about wine. The RRP is £30.00, but I was given a review copy. It is the paperback version, published by Infinite Ideas earlier this year, with 268 pages and, like other books in this series, the general design and physical impression is good. Black and white illustrations are scattered throughout the book, mainly old engravings, but also some label images, and a map of the island. While not terribly detailed, the map is up to the task of identifying the regions discussed in the text. There is also a small collection of colour plates bound together roughly in the middle of the book. Sidebars (if that is the right term when the text goes the full width of the pages) are used in many places, usually to good effect. Though I failed to understand their place in the Vintage Madeiras and Historic Wines chapter, where the content was exactly the same as the main text – here they just served to confuse by unnecessarily breaking the helpful structure of the chapter. The structure was also initially a bit confusing as the first Madeira collection mentioned in the chapter happened not to have any tasting notes associated with it, but that is a different issue.

The timing of publication is important for this book, as a raft of new regulations and definitions relating to Madeira wine came into force in 2015. I am not sure to what extent they were adequately dealt with in the 2015 hardback edition of this book, but they are certainly covered in the paperback, and this in itself might be reason enough for Madeira enthusiasts to get hold of a copy. It also becomes clear from reading this book that in the last 15 years or so there have been many initiatives to improve Madeira quality and the standards of record-keeping, imposing more order on what was very chaotic production. Again, anyone with a serious interest in Madeira will find it convenient to have all these developments gathered together here. Personally I write as someone who also owns, and has great respect for, Alex Liddell’s 1998 book, Madeira published by Faber and Faber, but it is now woefully out of date if you look to it for a picture of contemporary Madeira. Without wanting to criticise either writer, I feel Liddell is more academic, while Mayson is briefer and perhaps more accessible to a modern audience. I am now motivated to reread Liddell sometime.

Mayson covers his ground well, with chapters on Madeira history, geography, vineyards, production and producers. The chapter on producers also includes tasting notes on selected wines that are currently readily available from each one. In a separate chapter there are also nearly 100 pages – over 35% of the whole book – devoted to the tasting notes of old Madeiras, many from the 18th and 19th centuries, and notes about the collections from which they originated. The chances of me ever getting an opportunity to try any of these wines is practically zero, which means my interest in them is very limited, and I would question the wisdom of devoting so much space to these wines. Not that I am averse to a good vintage Madeira, but old for me in practice means mid-20th century. The main thing I learned from the chapter was that, if you take Mayson’s star ratings at face value, you can get Madeira of equal quality for a lot less money if you look to the colheita wines currently available from the producers, and wines with older age indications.

There were a few places in the book that seemed unclear or confusing, which left me feeling I’d like to ask the author, or his sources, for clarification. But to an extent I suppose Madeira is still essentially rather confusing, and at least I felt engaged enough to care. One example was the statement that “Older vineyards are supported on latadas, low pergolas about a metre or so in height, under which other crops such as potatoes, cabbages and beans are frequently grown”. Wow, I thought, that is very low and it must be a real pain to work on the vines – not to mention the vegetable patch! Can it really be true? This was followed by a quotation from an 18th century description that I found difficult to understand completely, but laths 7 feet high were mentioned. Also colour plates purported to show latadas growing over trucks and the heads of people. I resolved this issue by referring to Liddell’s abovementioned book, and learned that latada heights vary: over paths and around houses you can walk under them, whereas in other places they are usually 1 to 1.5m high.

Despite any niggles, and with the exception of the vintage wine tasting notes which I largely skipped, I enjoyed reading this book and learned a lot, especially about the more recent changes on the Island.

Author: Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

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