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owns, and has great respect for, Alex Liddell’s 1998 book, Madeira published by Faber and Faber, but it is now woefully out of date if you look to it for a picture of contemporary Madeira.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.

Q&A – Food matches for Madeira


Here’s a question I received recently from my Ask me a wine question page:

Hello, I received Madeira wines : 1) Tinta negra de madeira “Natal” 1946 by artur de barros e sousa and 2) special madeira 1988 by cossart gordon and 3) malmsey madeira 1994 by cossart gordon. Can you tell me with what kind of food I can drink them, please ? Regards, Bobo.

It sounds like you have some nice wines, there, Bobo – I presume your “special” Madeira is actually an auto-correct glitch, and it is really a Sercial.

Tinta Negra, Sercial and Malmsey (also called Malvasia) are the names of grape varieties, and also indicate the style of the wine when used for Madeira. Of the four principal varieties in terms of quality and availability, Sercial is used to produce the driest style, though there is usually a little sweetness to take the edge off the acidity, and Malmsey is very sweet indeed. The grape Tinta Negra, also called Tinta Negra Mole,  is not one of those four varieties. It is not so highly regarded, and these days is used to make cheaper Madeiras of any style. Don’t let that put you off – I am sure a 1946 Tinta Negra from ABSL will be good, and quite possibly the best wine of the three – but I have no idea about how sweet it will be.

My honest answer to your question is that I think Madeira is best drunk a glass at a time without food, or possibly with nuts and dried fruit. Madeira also lends itself to drinking like that because open bottles will last for several months. You could even have all three bottles on the go at the same time. If offering to guests, I would choose Malmsey as an after-dinner drink, and the drier Sercial as an aperitif, when it would also work with olives. But if I were the drinker, the Sercial would be liable to be sampled at almost any time in the afternoon or evening.

If really want to try your Madeiras with food, offers some suggestions. For the Tinta Negra, you would have to open it first to check whether it is closer to the sweetness of the Sercial or the Madeira. If it is somewhere in between, follow the recommendations for Verdelho or Boal. When you have checked the wines for sweetness, you will also have a much better idea about whether you really want to drink them with food at all. I might be wrong, but the cynic in me thinks that the idea of drinking Madeira with food comes mainly from those eager to persuade punters to drink more.

I hope that helps, Bobo. If you have further questions, do get back to me. Also, if you check back here later, you might find other people have added helpful comments to this post.

Blandy’s Bual 1954

blandys_bual_1954I was recently at John Dickinson’s 60th birthday celebration in Maxwell’s Café and Delicatessen, and having a great time. The dinner was accompanied by 17 wines, most of which were generously provided by our host. Let me try to put the quality of the wines into some sort of perspective. We kicked off with Krug Grand Cuvée, and then the wines got better.  They included Palmer 1996, Talbot 1985 and Quinta do Noval 1966.

But for me they were all eclipsed by the final bottle: Blandy’s Bual 1954.  I say “for me” because only 3 of the 15 or so present voted for it as wine-of-the-night, and most people sitting by me were rather underwhelmed.  Indeed, I had to be quick to intercept a glass on its way to the spittoon.

I can understand how it divided opinion.  It was searingly acidic. And despite Bual usually being one of the sweetest styles of Madeira it came over as off- or medium-dry, as by the standards of most sweet wines it had little by way of balancing sugar. The flavours were hugely intense, and everyone within ear shot of me seemed to agree about their profile – varnish, French polish, eucalyptus, camphor.  In other words, it was weirdly volatile. The only point of disagreement was how desirable the flavours were.

Albeit to a lesser extent, I have experienced that sort of volatility occasionally in other old Madeiras, and I regard it as a positive thing. It is also present in some Colheita Ports, and I sense it is often referred to as complexity. But in most styles of wine, of course those flavours would of course be totally unacceptable. Faulty or not, I enjoyed this wine tremendously. It would be sad if we all liked the same thing.

Blandy’s Bual 1954 gets ******.  Cheers, John, and here’s to the next ten!

(And thanks to John for providing the photos, as well as the wine itself.)

Farewell to Artur Barros e Sousa Lda

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.

A Madeira Party

I don’t wish to say much about it, but would like to draw your attention to this short story by Silas Weir Mitchell, first published in 1895.  It is about a meeting of Madeira connoisseurs earlier in the nineteenth century, and I found it fascinating to observe similarities and differences in attitudes and beliefs compared to modern-day gatherings of wine-lovers.

The best place to read it I think is here on the MadeiraWineGuide website.  The density of the text makes it difficult to read, but zooming in helps a bit.  I finished up grabbing the text and printing to small pages using CutePDF for reading on my Kindle.