Another reprint, this time an account of one of Patrick Grubb MW’s wonderful Madeira tastings, held in October 2011. Patrick is now retired and no longer holds these amazing events but the memories linger.
Every year Patrick used to hold a tasting of fine Madeiras at the Honourable Artillery Company’s Armoury House, overlooking the Artillery Ground just north of the City of London where cricket has been played since at least the 18th century.
So precious were these old bottles that Patrick’s tasting sheets politely requested, “please take small measures. There is only one bottle of each wine available.”
Wines were tasted dry to sweet, which usually means Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and then Malmsey – though age is also a factor. The bottles had been decanted over the previous three days.
The first and youngest of the 12 wines was Blandy’s Sercial 1966, bottled in 2004. This was a bracing way to start the morning. The beautifully mellow nose of dried fruits even had a squeeze of lemon to it. The nutty, dry palate finished clean, with acidity that snapped like a mousetrap.
The late Noël Cossart put aside a pipe (about 55-dozen bottles’ worth) of Bual CDGC 1941 to mark the birth of his son David. The grapes came from Fransisco Filhimino’s vineyard in the Campanario district. Instead of the usual sugar cane spirit it was fortified with grape brandy and then matured in an oak pipe previously used for the great 1862 Cossart Gordon Terrantez.
Patrick noted, “After annual loss due to evaporation in wood, the bottling out-turn would have been about 27 dozen bottles. Where are they all now?” At a Christie’s auction in May 1994 several bottles were sold. The catalogue noted, “The substantial quantity on offer represents the total quantity remaining.” There’s none left at the winery.
The apple-green rim matched the autumnal colours of the Artillery Ground outside. There were dried fruit smells again, perhaps with some tea leaves too. The perfect acidity cut like a butcher’s knife through the rich and intense flavours, with no sense of fortification.
Atypically the Cossart Bual 1958 was aged in American oak before being bottled in 2006. It wasn’t as fine as the 1941, with rougher edges and a warmer finish.
Leacock’s “SJ” 1934 was made with grapes from the São João vineyard in which the wonderfully named Thomas Slapp Leacock found a cure for Phylloxera in 1883 – a solution of resin and turpentine in hot water applied to the principal roots of the vine. This was the greenest looking wine yet. The dark chocolate flavours created a bitter texture, though it finished dry, warm and long.
There was a change of key for the exceptionally rare Cossart Malmsey 1916, which Noël Cossart referred to as “a drier style of Malmsey with a hint of cloves”. Much of this wine was destined for the Russian Imperial Court but, for obvious reasons, was diverted.
It was much higher-toned and more pungent than the previous wines. Indeed, it almost smelled like Marlborough Sauvignon (not something that Hugh Johnson would approve of). But it was mellow and had some sugary viscosity, finishing with a rush of baked fruits.
The FV Malvazia 1920 from Dr Favila Viera’s family-owned vineyards was similarly high-toned and “green”, though with a sweeter finish. Also from the fine 1920 vintage, Cossart Malmsey produced a superb Malvasia Candida from vines in the Faja dos Padres vineyard. This was much finer than the FV, as smooth as the steps leading into the Cathedral of Funchal. No high-tone or sugar here.
The mahogany-brown of Pereira d’Oliveira’s Verdelho Reserva 1905 was the deepest colour yet. It looked like old wood and smelled of it too – like an old country house – with a finish as long as a jeremiad. By contrast, the 1896 Leacock family “HFS” E showed no sense of age or decay. It was brilliantly fresh, with acidity like a light bulb. And it was delicious.
Bottled in 2011 from a demijohn first owned by the late Mário Barbeito de Vasconcelos, the Barbeito family Boal MBV 1802 was, like the 1896 Leacock, extraordinarily vivid and fresh. It was very warm and spirity but still a beautiful wine of relentless, glowing length.
From the great 1880 vintage, Ferraz “Madeira” Velhissimo Reserva had a deliciously juicy palate that was very moreish. Not something I expected to say about a wine that is 131 years old.
The Henriques & Henriques Miguel Jardim Boal Velho was of an unknown vintage but “from the first half of the nineteenth century”, according to Patrick. Henriques & Henriques bought the wine in 1906 and bottled it in 1927. It was recorked in 1955, 1969 and 1991. The profoundly oxidative nose was perhaps a consequence of the recorkings. It lacked the vivacity of the best wines here, though it had a lovely texture.
These superb old wines brought to mind the description in a 1768 Christie’s catalogue of “very fine old high-flavoured Madeiras”. More than 240 years on, the words still fit.