Big is beautiful: presenting Madeira Wine Company



– Please, may I hold her?

There’s no doubt about our two daughter’s popularity amongst the lovely employee’s at the Blandy’s Lodge in Avendia Arriaga. Nor is there any questions concerning our own urge to visit the lodge again, again and again, which at the end of our stay, could be summed up in four visits!
The Blandy’s Lodge is filled with stories to tell, wine to taste and is such a beautiful place to hang for an hour or two. Many visitors to the island will also find their way to Avenida Arriaga and take part in one of the daily tours.
The lodge at Blandy’s
However; this is not the production site of the brands still linked with Madeira Wine Company (MWC). No, after visiting the two other producers on the classic wine road of Rua dos Ferreiros it is time to round up the street with the Mercês Lodge

Mercês is the production site of MWC and here we meet with Ana Soares, Filipe Azevedo and also the chief oenologist Francisco Albuquerque stops by later. While Filipe prepares a tasting for us Ana shows us around the facility.

Fear of heights?
Fear of heights? Then don’t make an appointment with MWC at the Mercês odge. Or let me put it like this; don’t visit the stainless steel tanks; watch them at a comfortable range!
Mercês is such a contrast to the two producers down the street; it is in that context a large scaled business although in most wine producing regions in the world, MWC would have to be considered a quite small producer. But this is Madeira; production is miniscule so when you have around 38 % of the Madeira wine’s volume you’re a quite big company.
The old log books at Blandy’s Lodge Museum
Big is beautiful though and if it weren’t for Welsh & Cunha, together with Henriques & Camara, fusioned in 1913 to form Madeira Wine Association (MWA), we might have seen even less producers surviving the decreasing popularity of Madeira wine that was a fact last century. After the fusion in 1913 the following decades saw more than two dozens following, and in 1953 the association had its last partner joining; Cossart, Gordon & Co.
Around thirty years later the association changed name to the current, MWC and today there are only two owners left; the Blandy’s family and the port producing family of Symington’s who joined not only as a necessary financial force in 1989, but also with knowledge, new ideas and marketing skills.
Stainless – a lot of it!
The stainless steel tanks are impressive to watch from above and I can’t help but to think of how different conditions the wine producers of the island experiences. For a winemaker there is no doubt; MWC is the place to be if you wants top notch equipment! But the contrasting part, which makes the company still traditional, is the ancient casks used; in other words – the best of two worlds.
Century old estufagem
– I have never seen the inside in one of these before, Ana says, and is actually just as impressed as we are.
We’re standing in one of the canteiro’s, in front of a probably at least 100 years old estufagem previously covered in wood. The old copper pipes leading the hot water in order to warm up the wine for some months must have been one heck of a job to bend and put into the estufagem cask!
It’s a fine day easily exceeding 20 C before lunchtime. When Ana opens the door to the estufagem facility it is more than twenty, a lot more! The room is filled with a hot wine bouquet and I am glad I’m only passing by in here – preferring the canteiro scents more with it’s dusty, evaporated feeling.
Cooper’s nest!
Continuing to one of the company’s most valuable members of the staff – the coopers. When dealing with old casks, as the Madeira producers, you will need the skill of a cooper to be able to fix them from sudden leakage and of course making new ones. I’ve read about wine experts insuring their nose – maybe the coopers on the island of Madeira should be insured as well considering they are just as rare as the 1795 Terrantez?
Cooper’s tools
On our way to the tasting room we check out the impressive bottling station, the laboratory before standing in front of a line-up the assistant oenologist, Filipe Azevedo, has prepared. The tasting really contains it all; the 2009 harvest of Tinta Negra Mole before estufagem as the youngest feature till the oldest available wine in the MWC portfolio, the 1920 Bual from Blandy’s. Filipe explains how he reasoned when putting together the line-up.
– It’s one of my projects I have, Francisco Albuquerque tells me. The chief oenologist has entered the tasting room and I can’t help but ask him about the wine I tasted some days ago; the 2008 Primeira Paixão – an impressive Verdelho

– I make the wine to show good table wines can emerge from Madeira as well, he continues. – The grapes are from vineyards at Vargem, south of São Vicente in the north and from Estreito de Câmara de Lobos in the south.

– Production was just below 2000 bottles in 2008 but I think I can double that in the 2009 vintage, Francisco continues while he also reveals his future project in Caniçal; a red table wine.

– I have Touriga Nacional and Merlot there, he says. – But I am not satisfied with the vines yet so we will have to wait and see.

The 2008 Primeira Paixão Verdelho (89-90 p) which Francisco makes together with his old friend from the mainland, Rui Reguinga, is of light yellow colour with a green edge to it. It’s youthful showing pears, wet rocks but also an almost tropical scent to it with notes of passion fruit, mango and white peaches. Followed during two days and on the second day it shows quite a complex bouquet for a young wine.

In the mouth it shows its origin; acidity reigns but plentiful amounts of fruit back up and the balance is impeccable. No doubt this is Verdelho with its slightly spicy notes adding depth and the aftertaste finishes off in a most refreshing mineral driven way. No doubt about it; this is amongst the very best table wines I’ve tasted from Madeira – possibly the best!
Together with the local Espada fish, or the Black Scabbard as it is named in English, it is a perfect accompaniment . I can’t wait to get my fingers on the 2009 – problem will be finding it though.
Tasting the latest vintage is always a great experience, especially when the wine’s just a few months old. Filipe has poured as a Tinta Negra Mole from 2009, fortified but not yet undergone estufagem. Next to it a similar wine but with two months heating and finally the wine how it os supposed to taste when it is ready. Great way to learn the process of the more simple wines of Madeira!
MWC has been the most innovative of all Madeira company’s for a start and there’s no doubt that Symington’s entry on the island of Madeira in 1989 was one of significant matter. They were the first to explore and introduce the Colheita’s and amongst other avant garde actions is the Alvada (87 p).
A blend of equal parts of Bual and Malmsey it is an unusual wine trying to reach a new category of wine consumers, preferably the younger. At least of five years age the wine shows quite impressive character with notes of figs, dates, sugar cane and roasted nuts in the nose. Quite sweet on the palate but with refreshing acidity. A more modern formed wine with less traditional taste. I get a feeling of more fruitiness which nicely back up the honey, sugar cane and walnuts taste. Fine wine and a nice entry to Madeira. 

As a comparison we’re having the 2001 Blandy’s Harvest Malmsey (87 p). Again, a most pleasant wine in the lower end of the quality scale and very much wine for the money. I prefer the Alvada which I sense has more presence and better delineation but that is simply a matter of taste.

Avenida Arriaga
Walking around in Funchal, which we do on a most regular basis during our five weeks stay, means you quite often bump in to the Blandy’s Lodge in Avenida Arriaga – as a nice feature we once in a while ended up in the vintage room where we did a comparison between two wines of the same grape.
The Vintage room at Blandy’s Lodge
One day the rain surprised us and being 100 meters from the lodge we ran in that direction. Five minutes later we sat there with two glasses of Sercial, the 1950 Leacock’s Sercial and the 1974 Blandy’s Sercial.
The 1950 Sercial (95 p) has a profound complexity and is just an amazing sniff! The glass is filled with roasted almonds, fresh tobacco, dried herbs, furniture polish orange peel. Wow! The taste is just as good with is light, but elegant mid palate and fine mouth watering acidity. Elegance in a glass with almonds, tobacco, honey, smoke and just a touch of dried oregano it is a great glass. Long, lingering aftertaste.
1974 & 1950 Sercial
In a way it is mean, I know, serving a glass of the 1974 Sercial from Blandy’s next to the 1950. But this is what it’s all about; learning and understanding the complexity that comes with age. The 1974 Blandy’s Sercial (92 p) differs in style from the Leacock’s more elegant style. Here the bouquet is more filled with dark chocolate, walnuts, coffee and paint. A more full bodied taste than the 1950 but also lacking its competitor’s complexity and elegance. However, I am fascinated by the style and high acidity. Almonds, dates, a fino scent to the taste and fresh tobacco gives a most interesting glass. Long finish.
Continuing on the Mercês tasting and visit I got the chance to try the new colheita from Blandy’s; 2000 Verdelho (91 p). Made in a modern way it still had classic grape character with fine notes of fresh pears, spices and minerals on the nose. A most seducing taste with fine integrated acidity and sweetness. No heavy weighter as Blandy’s otherwise can be but an elegant wine with notes of nutmeg, vanilla fudge, lime, pears and wet earth. Refreshing and a great glass before dinner, or with a creamy mushroom soup. Love it! 

Two more colheita’s, with some added age though, were the 1991 Bual (91 p) from Blandy’s and the 1992 Malmsey (91 p) from Blandy’s. Now it’s down to preferences; I chose the Boal, a lovely example of colheita, with its semi sweet style, burnt sugar, honey cake and dates notes, while my wife was a fan of the more concentrated and floral Malmsey.

The 1992 had more raisiny notes, both in bouquet and taste, and was a prototype example of the grape. Once again; I am so glad to see the colheita wines quality and most reasonable pricings. Not a frasqueira, not even close, but a style on its very own!

Amongst the standard selection the 10 years old Bual (90 p) from Cossart Gordon stood out, together with the 10 years old Malmsey (90 p) from Blandy’s. Both with concentration, complexity and acidity to deserve your attention.

The last three standing; 1980 Bual from Blandy’s (93 p), 1985 Malmsey from Blandy’s (93 p) and the majestic and yet elegant 1920 Bual from Blandy’s (96 p) are all a step up in quality.
The 1985 Malmsey is actually the only offering the company has at the moment on the Frasqueira side, when talking about Malvasia. A quite youthful wine with fine floral notes, dates, figs, ground coffee and dark chocolate. On the palate a full bodied wine with orange peel, nutmeg, raisins, figs and wet earth. Long finish. 

The Bual’s, a grape that just keeps on growing in my own popularity, were great. 1980 seems to be a fine year for the grape since others I’ve tasted on Bual has been of equally excellent quality. Notes of burnt sugar, vanilla, honey cake, cherries in liquor and nutmeg. A fine mouthwatering acidity excellently matching the sweetness makes it a great glass on its own. Smoke, tobacco, walnuts, figs and orange peel on the palate. Long, mineral driven aftertaste.

Now, the last bottle standing was of course the oldest available offering at MWC currently, the 1920 Bual from Blandy’s. A joy and treat to taste, and one you don’t spit in respect for the winemaker, it is a most complex and elegant wine, reminding me a bit of the 1922 Boal from Pereira d’Oliveira.  Dates, nutmeg, herbs and an almost ethereal note to it. Some coffee and fudge on the nose as well. Fine, elegant taste but also concentration giving the wine some extra proportion. The minerals, orange peel, sweet liquorice, walnuts and burnt sugar are super and the finish of impressive length. Bravo!

– What do you want to taste now, Filipe asks me.
Most people would probably ask for the oldest stuff available in the tasting room but I have two most specific wishes. First of all, tasting your own birth year is always fun, but being a Madeira fan it’s even more thrilling since 1972 is a great year where all the noble grapes resulted in frasqueiras. Filipe starts looking knowing he has a cask sample somewhere and finds it at last. Ana is just as excited as I am since we share a mutual interest of the vintage.
My vintage – 1972
Not only is it a sample of the vintage of 1972, it is also a Verdelho! Thank you Filipe. The 1972 Verdelho (95 p) from Cossart Gordon has an incredible intensity on the nose with spices, fruitiness reminding me of both pears and oranges. A fresh walnut aroma as well present and together with smoky minerals a joy to sniff. Still youthful on the nose though.
Impressive concentration, Anjou pears, Oolong tea, wet rocks on the palate together with mind bogging acidity. Long, fine and refreshing aftertaste. Even after emptying the glass the bouquet refuses to leave the glass!

– This one has many years ahead on cask
, Filipe says. In other words; a wine I get the chance of enjoying at the time I retire, in 25 years?
My last wish is of another character; I simply ask Filipe to pick a wine he thinks stands out for any reason be it a great young wine, the most elegant or something rare. Filipe thinks for a while before he starts looking for the 1963 Sercial Leacock’s.  

– I chose this for the exceptional acidity structure, he says.

The 1963 Sercial (96 p) might be the most impressive Sercial I’ve had during our stay. With a lovely transparent amber colour it shows the time spent on cask. Huge bouquet fills the glass with roasted almonds, fresh mint, lemon, wet rocks and smoke. Huge concentration, yet impeccable balance, with elegant almondy mid palate. Already now you start realising the acidity will crack your teeths and boom, there it is! No doubt, I’ve never had a Sercial with that high acidity, yet it bears it with honour. With wines like this dentists will never be out of job! A fantastic wine!

Being a sucker for Verdelho I find myself having a reason paying the Blandy’s Lodge one final visit before returning home. I end up comparing two 1973’s; the 1973 Leacock’s Verdelho and the 1973 Cossart Gordon Verdelho. Both fine examples of Verdelho, the grape that’s sadly becoming more and more rare in the vineyards.

1973 Verdelho (92 p) from Leacock’s has a spicy note to it, backed up by spearmint, dried herbs provencale, fudge, burnt sugar and tobacco. Elegantly styled it is backed up by fine sweetness. Ground coffee, fudge and a casky feel to it, the Leacock’s style is a bit on the light side but nonetheless a fine wine with an impressive acidity in the finish.

The 1973 Cossart Gordon Verdelho (92 p) shows more power and concentration both on the nose and palate. Burnt sugar, fresh tobacco, clove, lime peel and wet rocks on the nose. Smoky, less sweet taste than the Leacock’s and a more dense style, the Cossart Gordon appeals to those in search of a richer style of Verdelho. Fine length and refreshing acidity.

Although owned by the same house it is a joy to confirm there actually is kept a typical house style amongst the brands of Blandy’s, Cossart Gordon, Leacock’s and Miles. Probably it was more obvious 30 years ago than today but when tasting the frasqueira’s I get the feeling Francisco and his gang strive for labeling the wines after which house style they most resemble.


Moral of the story: big is beautiful which Madeira Wine Company, by Madeira wines measures, evidently shows. And once again we’re honoured by the treatment given – not to forget the time they spend on us. It is clear Madeira wine producers love their work!

A future guide at the lodge?

When in Funchal, visit the Blandy’s Lodge, take a tour around the canteiro, visit the museum and check out the history of the company and have a glass of the mind bogging 1963 Sercial from Leacock’s later on in the vintage room. A better way of spending the afternoon is hard to think of!