Magazine article The Spectator

Grape Expectations

Magazine article The Spectator

Grape Expectations

Article excerpt

AT almost 41 and seven-twelfths I reckon that I was the youngest person on the flight to Funchal the other week. This supports my view that Madeira is an old person's island and an old person's drink. Madeira, the island, had long conjured up images of well-heeled old dears nursing their varicose veins in the subtropical warmth, as their retired-colonel husbands pottered down to Reid's Palace hotel for a pink gin and a twirl of their moustaches. Madeira, the drink, brought to mind elderly St James's Street clubmen snoozing in deep, leather armchairs, fingers twitching around perilously clasped glasses of post-prandial Malmsey.

The two red-faced old codgers behind me on the plane did nothing to dispel these preconceptions. They had clearly lunched extremely well before the flight, and they bantered away at full volume, for as well as being more than a little squiffy they were also rather deaf. One of them was much exercised about the difficulties of speaking Portuguese. `Oh, no need to worry about that, old man,' said his companion. `There's nothing to it. Just knock back a bottle of Sercial, pop a hot potato in your mouth and speak Spanish.' If only.

Madeira belongs to Portugal and is plonked in the middle of the Atlantic. It is nearer to Morocco than it is to its mother country, which lies some 530 miles to the north-east. Thirty-five miles long and 13 miles wide, the island was discovered accidentally in 1419 by an adventurer in the service of Henry the Navigator called Joao Goncalves Zarco, whom I suspect of having bumped into a lot of places by accident, given that he was known as Zarco the Cross-Eyed. Today, the island is home to some 270,000 people, and is much favoured by those tourists for whom the Ministry of Sound islands of Ibiza and Majorca are a little de trop. I went there to catch some late autumn sun and to learn more about the island's wines as a guest of the Madeira Wine Company, owners of such well-- known brands of Madeira as Blandy's, CosBart Gordon, Leacock's and Miles.

The everyday wine on the island has always been pretty ordinary - and it still is, despite the Madeira Wine Company's valiant efforts with their white and rose Atlantis. The early settlers often used barrels of their indifferent wine as ballast on long, hot sea voyages through the tropics, and found to their surprise that not only did the wine survive such trips, but it also tasted remarkably better for it, the heat of the equator having 'cooked' it. Producers on the island soon learned to replicate this effect with the estufagem, heating barrels of fermented wine to 45 deg centigrade before fortifying it with grape brandy. By the 18th century Madeira was widely celebrated; it was drunk at the signing of the American Declaration of Independence and was hailed by George IV as `the best wine in the world'.

I already knew something of the island's wines, but I wanted to know more, and so I allowed myself to be cajoled into spending an arduous afternoon and evening being plied with dozens of Madeiras at the Old Blandy's Wine Lodge. We went through the card several times, starting with the driest Sercial, then Verdelho and Bual, and working our way through to the rich and intensely nutty and honeyed Malmsey. Because these wines are, in effect, cooked, and therefore already oxidised, they can last for up to 200 years, if not for ever. …

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