A guided tour of Blandy’s 17th century Wine Lodge and its associated Wine Museum, in the centre of Funchal, will reveal some of the art and science that generations of producers have developed, to make a range of delicious, rich and long-lasting wines out of the grapes grown here. There are several excellent table wines, both white and red, but of course the beverage that most think of is that iconic fortified wine known simply as ‘Madeira’.
From the 15th century English and Dutch traders were exporting wines produced in Madeira to the Old World, the New World and the East Indies, and they discovered that the wines arrived in much better condition if they added a small amount of neutral spirit (derived at that time from the distillation of sugar cane juice) to the barrel. The higher alcohol level stabilised the wine and prevented any secondary fermentation.
Picked by hand
Blandy’s owns just a few hectares of vines, and buys most of its grapes from hundreds of individual family growers. Those growers work hard for their harvest, as most Madeiran grapes grow on steep slopes, and therefore must be picked by hand. There is a carefully-controlled process that takes the fermenting juice from just one of half-a-dozen grape varieties available, and adds high-strength grape alcohol at just the right time and in just the right quantity to kill the yeast and hold the wine at the desired level of acidity, sweetness and strength.
Initially the wine may be stored in tuns made from Brazilian satinwood, which is much less porous than the American white oak barrels used later in the maturation, and it minimises the evaporation and oxidation of the wine, and the uptake of flavours that would otherwise happen.
The wine is then transferred to old American oak casks to mature and take on subtle flavours of dried fruits, nuts, pepper and caramel. Uniquely, the barrels rest not in cold damp cellars but in warm dry lofts. This technique accelerates the aging process and gives the wine a character special to the island. The alcohol content of 18-22% ensures an almost indefinite life – one barrel contains wine from 1948! For the same reason Madeira keeps perfectly in the bottle, and once opened it will still last more than a year. By careful selection of the grape variety and the maturation process, wines of any level of sweetness, from dry through medium sweet to rich, are produced.
Blend of several vintages
Madeira wines are made from only a single grape variety, but can be a blend of several vintages. Grapes such as Sercial, Verdelho and Bual are used, but the most important is Malvasia, which is also known as Malmsey. This is the same Malmsey wine in which, according to legend, the 1st Duke of Clarence was drowned in the Tower of London, having been convicted of treachery.
In your walk around the ancient buildings of the Wine Lodge you will literally breathe in the essence of traditional Madeiran wine-making, but naturally you will want to taste it as well, and your guide will help you appreciate the nuances of some great glasses of the local wines. At the same time you can study several large and intricate Max Römer murals depicting the vineyards and the wine-making process on Madeira.
Blandy’s also have a restaurant called the 1811 Bistro & Wine Bar where you can enjoy petiscos (Portuguese tapas), lunch, or a dinner with wine pairings in beautiful and historic surroundings. Reservations are required.
Blandy’s Wine Lodge
Avenida Arriaga 28
Madeira – Portugal