The Rare Wine Company's Historic Series Madeiras

Here's a wine fact that has always puzzled me: as universally loved and respected as late-harvest and fortified wines are by collectors, sales of all but the bluest of the blue chips move at a glacial pace. Perhaps this is because meals are mostly rushed affairs these days, and the fact that these wines are almost always relegated to the dessert course spells doom, since folks don't take the time for dessert (or so they say) except at special dinners or when dining at restaurants.

Moreover, the idea that many late-harvest and fortified wines, especially those with high acidity, are actually better served as aperitifs or early on in the meal is almost completely lost on modern consumers, who tend to consider such wines exclusively as post-prandial oddities.  As tough as the situation is for port, sherry and the late-harvested wines of Sauternes, the Loire Valley, the Rhône Valley and Germany, no category has suffered more in recent years than Madeira.

In the 18th century, Madeira was among the most popular wines, indeed alcoholic beverages, in the United States.  Since Madeira is subjected to extended aging and heat before bottling, often for extended periods, and possesses high alcohol, the wines are virtually ageless, which was good news then, as now, for consumers with lousy storage conditions.  By all evidence our forefathers' tolerance for high-alcohol drinks like Madeira was far higher than our own, and it was mostly cheaper and more available than the table wines of Europe.  

Things went swimmingly for Madeira until the second half of the 19th century, when the island was hit by the double whammy of oidium followed by phylloxera, which devastated Madeira's vines much as they did the rest of Europe's.  Not long afterwards, Prohibition put a halt to sales to the U.S., which was Madeira's biggest market, and the popularity of the wines went into a tailspin from which they have never fully recovered.  Today there are only seven firms producing wine on Madeira, down from over five dozen in the 1940s, and most of what is produced is of mediocre to low quality and destined for cooking.  It wouldn't be unfair to say that Madeira was on life support in the U.S. market until 2002, when Mannie Berk's Rare Wine Company released the first bottlings in its Historic Series, which Berk initiated in 1998 with the house of Vinhos Barbeito.

Berk told me that his goal was simple: to show people what high-quality Madeira tasted like and "to make wines that had real vintage character and real varietal character."  Getting the vintage character part right comes down to skillful blending of older and younger wines, but getting varietal character was and continues to be difficult because most of the historic Madeira varieties (notably sercial, verdelho, bual and malmsey) are now grown on a limited basis on the island.  Some, like terrantez and bastardo, are essentially extinct.  Planted instead of those varieties following phylloxera was the tinta negra mole, which is prolific but, as Berk says, "not very distinguished unless the vines are old and low-yielding and the wine is aged for a long time."  Out of necessity the grape is used in the Historic Series Madeiras to flesh out production of the different wines but no more than 15% of this variety is allowed by law as Madeira must contain at least 85% of the variety shown on the label.  And that component is from vines that are around 50 to 60 years of age, according to Berk.  The wines for the dominant variety in each bottling average around 15 years, he said.  The wines are named for American cities where Madeira was highly popular and are each made in the style most commonly drunk there.

If it wasn't for the imaginative sommeliers at creative restaurants, the series probably would have crashed and burned, Berk told me.  "Almost none of the retailers would touch them; real Madeira was basically a myth, and non-vintage-dated Madeira was supposed to be cheap; these weren't, relatively speaking.  But they're hardly profit centers, far from it."  By 2005, he said, people were catching on to the wines, which pretty much had the premium Madeira market to themselves, and Barbeito started laying in more stocks of wine to age, ensuring a steady supply of aged varietal wines for each of the bottlings.  According to Berk, the production of the wines this year will be double that of 2009, which he considers "a phenomenal success on a small scale, and extremely gratifying."

The initial releases were the Boston Bual Special Reserve and the New York Malmsey Special Reserve, which are both made in a sweeter style.  Those were rolled out first because, said Berk, "most people associated Madeira with a sweeter style and we wanted to move into the market carefully.  Madeira is naturally high in acidity (typically 1.2% to 1.5% per liter, or about twice the acidity as an average table wine) but the sweetness of bual and malmsey [a.k.a. malvasia] buffers it, so they're good gateways to the wines."

In 2004 Berk released the Charleston Sercial Special Reserve, which is in a drier style.  "Basically nobody was bottling sercial any longer," noted Berk.  "Dry Madeira essentially didn't exist except for the Rainwater versions, which are used almost exclusively for cooking."  Once again, it was sommeliers who drove the demand for the wine "because it was so odd that only the buyers who like to stick their necks out would give the wine a shot."

A limited bottling of New Orleans Terrantez Special Reserve was released in April 2007, as a unique fund-raising wine for the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in its namesake city.  It's based on two demi-johns (about six cases) of old terrantez, which makes up "about 25% of the blend," according to Berk.  There was very little of the wine made and it is long sold out, unfortunately.  A second version was released in 2010, which has "about 10% terrantez" in the blend but also includes a good dose of aged wine made from the rare malvasia candida variety grown in the Faja Dos Padres vineyard, which Berk calls "the greatest extant vineyard on Madeira."  The variety was supposed to be extinct until a single vine was discovered a few years back, in the brush, and it is now being propagated in a nursery for future plantings.

Also released in 2010 was the Savannah Verdelho Special Reserve, which Berk says "also took off, mostly because there really wasn't any verdelho on the market," and the success of the Charleston indicated that the market was ready for another high-acid Madeira.

Three new, limited-production bottlings are set for release this year:  the Benjamin Franklin Special Reserve is made mostly from bual, with portions of profit going to Philadelphia's Christ Church, where Franklin is planted; Porto Moniz Verdelho Special Reserve, a very high-acid wine that comes from the cold northwest corner of the island and that Berk held back for a few years "because it was so sinewy"; and the Wanderer, which is made in a bual style from tinta negra mole that "averages about 60 years of age."  Berk said that he is trying "to show the potential of that variety, which gets roundly damned by most Madeira purists."

These wines aren't likely to turn up at the average corner package store but they are easy to find at high-quality wine shops across the country, as well as at restaurants that have imaginative wine programs.  The wines vary little from release to release and can last a very long time, even up to a year in a re-corked bottle.  A little goes a long way; indeed, these bottles can be viewed as among the most economical fine wines out there.  I like to serve all of them, dry up to sweet, with suitable cheeses.  The dry versions make great aperitifs as well as companions to salty foods, even shellfish.  The sweeter versions are excellent with nut- or toffee-based desserts and they also work well with indulgent, richly sauced red meat dishes, especially duck preparations, or with meat terrines and pates.