When people talk about terroir, they naturally associate the term to its French origin of “Land”, with components such as climate, soil type and surroundings all playing a vital role in determining the character and quality of the fruit produced in the vineyard. This is, of course, no different on the island of Madeira and many of the decisions on where to plant certain varietals are based on years of study as to which terroir is best suited for each varietal.
Madeira wine has always been a bit outside of the norm and our ageing process is almost unique in the world - a result of 500 years of “research”. Exposing the wine to naturally high temperatures in very old oak barrels goes against all the traditional rules of ageing wine. The gentle heating of the wine produces water evaporation that ultimately both concentrates and intensifies the wine. Who would have thought that barrels of wine were specifically transported to tropical locations around the world to maximize its value on the market?
“Canteiro” (a Portuguese term describing the beams on which the barrels are stored) is the ageing method that the island has used for hundreds of years to replicate the sea voyages. At Blandy’s, we are very fortunate to have preserved our most important ageing lodge located in the centre of the island’s capital, Funchal. The building was originally built in 1473 as an annex to the Franciscan Convent that occupied the existing Municipal Gardens of Funchal. My ancestor, Charles Ridpath Blandy, bought the property in the middle of the 19th century and we have used it to age our Madeiras ever since.
At 30 metres above sea level, the building is in a prime location to age Madeira, and it is in this building where we like to talk about our Madeira Terroir.
Over 650,000 litres of our finest Madeira wines are distributed throughout 12 unique ageing rooms over 3 floors. Thick stone walls and wooden floors, together with the layout of the building, allow us to have natural microclimates in each room, with clear differences in temperatures and humidity levels.
(Protected Designation of Origin) Main grape varieties distribution map
Sercial probably came from Bucelas, near Lisbon (where it was traditionally known as “Esgana Cão” or “Dog Strangler”), but it also is hypothesized to be from the Douro region. The name “Esgana Cão” probably came from the grapes’ astringency and the extraordinarily dry wines which they produce.
In Madeira, almost 20 hectares are planted with this varietal, mainly in the areas of the Southern coast, such as Jardim da Serra in Estreito de Camara de Lobos, at an altitude of inbetween 600 – 700 metres and, on the North coast, in the lowest regions near the sea, such as in Porto Moniz, Ponta Delgada or Seixal, at an altitude of 150 – 200 metres.
Verdelho is a varietal which produces delicate, medium dry Madeira wines, with a level of sweetness between that of Sercial and Bual. It is possible that it was brought to the Island with the first Portuguese settlers in the 17th century and widely cultivated. However, it is an extremely rare variety on the mainland, which means that in fact it may have originated from Madeira.
In 1972, before the phylloxera plague, almost two thirds of the vineyards were planted with Verdelho. Today, even despite the widely grown Tinta Negra, the varietal has undergone a huge expansion, now occupying almost 47 hectares, mainly in the cooler climates of the North, being most prolific in the regions of Porto Moniz, Ponta Delgada, Seixal and São Vicente, at an altitude of 400 metres, and also in the South, in the Prazeres and Câmara de Lobos region.
Terrantez is an old variety of grape which, at some points was widely grown in Madeira, but which almost disappeared due to a lack of replanting after the destruction caused by plagues in the 19th century (first Odium and then Phylloxera).
Special and rare, it is said of this varietal that: “Terrantez grapes, not for eating nor giving away, God made them for wine!”
These grapes are particularly sweet and aromatic, producing an initially sharp wine which ages well, giving a medium dry, well balanced and full bodied drink.
Currently there are 2 hectares of this vine planted on the whole Island, principally in the Funchal area, at an altitude of about 120 metres above sea level, and also at Jardim da Serra, at roughly 600 metres high.
A very old variety, originating from mainland Portugal (from the Douro or Dão region), the Bual grape (or Boal, or Malvasia Fina) can produce many styles of wine.
It is mainly found on the South coast of the Island, between Calheta and Ribeira Brava.Traditionally, Bual wine is a style which is described as having a sweetness level between that of Malmsey and Verdelho. Today, this type of wine must be made from 85% of the Bual grape varietal which means that it is quite rare, since there are only about 20 hectares planted on the island, mainly in the South, in the area between Campanário and Calheta, at relatively low altitudes (between 100 and 300m).
Malmsey is the generic term given to a group of different white, red or pink grape varietals which can all produce sweet wines with high levels of alcohol. According to tradition, the name is derived from the Greek port of Monemvasia in the Peloponnese where Malmsey grapes are originally from. However, this origin has not been confirmed by recent DNA studies.
In Madeira, we can find:
- the Portuguese variety of Malvasia Branca de São Jorge, of unknown origin but great quality. It was introduced to Madeira in the 1970s and is grown mainly in the São Jorge region, on the North coast of the Island (from where it gets its name). Having spread in the 1990s, it is currently the main varietal used in the production of Malmsey Madeira wine.
- Malvasia Cândida (or Malvasia di Lipari) which was introduced into Madeira in the 15th century, having been used for centuries in the production of Malmsey. Today, however, it’s cultivation has reduced drastically and now it is found almost exclusively in the North of the Island, near São Jorge, at an altitude of 150 – 200 metres, and in the South of the Island, in the bay of Funchal.
Tinta Negra is considered to be a native variety of the Canaries and Madeira where (under the name of Tinta Negra Mole) it was already widespread in the 19th century. Nevertheless, recent DNA studies show that this variety is identified as “Mollar”, an old Andalusian variety, possibly from Cadiz, where a first reference to it was made in 1787. Therefore, it is likely that the varietal was taken from Andalusia to the Canaries and Madeira during the 18th century.
After Phylloxera, growers preferred planting the more robust and darker skinned Tinta Negra Mole grape, instead of white grapes, meaning that today this variety is dominant in Madeira, representing between 80% and 85% of all wine produced on the Island. It is mainly grown on the North of the Island, in São Vicente and in the South, in Câmara de Lobos.
Plataforma 3, Pavilhão T, ZFI da Madeira 9200-047 Caniçal, Madeira, Portugal.