Call it a busman’s holiday but I have just had a sunny week in Madeira, sampling the delights of... Madeira. I was lucky enough to meet Chris Blandy, the seventh generation of the Blandy family to run the Madeira Wine Company (MWC), the mainstay of the island’s remaining wine industry.
Madeira is the most ancient, enigmatic and, in many ways, the most tragic member of the extended wine family. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it dominated the industry, supplying three quarters of all the nascent demand in the US. Its rich, powerful wines were adored by statesmen, business magnates and ships’ captains alike. A queue of Britain’s heroes from Nelson to Churchill, loved a glass or two. It’s the wine that the Duke of Clarence, Edward IV’s brother, asked to be drowned in when allowed to choose the method of his execution.
But the Madeiran wine industry has been in a century long decline that can be traced back to the Russian revolution and prohibition, which choked its two main markets. It deserves better since the wines I tasted on my trip were nothing short of magnificent.
Blandy is an unlikely person to be Mr Madeira. He is a spirited 34-year-old who developed a successful career in the US hotel industry before the family business persuaded him to return.
“We have a rule in the Blue Book (the Blandy family bible on how to run their business interests) that any family member who wants to join the business has to have at least four years experience elsewhere. I had six before my cousin called me back.”
He’s the first to admit Madeira’s decline but also its fiercest advocate: “Today we are not even a niche. We are a niche of a niche. The whole industry only produces 3m litres – we have a third of that market.”
That is by comparison less than one per cent of champagne production and a fraction of the volume of Port, Madeira's mainland Portuguese counterpart. It is Blandy’s Herculean task to reverse the decline.
“The real recovery in interest is still to come but I can see bubbles rising to the surface,” he says.
I have seen signs, too: wine merchants I know, including Bordeaux Index, report an uptick in interest for fine Madeira.
The beauty of Madeira is that it never goes off. Its natural acidity, combined with a unique heat treating process called estufagem means it arrives from the MWC ready to drink and stays that way for a couple of centuries or more. You could stuff it at the back of a cupboard for a year with the cork out and it would be fine, which is a big plus for a wine collector.
Its other beauty is its diversity. Throw away any preconceptions of a sickly sweet cough mixture served by elderly relatives. True Madeira is made from a range of grapes from the tinder dry Sercial to the auburn Verdelho, the sweeter Bual and, yes, the caramel Malmsey. The colours range from golden to deep amber and the flavours of good vintage are a medley of tropical fruits, cedars and oaks through to marmalade and treacle.
I trust that Blandy has the drive and creativity to introduce his wines to new generations of wine enthusiasts; they certainly don’t deserve to be consigned to the dusty back shelf of wine history. Sadly, Madeira is not always easy to find on wine merchants’ shelves, so try a specialist such as cotswoldport.co.uk for a selection.