- John Crain
I recently had dinner with a friend who casually dropped into the conversation that he had recently had a shot of 1834 (that's right; 168 year old) Madeira. Of course I immediately told him he was a complete moron for believing such BS; then, the next morning, looked up a couple of facts on madeira... one of which is that madeira is a blend, and the date of the vintage is determined by the date of the oldest vintage of the blend.
What are the chances that this bozo actually had a bottle of 1834 Madeira? In San Antonio, Texas? For what price? Would anybody actually consume such an antiquity? Any info would be appreciated.
Madeiras seem to last forever.
Oxidation and heating, which this normally bad for wines and which would ruin most wines over time, is a key step in making madeira. (What doesn't kill you makes you better, I guess.)
I was in Funchal in Madeira Island a couple of years ago. I know very little about wines, but a friend in the wine business said that if I could find something from the 1700's or for around $500 or so, get it for him. I assume that's a good price. The touristy place that I stopped by was offering a bottle like that in the neighborhood of $700, which I guessed was probably too expensive. Just going by instincts here.
I think the vintage refers to the wine grape and not the "fortifications."
Hope this helps a bit. I'm sure other more knowledgable hounds would chime in.
On Oct. 30, 1999, I served 1834 Barbeito Frasquiera Malvazia Madeira (ST 93, AL***(*) ) to my wine group at a dinner at my house. I paide $275 for it the month before. The price is about double today if you can find a bottle.
Your friend may well have had the same bottling.
Old Madeiras never die...they just go into storage! To continue along the lines of Limster's reasoning, I seem to recall that the reason Madeiras were heated &tc. was to make them more stable through long voyages at sea for which the conditions of storage and transportation were unpredictable - lots of turbulence, extremes of heat, cold, etc. Or something to this effect.
I've had an 1802 Accioli (I may be spelling that incorrectly) and an 1808 Marmsey (by Blandy). Apparently about 10 years ago, there were many cases of old Madeira kicking around at auction and they could be had for a song (relatively speaking) - i.e. I'm told the above bottles were bought for around £100 apiece (about $150) but they'd fetch about £600-700 now ($900-1050) a bottle now, if you could find it.
Best to ask your friend to 'prove it to you' by sharing some!
(Please forgive the long, dull nature of this response, as well as any mistakes caused by a faulty memory!)
As commented earlier, the 1834 Barbieto is relatively available, as are perhaps a half-dozen more from the 1800's and several early 1900's wines. I've seen prices from the low $200 range and up. I would imagine any good (very good) wine shop could order a bottle. The wines are supposedly excellent.
On aging, madiera wines are naturally very high is acid when young, practially undrinkable. Therefore, it became tradition to put the barrels on ships for use as ballast. The vintners noted that wine which was exposed to the elements of a sea voyage, including significant heat, rounded out and became much more appealing. In the 1700's the price of a barrel was directly related to what voyage it had taken, with a premium paid for mutliple crossings of the equator. The upside is that the high acidity plus the fact that the wine has already been exposed to heat serve to preserve it quite well.
Also on old madeira, the American colonies were major consumers of the wine. French wines were illegal due to the continued conflicts between Britian and France, so trade ships took on ballast at Madiera and replaced it with American timber and tobacco, leaving the wines behind. Charleston and Savanna, I believe, were major centers for this trade, and some old families are rumored to have stores of 16th century wines. There are supposedly even social clubs which meet once a year to try each other's family herilooms.
One additional clarification: A "solera" maderia is made from a single barrel from which wine is periodically drawn for bottles. The barrel is then topped up with wine from a new vintage. The wine may be sold with the date of the oldest vintage, but must note that it is solera, and thus contains only a portion of wine that age. However, vintage madeira, such as the Barbietos currently on the market, must be 100% from that vintage.
I guess I have no choice but to handle this one. Madeira is made using the 'estufa' process (slow heating and cooling over several months); hence my name (Canadians go through this process every year!).
It's my favorite wine and for over 10 years a group have us have gathered a few times a year for tastings (the oldest so far being a Vintage 1792 of undoubted provenance).
Even well ullaged wines are often superb. Over 15 years I've only had 1 bad bottle and a couple of tired ones.
Unfortunately prices have tripled (or more) in the past 2/3 years.
The 1834 is almost certainly the Barbeito Malvasia (Malvasia [portuguese; the english name is Malmsey] is the sweetest style, although still with high acidity to balance). Barbeito are one of the most reliable shippers in Madeira. If they say 'Vintage' (as opposed to Solera), it's probably as accurate as one can get (although it's doubtful that anyone knows for sure, as it was probably in barrel/glass for 100 years or more).
It is still available commercially for $295 US (see link below).
Because of its concentration, you only need a small amount - we normally split a botle between 12-15 people, so if everybody chips in about $25 you can get to try it at a very reasonable price. And please leave the glass dirty overnight - you'll be astounded at the lingering aromas the next day.
Also, madeira, once opened, has the longest shelf life of any wine - several months is not a problem.
Don't get too concerned about the solera vs vintage arguments. Prices for Vintage are about 30% higher, but the soleras can sometimes be more enjoyable. Adding a younger wine replaces some of the fruit components and may give a more interesting wine. Also, some labelled 'Vintage' may, in fact be older soleras. A famous madeira is the 1899 Terrantez (from Blandy) which is a stunning wine (instructions to my wife are that if I'm ever on life support, to open this wine and pass some over my lips. If I don't come back for that, I'm not coming back!). But it's well documented that there was absolutely zero Terrantez grapes in Madeira by 1899 (killed off by fungus and pests) - it's theorized that this was a barrel of older Terrantez that was topped up with Bual in 1899 and bottled then as there couldn't be any more terrantez added.
And Soleras became illegal (practically) after Portugal joined the EEC, as they now have to be dated with the youngest wine (although there was a transition period for existing soleras).
That's probably more than you ever wanted to know - but try a bottle of the good stuff, by sharing it.