Before we get to the grape itself, let's take a moment to talk about what Madeira is. Madeira is the name of the largest island in a series of islands ("The Madeira Islands," which are an archipelago, technically) about 600 miles off the western coast of Portugal and about 500 miles north of Africa. This location made Madeira a prime stop on many shipping routes starting around the 16th Century, which meant that the merchants on the islands had access to any of the areas that these merchant ships were sailing to. Additionally, when ships stop, they generally have to load up on provisions for their crew and one of the most important provisions for long sea voyages was wine.
The major problem with transporting wine from the island was that there was no refrigeration for cargo way back then so barrels of wine could end up sitting in a cargo hold for several months. There is no shade on the open ocean so the sun would beat down on the decks and heat the holds below which often spoiled the wine. The earliest wines made on the island of Madeira were regular table wines which were unable to survive this kind of treatment. In an effort to preserve the wines during shipment, many merchants began to fortify the wines with brandy as higher alcohol levels allowed the wines to withstand these extreme conditions. The wines still cooked, though, but many were starting to realize that these cooked wines were actually pretty tasty in and of themselves, and there began to be a premium on wines that had stayed on ships for longer periods of time and aged rather than for wines that were aged at the estates. Into the early 20th Century, casks of Madeira wine were still sent on long sea voyages in order to age them properly.
The island of Madeira was pretty much the last stop for ships sailing from Europe to the colonies in the new world that would eventually become the United States. Not only that, but the long sea voyage across the Atlantic was actually beneficial rather than detrimental to these wines, and the colonies began to develop a particular taste for the wines of Madeira. Despite the best efforts of many farmers (including Thomas Jefferson), European grapes continued to die within a very short of being planted in the US and importing wines from Europe was the only option for those who couldn't stomach the taste of the wines made from native America grapes. The confluence of these factors contributed to Madeira's popularity in the colonial states which continued into the early days of the United States's establishment as a nation. Upon ratifying the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the authors and signatories toasted the document with Madeira in celebration.
Madeira's popularity held strongly until 1851, when the first of several waves of catastrophes struck the island's wine industry. In 1851, Powdery Mildew struck the island and nearly eradicated the entire island's vines in less than three years. Powdery Mildew spreads fastest in densely planted vineyards in hot, humid conditions, which pretty much described Madeira's vineyard layout and climactic conditions to a T. A French scientist discovered that the application of sulfur to vines was effective in preventing Powdery Mildew, but by that time a good deal of the vineyards of Madeira had succumbed. Much of the land was replanted, but in the 1870's, phylloxera arrived and decimated the vineyards yet again. The solution of grafting onto native American rootstocks wasn't discovered for another ten years, and in the interim many growers simply gave up and planted their land over to sugarcane. Others elected to simply plant hybrid vines or native American vines and abandon the traditional grapes altogether.
As soon as the island's wine industry began to recover from this blow, two more calamities struck. These calamities didn't affect the vines or the wines on the island itself, but rather wiped out two of Madeira's major export markets. The first was the Russian revolution of 1917 which removed the Russian Tsar and put that country on the road to communism, a political-economic system where luxury goods like expensive Madeira are frowned upon, to put it mildly. The second event was the enactment of Prohibition in the United States, which completely shut down the US as an export market virtually overnight. It is difficult to say whether the Madeira market could have recovered from any one of these hits, but to have all four of them happen within a 70 year span proved to be too much. Many of the bottlers and shippers closed but many others consolidated into larger firms. There were more than 30 firms who shipped Madeira in the late 17th Century and that number has dwindled to six today.
The wine I'd like to take a look at today is from a grape called Sercial, and for many years, the word Sercial referred more generally to a style of Madeira rather than the grape it was made from. Madeira has historically been made from four different grapes: Sercial, Bual, Verdelho and Malmsey, all of which we'll eventually get to in future posts. Wines made from Sercial tended to be the driest while those made from Bual were a little sweeter and those made from Verdelho were a little sweeter still until you got to Malmsey based Madeiras which were the sweetest of all. What eventually happened was that the grape names came to represent the style of the finished wine and stopped being a reliable indicator of which grape was used. Sercial became a generic term for a fairly dry Madeira regardless of whether the wine contained any Sercial grapes or not. The EU has changed all of this with a recent mandate that requires that any bottle of Madeira that mentions a grape variety must be comprised of at least 85% of the stated variety.
The Sercial grape is grown mostly on the southern end of the island of Madeira, though it is also cultivated to some extent on the Portuguese mainland as well. It is known as Esgana or Esgana Cão in the Vinho Verde region, where it is not particularly prized. The Vinho Verde website proclaims that the grape is "productive, [and] produces wines with oxidation tendency, bitter and without quality." Despite this proclamation, the grape is prized by Madeira growers because it ripens much later than the other Madeira grapes and keeps its acidity throughout the ripening process, which is a huge advantage in a climate as warm as that of Madeira.
Rare Wine Co. was attempting to create "affordable Madeiras that reflect the style and complexity of the great vintage wines...that would express true varietal character and display the traits of vintage Madeira." The first wine in this series that I tried was the Charleston Sercial, which I picked up from Gordon's Fine Wine and Liquors for about $40 (Curtis Liquors also has some of this in stock as well). In the glass this wine was a medium tawny brown color. The nose was moderately intense and very nutty, like freshly roasted walnuts or pecans. On the palate the wine was medium bodied with very high acidity. There were flavors of tangy green apples, roasted walnuts, caramel and burnt sugar. It was definitely a little sweet, but really tasted more off-dry as a result of the extraordinary acidity. This wine was much lighter and more graceful than I was expecting and was really a lot of fun to drink. The acidity is really bright and electrifying and carries the entire weight of the wine effortlessly. Maybe when I get my next raise I'll go searching for a vintage Sercial but in the meantime, this is a nice, affordable alternative that is very delicious.