A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Verdelho - Madeira, Portugal; Canary Islands, Spain & California, USA

Several months ago, I wrote a post about the Sercial grape, in which I indicated that  I was planning a series of posts that would deal with the major grapes used in the production of Madeira.  That project is taking longer than I would have liked, but today I'd like to continue it with a look at another of the "classic" Madeira grapes, Verdelho.  In my Sercial post, I briefly outlined the history of Madeira wine, and readers interested in that topic are advised to read through that post, as today I'm more interested in taking a look at what makes Madeira different from other wines, and to do that we need to take a closer look at how it is made.

Before it was the name of a wine, Madeira was the name of a place, namely an island group about 600 miles west of Portugal.  It was one of the last stops for European ships on their way to the Americas, and many of them stocked up on the wines of the islands before setting off on their journeys.  In the early days, the wines made on the Madeira Islands were ordinary table wines, but it was found that they spoiled very quickly on board the ships, as they were stored in large barrels and exposed to the elements, particularly the sun, which deteriorated them rapidly.  Eventually it was found that adding brandy to the wines helped them last longer while on board traveling ships, but even these fortified wines eventually cooked in the merciless sun in the middle of the ocean.  While the resulting product was very different from everyday wine, it was found that it picked up some new and interesting flavors not found in any other wines, and many people began to develop a taste for it.  In particular, the US Colonies were very fond of these wines from Madeira and became a large export market for them.

Up until the early 20th Century, some Madeira houses still put barrels of wine on ships in order to properly age them, but virtually no one does that anymore.  Today, there are basically two different methods used to properly age Madeira: estafugem and canteiro.  Estafugem is the quick and dirty method where the wine is placed in large stainless steel vats that are heated either via a hot water jacket on the outside of the tank or by immersing a heating coil in the wine itself.  The vats are sealed, but not filled to capacity and are usually agitated in some way to aid oxidation as well.  The heat is applied for about three months before being bottled.  This method is fast and cheap and is used for the production of low-quality Madeiras, as the secondary flavor characteristics prized by Madeira enthusiasts are at best only hinted at using this method.

The canteiro method is the one preferred for the production of higher quality Madeiras, especially for vintage or varietal Madeiras.  Here, the wines are placed in wooden casks that can vary from 300 to 2500 litres, and the casks are placed in a warm place.  Many lodges place them in lofts or in areas as high as possible (since heat rises, after all), though others just place them outside in the sun.  The casks are typically left alone for at least two years, and the wines made in the canteiro style cannot be sold until at least three years from the January 1st following the harvest.  The casks are not topped up, and most barrels lose about 5% of their liquid each year due to evaporation.  Basic Madeiras sold with the name of one of the four "noble" Madeira grapes, Sercial, Bual, Verdelho or Malmsey, usually go through this process, while vintage Madeiras are typically aged for much, much longer.

As mentioned above, Verdelho is one of the four noble Madeira grapes.  Each of the four noble grapes maps roughly on to a particular style of Madeira with Sercial being the driest, Verdelho the next driest, Bual a little sweeter and Malmsey the sweetest.  The Verdelho of Madeira is not the same as the Verdelho of mainland Portugal, which is now known as Gouveio (or Godello, in Spain).  The Madeira Verdelho is also widely grown in the Azores, and it is thought that vines from the Azores were brought to Australia in the 19th Century.  Verdelho is still relatively widely planted throughout Australia, to the extent that the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show does not consider Verdelho to be an alternative variety and will not consider entries made from it.  I must admit that I came across more examples of wine made from the Verdelho grape than I had anticipated, but in the end decided it was still unusual enough to merit inclusion here.

The first wine that I tried was the 2005 Twisted Oak Verdelho made from grapes grown in the Silvaspoons Vineyard in Lodi, California, which I picked up from my friends over at the Gypsy Kitchen for about $16.  As mentioned in my recent post on Torrontés, the Silvaspoons Vineyard is owned and maintained by Ron Silva, who primarily grows Portuguese grape varieties there.  In the glass, this wine was a light silvery lemon color with greenish tints. The nose was fairly reserved with some green apple and lemon-lime citrus fruits along with some slighly oaky and buttery aromas as well.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly low acidity.  There were flavors of vanilla, ripe pear, buttery pie dough, ripe apple, coconut and pineapple candy.  I had half expected that the wine would be shot as it was 7 years old when I tried it, but it was drinking very well.  It's not really my style of wine, though, as the low acid and prominent oak are a deadly combination for my taste buds.  Fans of moderately oaked California Chardonnay will find a lot to like here, though, especially for the money.

The next wine that I tried was the 2007 Bodegas Viñátigo Verdello from the Ycoden Daute Isadora region on the western tip of the Tenerife island in the Canary Island chain.  I picked this wine up for around $32 from my friends at the Spirited Gourmet.  In the glass the wine was a fairly deep bronze-gold color.  The nose was fairly intense with leesy aromas of red apple, pear and honey with a little nuttiness and a little cheesy funk as well.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  There were flavors of toasted almonds and sawdust along with some honey, red apple, dried apple, dried apricot and baking spice.  This is a wine that really needs to be served as close to room temperature as you can manage, as it is harsh and spare when chilled too much.  As it warms up, though, the spice and dried fruits really become more apparent and the wine becomes much more generous and appealing.  It's not a cheap wine, but it is both good and interesting, which are the two major requirements I have for wines in this price range.

The final wine that I tried was the NV Vinhos Barbeito "Savannah Verdelho" from their Historic Series, which set me back about $40.  As a proud Georgia native, I was gratified to learn about the strong history of Madeira in the city of Savannah.  In addition to being a major port city for the import of Madeira wine in the early days of America, the city was (and I believe still is) the home to the Madeira Club of Savannah, a group of Madeira enthusiasts who gather monthly to drink fine old Madeiras, dine together and discuss issues of the day.  While this wine probably wouldn't be served at one of their functions, I found it plenty enjoyable.  In the glass the wine was a dark, deep tawny-brown color.  The nose was very intense with powerful roasted nut and burnt sugar aromas.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with high acid and medium sweetness.  There were zippy flavors of green apple, tasted walnuts and pecans, burnt sugar and smoke along with a slight salinity as well.  This wine was exceptionally balanced with an electric vein of acidity that really supported the sugar and nutty fruits.  This would be amazing with nutty desserts like pecan pie or baklava, but would also be nice with salty, funky cheeses as well.

Much of the discussion about the methods of producing Madeira wine is adapted from Trevor Elliott's The Wines of Madeira, which interested readers can order here.

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