Sercial and Verdelho, with little problem, but then I came up against Boal, and things started to get a little dicey. It turns out that there are a handful of grapes that are called Boal or Bual and unless you are familiar with some of the recent legislation regarding grape names in Portugal, you may be misled in your search for information about the Boal of Madeira. You might be inclined, as I was at first, to think that Boal Branco is the grape you're after...after all, it does list Boal de Madere as one of its synonyms. It turns out that Boal Branco, which is sometimes used a synonym for Sémillon in the Douro Valley, is actually a very obscure grape that is hardly cultivated any more (at least according to Wine Grapes, the massive new grape book from Jancis Robinson & Co. that I hope to review very shortly).
If you're looking for Boal, you actually need to start looking in that tangled web of grapes that is the Malvasia "family." I have "family" in scare quotes, because it turns out that many of the grapes called Malvasia Something are actually not related to one another at all. The story goes that these grapes are ultimately named for the port of Monemvasia in Greece, which was at one time (many hundreds of years ago) a major hub for wine commerce. There were many different sweet wines coming out of the port of Monemvasia, and it is thought that the place name became a kind of substitute for the grape name and many of the wines being shipped out of there just came to be called vinum de Malvasias or some variant of that. Before the heyday of ampelography (and, more recently, DNA analysis), it was probably the case that any grape making wines similar in style to these wine were called Malvasia, regardless of whether they were related to any of the grapes making the wines coming out of Monemvasia or not. Wines with "Malvasia" somewhere in their name are genetically and geographically diverse, which would seem to lend credence to a stylistic basis for the common root rather than a genetic one. Malvasia grapes are especially common in Italy, Spain and Portugal and there have been numerous studies done to try and see how they are (or are not) related to one another. Many of the Malvasias do have some kind of genetic connection, but there are others that are obvious outliers, so if we speak of Malvasia as a family, we really are only doing so in a linguistic sense.
All of which is wonderful, but what does any of this have to do with Boal, you may be asking. Well, in the year 2000, the Portuguese authorities officially renamed the Boal/Bual grape Malvasia Fina (Boal is the Portuguese name while Bual is the Anglicization of it...remember that Madeira was a British dominated market for a very long time and the British apparently had a tough time with the "oa" diphthong so they changed it to "ua"...go figure). This wasn't done on a whim, but rather based on genetic and ampelographic information that showed that these two grapes were actually one and the same (and also showed that Malvasia Fina had a parent/offspring relationship with another grape known as Boal Ratinho). Malvasia Fina is one of the Portuguese specialties of Malvasia and it is grown on about 2,200 hectares throughout that country. It is mostly found in the Douro, where it is thought to have originated, and the Dão in the northern part of the country, but it is really grown throughout Portugal, as evidenced by its appearance on Madeira and the Azores islands.
Those familiar with the wines of Madeira may be starting to wonder about something right about now. The four styles of quality Madeira are Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey, and Malmsey is supposed to be made from Malvasia grapes. Is the Malvasia used for Malmsey the same or different from the Malvasia Fina used for Bual? This question was much more difficult to answer than I had thought as nearly all sources that I consulted simply say that Malmsey is made from Malvasia grapes with no further elaboration. I actually put off even writing this post until my copy of Wine Grapes arrived, as I was hopeful that they could shed some light on it. According to them, the grape used for Malmsey production on Madeira is a variety known as Malvasia Branca de São Jorge, which doesn't appear to be grown anywhere else or used for any other wines. We'll get into more detail about it when I take a look at a Malmsey Madeira, but for now, suffice it to say that it is a distinct variety of Malvasia from Malvasia Fina, and wines labeled Bual and Malmsey are made from different grape varieties.
Having sorted all of that out, I still wasn't quite out of the woods. I also had picked up a wine from the Canary Islands of Spain which was labeled as Gual and which I was told (and had no reason to disbelieve) was made from the Bual grape of Madeira. When I tried to search for Gual in the VIVC database, though, the only result that came back showed that Gual was a synonym of Albillo Mayor, the recently proven parent of Tempranillo that I'm not sure whether I tried or not. After a bit of digging, I found this paper (in Spanish) which seems to confirm that the Gual of the Canary Islands is in fact the same as the Bual/Boal/Malvasia Fina of Madeira.
Spirited Gourmet for around $32. In the glass the wine was a medium lemon gold color. The nose was fairly intense with aromas of apricot, cantaloupe, honey and red grapefruit. On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acidity. There were flavors of leesy dried apricot and cantaloupe fruit along with a bit of honeysuckle flower as well. It was difficult to find a good temperature to drink this at, as it was a bit too alcoholic at room temperature, but was also too austere and bitter at fridge temp. Cellar temperature or a little bit cooler seemed to really be the sweet spot for the wine. It's a nice, interesting wine, but is difficult to justify at the price point. I'd much rather pay the little bit extra for the Madeira and enjoy Bual in its traditional incarnation. Those interested in finding out what the wine might taste like before it finishes its journey to becoming Madeira may be better served tracking down a Malvasia Fina from mainland Portugal if price is a concern, but those interested in an island wine showing a different side of the grape should definitely give this a shot.
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.