Sercial, Bual (Malvasia Fina) and Verdelho. I also have plans to cover Malmsey (aka Malvasia Branca de São Jorge) and the rare Terrantez in the near future, but today I'd like to take a look at the workhorse grape of the island of Madeira, Tinta Negra. This grape used to be known as Tinta Negra Mole in Portugal, but the name was recently changed to avoid confusion with another grape grown in Algarve on the Portuguese mainland which is also (and now officially) called Tinta Negra Mole. Tinta Negra is also known as Negramoll in the Canary Islands of Spain (which is where both wines we'll be looking at today are from) and as Mollar in parts of the Spanish mainland (especially in southern Spain). Though I won't be writing about any wines from Madeira in today's post, I'd still like to start off by talking a little bit about the grape's importance on that island before moving to the Spanish examples I was recently able to try.
Tinta Negra is planted on about 680 acres on Madeira but is responsible for making about 80% of the wines there. If you've ever bought a wine for around $10 - $20 that was just labeled "Madeira," chances are that it was made from Tinta Negra grapes. The fortified wines made from Tinta Negra are generally thought to be much inferior to those made from the noble varieties mentioned above, so one may wonder why so much more wine is made from it than from those other grapes. The reason can be traced back to the twin catastrophes that visited the vineyards of Madeira in the mid 19th century. In 1851, powdery mildew arrived on Madeira and since many of the noble grape varieties of the island are particularly susceptible to fungal infections like powdery mildew, the vineyards all over the island were completely decimated. It was soon discovered that applying sulfur to the vines could combat this fungus and many growers began to replant, but in the 1870's phylloxera arrived and wiped out the vineyards all over again. Rather than replant those vines which had proven so susceptible to these diseases, many growers elected to plant hybrid and native American vines (called direct producers because they did not need to be grafted onto resistant rootstock) or vines like Tinta Negra which has very good fungal resistance and which yields generously and reliably. When the EU banned the use of hybrid and native American vines for quality wine produced in the EU, Tinta Negra's plantings rose even more. Though there are some producers who are making high quality fortified wines from the grape, most of the wines made from Tinta Negra on Madeira are generic and uninteresting.
The grape is actually much more widely planted throughout the Canary Islands of Spain, where there are just over 3,000 acres under vine. It is known as Negramoll in the Canary Islands and is used primarily to make red table wines rather than fortified wines. It had long been thought that Negramoll was either native to the Canary Islands or to the island of Madeira, but a study published in 2006 (citation 1) found that the variety known as Negramoll was identical to a vine grown in Andalusia on the Spanish mainland called Mollar Cano. The name Mollar comes from the Latin word mollis, which means soft (apparently because the berries are soft to the touch), and so Negramoll basically means something like "soft black." References for Mollar can be traced back a few hundred years and many of those references are to vines grown throughout South America (where there are still vines called Mollar, some of which have been recently shown to be genetically identical to Negramoll [citation 2]), which means that this particular vine, like the Mission grape, was widely disseminated throughout the new Spanish world by missionaries who were planting vines to make sacramental wine. As we saw in my post on Listán Negro, the Canary Islands were often the last stop for ships on their way to the new Spanish colonies in the Americas and many of the vines that were destined for those new lands ended up in the Canaries as well. It is now thought that Negramoll is likely from Andalusia and was brought to the Canary Islands and to Madeira on ships that were ultimately bound for the New World.
Curtis Liquors. In the glass the wine was a fairly light brickish garnet color with some orange-brown tints to it. The nose was fairly intense with aromas of red cherry, wild strawberry, stewed tomato, licorice, damp leafy earth and spice. On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity and low tannins. There were flavors of wild strawberry, tart cherry, damp leaves, canned tomatoes and green bell pepper. The nose was quite lovely but I found the palate bitter, metallic and a little harsh. I was a little disappointed in this wine because I enjoyed the Listán Blanco from this winery quite a bit, but I really had a hard time drinking this particular bottle.
Wine Bottega for around $20. This wine was from the island of La Palma, which is the most northwesterly of the Canary Islands and is the fifth largest in that chain. In the glass the wine was a fairly light brickish ruby color with a bit of brown to it. The nose was moderately intense with aromas of dusky wild strawberry, red cherry, canned stewed tomatoes, damp leaves and earth. On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity and low tannins. There were flavors of wild strawberry, tart cherry, cranberry, wet leaves, stewed tomato and cola. I picked up the same harsh metallic notes in this wine as in the other and while it wasn't quite as unpleasant to drink, it wasn't exactly a pleasure either. If they packaged cheap Pinot Noir in tin cans, I bet the result would taste a lot like these two wines. I really didn't expect to end up preferring those simple Madeira wines made from this grape to these two table wine examples, but that's pretty much what happened. There may be producers out there doing amazing things with this grape, but I just don't think that it's for me.
1) Martin, JP, Santiago, JL, Pinto-Carnide, O, Leal, F, Martinez MC, & Ortiz, JM. 2006. Determination of Relationships among Autochthonous Grapevine Varieties (Vitis vinifera L.) in the Northwest of the Iberian Peninsula by using microsatellite markers. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution, 53(6), pp 1255-61.
2) Martinez, LE, Cavagnaro, P, Masuelli, RW & Zuniga, M. 2006. SSR-based Assessment of Genetic Diversity in South American Vitis Vinifera varieties. Plant Science, 170(6), pp 1036-44.
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.