Note from the author: There are 1,368 varieties covered in Wine Grapes by MW Jancis Robinson, MW Julia Harding, and Dr. Jose Vouillamoz. This past year, I've been drinking my way through.
This is a love story.
One year ago, I opened my brand new copy of Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, and Jose Vouillamoz, and I embarked on my weird wine grapes journey. I spoke at the time about the first wine I ever hated. While today my feelings for Lacrima di Morro d'Alba have softened, I'm still not in the mood for a second date with it.
Today, however, we come full circle, and as I wrap up my weird wine adventure, I want to finish by telling you about the last wine I fell in love with. I love this wine for its history. For its tenacity. For its loyalty and longevity, its singular character and its ability to keep me intrigued. I think this relationship is going to last a long, long time.
Wine Grapes introduces my new lover casually: "Portuguese variety making fine, medium-dry wines on Madeira..." which barely hints at the glories of the super-fine bottle of Broadbent 10-Year-Old Verdelho that sits open, half-full, on a shelf in my booze hutch.
This bottle will stay there resolutely, unwavering, unspoiled for as long as I let it... days, weeks, months, years, decades. It promises never to turn, never to let me down.
How is this possible?? It all started in 1419, when the Portuguese Empire's Prince Henry the Navigator landed at Porto Santo: the discovery of new land! Shortly thereafter, Porto Santo's neighboring island of Madeira (originally thought to be the edge of the earth) was colonized by the Portuguese. Vines were quickly brought over from Greece, and soon enough, Madeira wines were being exported by sea all around the world. Often, the wines were used as ballast for the ships, getting quite hot during their journeys.
By golly, people soon realized that the wines that had traveled around the world in this manner came back tasting... quite good! They also realized that the wines traveled even better when they were fortified (meaning the wine's fermentation process is halted by adding a neutral grain spirit to the wine, thereby preserving some sugar and boosting alcohol levels, which prevents spoilage).
The wines' warm, long journeys left them with softly caramelized flavors and a nutty element from some oxidation, while the fortification certainly left drinkers feeling extra warm and happy. The signature Madeira wine was born!
Unfortunately, however, making all of the wines travel in this manner was expensive and logistically challenging. Alternative methods had to be developed. One such method, called the estufagem process, ages wines in stainless steel tanks heated by steel coils through which hot water flows. Another is the canteiro process, where the wines are aged for years in barrels set in hot attics. Years after such relentless exposure to heat and oxygen, the wines are essentially indestructible! Unlike any other wine in the world, Madeira will remain virtually unchanged from the time you open the bottle until the time days, weeks, months, years later when you decide to finish it. Like I said, this is a long-term relationship.
Toffee-colored at the core, the Broadbent 10-Year-Old Verdelho moves to a marigold hue in the middle before fading out to an almost chartreuse tone at the very edges of the rim. It's beautiful, a product of the decade or so it spent in a barrel in a warm attic (age indications like "10-Year" are approximations in Madeira... it could have been slightly more, slightly less). It smells like it will be sweet. The scent is full of orange peel and burnt butterscotch, a hot and fiery cinnamon flash followed by smooth nut toffee.
But I know before taking a sip that Verdelho is one of the drier styles of Madeira. As Wine Grapes explains: "The must has moderate sugar levels, marked acidity and is used for medium-dry fortified wines." Of the four 'noble' grapes cultivated on the island, Sercial has the highest acidity and makes the driest style of wine, followed by Verdelho, then Boal and finally Malmsey at the sweetest end of the spectrum.
The first taste bursts across my palate with blood orange flavors, plus salty preserved lemons and a fantastic damp hay/dried mushroom thing. A pleasant sweetness like tangerine hard candy offsets all the acidity that's making my mouth water, and a moment after swallowing, an unexpected and amazing warm and creamy finish that tastes like toasted pecans takes over.
Like I said, I have fallen in love. I love the wine even more for the fact that Madeira is an underdog. It's not exactly the popular kid at the wine world table these days, but I'm thoroughly convinced of its character, enthralled with its history and excited about its future—particularly these aged versions, and particularly when paired with food. The salty/sweet/nutty/mouthwatering combination is jarring and addictive. Like anyone newly in love, I can't stop talking about it. But I'll be quiet now. Just go try a bottle of Verdelho Madeira yourself this weekend. Pair it with a mushroom or butternut squash soup and see if you, too, end up purring at the new guy in your own booze hutch.
Broadbent Selections Verdelho 10-Year-Old Madeira
The Grape: Verdelho
The Region: Madeira, Portugal
The Importer: Broadbent Selections
Retail Price: $50
About the Author: Stevie Stacionis is a wine writer and Certified Sommelier based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter @StevieStacionis and check out her snobbery-free wine videos at A Drinks With Friends TV.
Tasting sample provided for review consideration.
More Adventures with Weird Wine Grapes
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