The Beauty of Bual

This is the third varietal tasting organized by Roy Hersh (For the Love of Port) and Mannie Berk (The Rare Wine Company) and the second that I have attended.This year’s chosen grape is Bual (Boal), following on from Terrantez and Verdelho. 

The tasting was made up of twenty pre-phylloxera Bual /Boal wines from 1870 back to 1802.  The wines were brought to the feast by a number of collectors from the USA, UK, Cayman Islands as well as Madeira wine producer / shipper Ricardo Diogo Freitas (Barbeito).  All the wines were decanted at least two days in advance of the event to rid them of the bottle stink that can so often mar old Madeira.  The wisdom of this was a matter for debate during the tasting and I wonder myself if either the early decanting and/or the fairly powerful air conditioning in the restaurant in New York was not partly responsible for denying us some of the haunting aromas that you expect to find in great Madeira wine.  Towards the end of the tasting I and a number of my fellow tasters found a number of wines that weren’t as expressive as I would have expected on the nose. 

Nonetheless this was a remarkable, never to be repeated tasting, with some outstanding wines and very few disappointments. However I felt that it did not quite hit the high spots that we found last year with Verdelho and other tasters had found two years ago with Terrantez. The wines are presented here in the order they were tasted with background information on the pedigree of the individual bottles on show.   Where appropriate I have added tasting terms used by my fellow tasters in brackets.  I am very grateful to Mannie Berk for his research into the provenance and background of the wines much of which I have included with my tasting notes below.  I have also added my own essay on the Bual / Boal grape at the end of the notes. 

Boal RV 1870 (Barbeito) **

This is a family wine from Teresa and Ricardo Vasconcellos  who were originally sugar cane producers in Jardim do Mar. It was acquired by Ricardo Freitas of Barbeito in demijohn in 2008 and was returned to cask for a few months before being bottled in the autumn of 2008. This was one of the last wines that Ricardo worked with in the old Barbeito wine lodge between Reids and the Cliff Bay Hotels before it was demolished.   Rather cloudy and muddy in colour, thin green rim; stewed (singed), soupy aromas with a touch of Bovril, others said ‘soy sauce’; quite rich, certainly better on the palate than on the nose  but still rather soft and soupy in style (‘banana toffee’) with some fresh grassy acidity on the finish.  Balanced but not my style of wine.    13.5

Boal 1869 (Lomelino) *****

This wine comes from the firm of T.T.C Lomelino which was founded in the 19th century by Tarquinio Torquato da Câmara Lomelino and was run, after his death by Carlo de Bianchi, the grandfather of Noel Cossart. I have long had a soft spot for Lomelino wines, although the company became part of the Madeira Wine Association and was used as a brand thereafter. It is therefore possible that this wine is not an original Lomelino wine but merely bottled under the Lomelino label: mid-deep amber colour, orange-green rim; lovely open floral aromas, a touch of carpentry workshop but clean, fragrant and wonderfully fresh, just a touch roasted at the edges; quite sweet initially, apricots, (‘mandarin orange’) lovely weight and marmalade richness offset by a beautiful streak of acidity that runs all the way through to the finish.  Perfect balance and poise. I gave this one of my highest marks.  19

Boal 1868, Blandy’s Cama de Lobos ****/*****

Purchased from an auction of the Tour d’Argent in Paris. A rare example of a glass-aged Bual, the wine having spent just 18 years in wood prior to being bottled in 1886. There is a tasting note on this wine in Vizetelly’s Facts about Port and Madeira published in 1880. Clear and pale, unusually so, amber-orange in hue; very gentle lime and grapefruit marmalade character, a touch savoury too with a hint of almond toffee; fresh, quite dry in style with a delicate texture, dried apricots with grapefruit-like acidity although not that pronounced and a gentle (‘filigree’) though dryish finish more in the style of Verdelho than  Bual. An unusual wine but lovely nonetheless. 18.5     

1868 Very Old Boal ‘EBH’ ***

The initials stand for Eugenia de Bianchi Henriques who had two famous grandfathers, Tarquinio Lomelino and Carlo de Bianchi. She was Noel Cossart’s aunt and the wife of Tiburcio Henriques. These connections explain a number of wines that appeared under the EBH initials from years like 1869, 1870 and 1893.  1868 happened to be a very good vintage for Boal though, for me, this wine did not quite live up to its billing:  deep amber with a red tinge and thin green rim; not that expressive on the nose with a lifted, toffee apple character; much more powerful on the palate, tangy tawny marmalade, quite forceful with richness offset by appley acidity on the finish. Not much finesse. Ricardo Freitas speculated as to whether this wine had been fortified with sugar cane rum.   15.5 

1868 Very Old Boal ‘EBH’ (Cossart Gordon) ***

The 1868 EBH has appeared under several brand including Coassart Gordon. With identical stenciling to the previous wine (which did not bear the name of a shipper):  very similar colour to the wine above with a touch of sediment; slightly burnt on the nose (‘charred’), heavy smoke; rich and caramelised, again quite forceful on the palate, rich and powerful, tawny marmalade offset by acidity and a bitter-sweet finish. Very similar to the previous wine, only rather more caramelised. 15  

1863 Boal (Leacock) **/***

The 1863 Boal appeared under a number of Madeira Wine Association labels and presumably all the bottlings share a common origin. This was bottled in 1978 and imported into the USA by World Shippers of Philadelphia:  very deep, dark, reddish mahogany colour with a heavy sediment; rich, verging on soupy on the nose, burnt pruney fruit with a touch of coffee bean and molasses; very forceful with a pronounced tang, rich and raisiny with a pruney finish. Just a bit too heavy and ponderous to score more highly.  14.5  

1863 Boal (Barbeito) ****

There are many bottlings of this wine, spanning half a century. This wine (along with 1795 Terrantez, 1834 Malvasia and 1863 Boal) was part of Mario Barbeito’s initial stock when he founded the eponymous company in the 1940s. This particular bottle was imported by the Rare Wine Company, Sonoma, in the late 1990 and was bottled in 1991 or 1992:  mid-deep amber mahogany; slightly sour nose initially, not unattractive and this began to disappear in the glass, delicate, quite complex with toasty-savoury undertones; lovely rich intensely powerful figgy flavours, almost syrup of figs but just stops short, aided by fresh acidity. Very long and fine, with great definition. 18    

1863 Teixeira Boal ‘JRT’ ***

The back label says it all:  ‘this old madeira formed part of the private reserve of João Romão Teixeira (1864-1933), a prominent wine producer at Lugar de Baixo in south-west Madeira. In the 1950s, the wine was transferred to glass demijohns from the oak casks in which it had been matured, and was bottled, unrefreshed, in 1987. Of a total of 320 bottles, this is no. 0066.’  Deep amber – mahogany; rich and pronounced,on the nose, a touch floral and a hint of wood smoke; very rich and intense, bitter-sweet mid-palate with pruney depth of flavour. Quite a lot going on but lacking poise with a very slightly soily finish, although this had disappeared by the end of the tasting.  16 

1860 Bual (Blandy) ****

Unlike many other Blandy vintages, this does not seem to have appeared under other MWA lables. This is a rare wine with only three bottles having need recorded as sold at auction. This one originated in the UK. Mid-deep red tinged mahogany; very strange nose, wild, funky character, slightly damp too (although this diminished in the glass), like a closed room, quite complex; quite rich yet gentle with lovely texture and mouthfeel, showing none of that dampness on the palate, seamlessly rich with a slight saline character on the finish. Not that sweet or intense: mellow. 17    

1856 Bual (Leacock) ***/****

From a vintage at the end of oidium and just four years after the arrival of phylloxera, wines from 1856 are rare. This bottle was imported in to the USA in the 1960s by Leacock’s erstwhile agent, Julius Wile. Mid-deep amber-mahogany; slightly floral with a honeyed character and a touch of furniture polish too (‘menthol’, ‘mint tea’ also noted); rich with lovely texture and intensity, full, heady and figgy, quite powerful and well integrated with wonderful depth but not that much noticeable acidity.  16.5

1856 Bual (Barbeito)

Another rarity, originating from Mario Barbeito who bottled some of the wine in the 1970s though this may be from a later date:   deep, slightly cloudy mahogany, very strange dank aromas (‘old socks’, ‘cockroaches’ according to Ricardo Freitas!) and a equally strange saline taste (iodine?). Lead pencils. Burnt and concentrated but badly flawed. No mark.     

1837 Boal (Barbeito) ***/****

Purchased from the Barbeito family at the same time as the above. Ricardo Freitas believes that it may be the Acciaioly 1837 since his family did the decanting, airing and re-bottling of these wines in the late 1980s: mid-deep red-tinged amber-mahogany; not very expressive on the nose, a touch of toffee but surprisingly flat, even dull; not that rich, soft and rather simple initially, builds mid-palate, mellifluous, leading to a fine, gentle finish. Fresh and elegant.  16.5 

1835 Quinta do Serrado Boal ****

Quinta do Serrado at Câmara de Lobos was the family estate of the Henriques family.  A huge parcel of 19th century madeira was sold at Christies in London in 1989 and 1990 (about 2,000 bottles) but the Henriques family retained some bottles including this, purchased by the Rare Wine Company, Sonoma in 1997. Mid-deep, red tinged mahogany and light sediment; gentle toffeed fruit, slightly honeyed on the nose but not giving a great deal away; quite rich with lovely sweetness backed by limey acidity. Good depth and length. There is a touch of old Cognac about this.  17  

1827 Quinta do Serrado Boal ****

Another wine from the same family estate. This was put into demijohn in 1935 and bottled in 1988 for shipment to London where nearly 1,000 bottles were sold at auction. Deep mahogany. Not a great deal on the nose, slightly dank but with an underlying tang; very rich, spicy and intense, thick cut marmalade, offset by lovely acidity and a ‘wow’ of a finish which really wakes you up. Full and satisfying.  18

1826 Bual Solera (Blandy). ***/****

One of a set of solera wines released in the 1950s and 1960s. This was probably bottled between 1956 and 1960 and is based on the 1836 Campanário that Walter Grabham left to the Blandy family on his death in 1955 (see more information under 1811 Solera below).  Deep mahogany colour; rich smoky nose, autumnal bonfires and a touch of forest floor; rich lemon and lime marmalade with lovely mouthfeel and texture, leading to a delicate marmalade finish.  16.5 

1815 Boal ****

From a fine vintage, shipper unknown. The stenciling suggests a British source but the spelling of ‘Boal’ suggests a Portuguese source. Mid-deep amber, thin green rim; gentle leafy aromas, not especially expressive (almost closed) but fresh and spring-like; smooth, intense, not that sweet but very powerful, apricots with a touch of orange peel, long and full.  18

1811 Commemoration Bual Solera (Blandy) ****/*****

I have long been mystified by this wine which I have tasted and greatly enjoyed on a number of occasions (most recently at Blandy’s bicentennial celebrations) and I am especially grateful to Mannie Berk for his research as to how the wine came to be as it is. It came  to Blandy's (like the 1826 solera above) via Dr Michael Grabham (1840 – 1935) who married Miss Anne Mary Blandy and inherited a very fine cellar.  He left this to his son Walter Grabham who died in 1955, leaving his wines to his cousins Graham and John Blandy. In 1960 Graham Blandy sold hundreds of bottles to the MWA writing to managing director Horace Zino ‘they can well be made into a solera’. The 1811 is not a solera in the conventional sense of the word (although until relatively recently there was no Portuguese definition) but resulted from a one off blending of various old wines belonging to Walter Grabham. The Blandy family needed a wine to celebrate John Blandy’s arrival in Madeira and so the decision was made to uncork much of the Grabham collection to produce a commemorative wine. The following Blandy wines may well have gone into this historic bottling: 1826 Campanário, 1858 Sercial, 1829 Porto de Cruz, 1788 Malmsey, 1827 Bual, 1827 Old London Particular, 1830 ‘Cask’ and the famous São Martinho Challenger which had sailed on board HMS Challenger in 1873. There is even a possibility that some of Grabham’s 1792 so called ‘Napoleon Madeira’ may have gone into the blend. It has to be asked why such historic Madeiras, already in bottle, were deemed suitable for blending? The answer to this is held by Tom Mullins, managing director of the MWA whose task it was to taste through the Grabham wines. He opened the bottles with his wife over a series of evenings and reported back as follows: ‘in my view they should be served as curiosities and preferably at the beginning of the dinner or lunch, with the soup. I do not think they will bring any credit to the name of Blandy, nor encourage people to drink Madeiras’.    The wines would almost certainly have been in bottle since the 1830s and 1840s and would probably have suffered from serious bottle stink. It seems that Mullins didn’t aerate the wines properly and merely took the wines from bottle at face value, condemning them in the process.  So to the ‘1811’ solera which is probably based on an 1811 Bual aged in cask blended with drier wines from the Grabham collection: lovely chestnut colour with gold-green rim; wonderful aroma, heady, amontillado-like and autumnal, a blaze of autumn sunshine (‘lovely decay’); rich yet quite dry in style, a touch of cinnamon, great poise and length. Not really Bual in style (too dry) but it still leaves a few questions unanswered: Is this a wine that is greater than the sum of its parts?  How many great wines were really sacrificed to make the 1811 Solera. 18.5  

Henriques & Henriques WS Boal ****/*****

 One of the so called ‘Heavenly Quartet’ of ancient yet undated Madeiras produced by Henriques & Henriques. This bottle was acquired by the Rare Wine Company from John Cossart’s own cellar following his death in 2011 (It was aired for 6 months in demijohn before being rebottled and recorked). John believed that this group of wines that formed the WS Boal were already old when the H&H was founded in 1850 and some of the wines in the blend may date from the late eighteenth century. Mid-deep amber; still rich on the nose, a touch of honey with bolo de mel (Madeira ‘honey cake’)– parkin (its Yorkshire equivalent)  on the nose; wonderful texture and intensity, not especially sweet or rich but with a marmalade tang and above all wonderful balance and poise, almost delicate on the finish. Very fine. 18.5  

Henriques & Henriques Grand Old Boal ****

Another member of the ‘Heavenly Quartet’ (but not quite so heavenly in my opinion).  This was also believed to have been already old when H&H was founded in 1850: slightly deeper in colour than the WS with a rather dank nose and some varnish; richer and fatter than the WS, powerful and vibrant on the palate, concentrated with a full finish but lacking a little in freshness. (‘Herbal’ according to one taster). 17    

1802 Boal (Barbeito) ****

This bottle is from Ricardo Freitas’ family and is quite rare, very few bottles of 1802 Boal having appeared at auction: mid-deep amber honey and raisins on the nose with the merest touch of rubber, quite open and expressive; sweet, rich and mellifluous in style (‘dill’ continuing with the herbal theme), harmonious, still very much alive and kicking. Sweet and delicate in the finish with great length and poise.   18  

 What is Boal?

Bual (or Boal in Portuguese) is a name that covers not one but a number of grape varieties in Portugal. Professor Cincinnato da Costa, writing in his tome O Portugal Viticola / Le Portugal Vinicole at the turn of the twentieth century lists no less than sixteen sub-varieties. These include tantalising names like Boal Carrasquenho, Boal de Alicante, Boal Pardo (‘grey’ Boal) Boal Calhariz, Boal Desembargador (‘umembargoed’ Boal), Boal Roxo (purple Boal),  Boal Frio (‘cold’ Boal), Boal Liso (‘smooth’ Boal) Boal Ratinho (‘small mouse’ Boal), Boal ramilhete (floral ‘nosegay’ Boal) and Boal Bonifácio. 

The Boal growing on Madeira, also known as the Boal Cachudo (cacho meaning ‘bunch’), has had the official and rather confusing official title of Malvasia Fina since 2000. It almost certainly originated on the Portuguese mainland (or continente as it is known in Madeira) having been planted in the Douro and Dão for centuries. In Wine Grapes (Robinson et al.) viticulturalist Rolando Faustino suggests that due to its wide genetic diversity it is probably from the Douro but neither Dão nor the Lisbon region can be ruled out. Interestingly, Cincinnato da Costa distinguishes Boal Cachudo and Malvasia Fina as separate grape varieties placing the first in the Lisbon region (as well as Madeira) and the second in the Douro.   

Under the name Malvasia Fina it is the second most planted white grape in the Douro and therefore ends up in almost all white Port. Rebello de Fonseca heaped praise on the grape in the nineteenth century saying ‘you can eat it, make raisins from it as well as wonderful wine. Among white grapes only Moscatel is better’. In fact in the Douro it was sometimes known by farmers as the Malvasia de Passa because of its tendency to raisinize and shrivel on the vine. From my experience in Portugal (and elsewhere) grapes that are good to eat rarely make the best wine.  In Portugal this variety is also known by the local names Arinto do Dão and Assário.  Boal is also grown on the Azores. Recent DNA parentage has shown that the Boal Ratinho once grown widely for fortified wine in Carcavelos is an offspring of Malvasia Fina and Síria grape (the latter also known as Códega).   

Malvasia Fina (aka Boal Cachudo) is a relatively easy grape to grow. It buds late and ripens early, its only significant drawback being its susceptibility to powdery mildew (Oidium).  Its bunches are large, hence the name. On the continente it is not especially prized as a variety and only rarely appears as a varietal wine. But on Madeira, Boal is the second most planted of all the white grape varieties after Malvasia (although so called ‘Malvasia’ is in fact a cover for a number of varieties.).  Boal is traditionally found growing on warmer sites on the south side of the island, usually at 100 – 300 metres above sea level.  Today, the best wines originate from small plots in Campanário, Calheta, Arco de Calheta and Ponta do Pargo to the west of Funchal. It does not perform well on the cooler and damper north side of the island and there is very little planted there as a result. Unlike some of the other white grapes (e.g. Terrantez and Sercial) there is seemingly no shortage of Boal even though the total registered area is no more than 20 hectares out of a total vineyard area of nearly 500 hectares (8.7 ha in Calheta, 6.6ha in Camara de Lobos and 3.6 ha in Ribeira Brava). Boal is capable of ripening to between 11º and 13º baumé but the average baumé in recent years has been less than 10, more a reflection of yield than anything else.  Nevertheless it produces wines that are medium sweet or medium rich in style.  Until Portugal joined the European Union in 1986, most medium sweet wine was labelled ‘Boal’ or ‘Bual’ as an indication of style rather than actually being made from the stated grape.

In his book, Madeira, the Island Vineyard, Noel Cossart says little about Boal as a grape but writes of the wine that  ‘Bual was a great favorite in officers’ messes and clubs in India, being lighter than Malmsey or Port.’ My late father-in-law, Richard Blandy, (who chaired Blandy’s from 1986 to 2001) always professed that Bual was his favorite style of Madeira wine and advocated drinking it with curry. 

Scoring

19 - 20 An outstanding wine (*****)

17 – 18 An excellent wine in its class, highly recommended (****)

15 - 16 A good wine, with much to recommend it (***)

13 - 14 An enjoyable but simple, straightforward wine (**)

10 – 12 A very ordinary wine without faults but with no great merit (*)

8 - 10 Disagreeable (no stars)

Below 8 Faulty