The Majesty of Malvasia

This is the third in a series of tastings that I have attended focusing on one of Madeira’s principal grape varieties. This year was is the turn of Malvasia / Malmsey (with Bual and Verdelho having been covered in the previous two years. I am very grateful to Emanuel Berk of The Rare Wine Company, Sonoma and Roy Hersh for putting this tasting together and assembling Madeira aficionados from all over the world. 

Malvasia / Malmsey is undoubtedly the best known and most highly prized of all Madeira’s wines, but the name ‘Malvasia’ is in fact an umbrella for a number of different and probably totally unrelated grape varieties. 

Historically, much the most sought after variety on Madeira is Malvasia Cândida. Recent DNA profiling has revealed that this is the same as Malvasia di Lipari, grown in Italy, Greece, Spain and Croatia.  The origin of the grape is uncertain. Malvasia Cândida was supposedly brought to Madeira from Crete (Candia) in the fifteenth century, either by Venetian traders or (some say) by the Infante Dom Henrique (Prince Henry the Navigator) himself. 

Malvasia Cândida has always been in painfully short supply. As early as 1530 an Italian named Giulio Landi stated that the Madeira produces a large quantity of wines of all kinds…as well as Malmsey, but in lesser quantities which is reputed to be better than that from Candia’. William Bolton, writing to a wine merchant in 1709 complains about the lack of Malmsey: ‘…we likewise observe yr (sic) order to us of 6 hogsheads of rich Malmsey, which, at present is not to be had in the whole island…’ During the boom years of the second half of the eighteenth century Francis Newton (erstwhile partner in Cossart Gordon) wrote frequently to his London partners lamenting the lack of Malvasia wine.  In 1841, Paulo Perestrelo de Câmara wrote ‘...the best Malmsey grapes make only 200 pipes a year. This fabulous nectar, with its mellifluous flavour, has the pungent aroma of a posy of sweet-smelling flowers. This precious beverage is ready to drink after eight years, but is better left longer, but even only at a year old is agreeable, giving off its perfume and full flavour of the grape.’     

Decimated by oidium and not widely replanted after phylloxera, by the mid-twentieth century Malvasia Cândida was almost extinct. It is very difficult to grow with production varying alarmingly from year to year. My brother-in-law, Andrew Blandy, planted Malvasia Cândida at Quinta de Santa Luzia in Funchal in 2005 but found it so tetchy  and low yielding that he regrafted it less than ten years later to Malvasia Fina (Boal).   Malvasia Cândida is very prone to attack by oidium and needs a well-exposed site at low altitudes to flourish. It also needs to be trained on latadas (low pergolas) as it should be pruned with at least eight buds to produce a commercial crop. It is subject to apical growth with the flowering tending to be towards the end of the cane.  Traditionally Malvasia Cândida grapes were only picked when they began to shrivel or raisinize on the on the vine, so concentrating the natural sugars to produce the sweetest and most concentrated of wines. According to the most recent records only 4ha of Malvasia Cândida is currently grown on Madeira at Jardim do Mar and on Fajã dos Padres, both at sea level on the south side of the island, as well as in the Government’s experimental vineyards. 

Today nearly all madeira wine bottled under the name Malvasia / Malmsey is in fact made from a grape known locally as Malvasia de São Jorge. Until 2015 Malvasia de São Jorge was no more than ‘authorised’ by IVBAM (Instituto do Vinho, Bordado e Artesanato da Madeira) but under the legislation published on 13th February this year it has been promoted to ‘recommended’.  Malvasia de São Jorge is a modern variety that was introduced from Bairrada on the Portuguese mainland by Professor Leão Ferreira de Almeida of the Estação Agronómica Nacional in Lisbon and came to be planted on Madeira from the late 1970s onwards.  The late Professor left no record of the grape’s parentage. Named after the parish of São Jorge on the north side of the island, the area of production expanded rapidly in the replanting programme that took place from the 1990s onwards and there are now 36ha, mostly around Santana on the north coast. This productive variety nonetheless has its drawbacks as it is highly susceptible to bunch rot. But it is aromatic when young and generally well liked by growers as well as all the shippers. 

A number of other so-called ‘Malvasias’ have been found growing on Madeira. In his book Madeira, The Island Vineyard, Noel Cossart mentions the Malvasia Babosa (‘Lazy Malmsey’).  This variety was supposedly introduced to Madeira by Genoese nobleman, Simon Accaioli in 1515 but it is not clear what this variety equates to, other than possibly a grape known just as ‘Babosa’ on the Portuguese mainland.  It seems that this sub-variety no longer exists on the island although I once came across a mid nineteenth century bottle labeled ‘Boal Babosa’. There is also Malvasia Fina (otherwise known as Boal/Bual), and Malvasia Roxa (‘Purple Malvasia’). 

In recent years no distinction has been made between the different types of Malvasia and, when it comes to vinifying the grapes, all the Malvasias are usually pressed and fermented together. With the expection of a few ancient wines (see below) labeled Malvasia Cândida, Malmsey should therefore be thought of as a style of wine rather than a varietal. 

Today’s Malvasia / Malmsey is officially defined by IVBAM as being a ‘dôce, sweet or rich’ which means having at least 100g/l of residual sugar. In the past however Malmsey wines have been made that were drier in style. 

The following Malvasias / Malmsey’s were presented at the tasting in New York. The tasting notes and ratings are my own but I am grateful to Emanuel Berk for the background research on the wines:  

Barbeito 1882 Malvasia RR ****/*****

‘RR’ stands for The Count of Ribeiro Real (1841- 1902), the owner of vineyards at Estreito de Câmara de Lobos. This wine was passed down through the family and 177 bottles were filled from demijohns in February 2015, 24 being retained by the family. Mid-deep amber with an orange-amber rim; peat and malt whisky on the nose, slightly smoky too and a touch funky initially with a smell of mothballs though this wore off during the tasting (the bottle was uncorked the morning before the tasting so clearly there was some bottle stink even though the wine had only been in bottle for two months); not that sweet initially, in fact quite dry and delicate, with a lovely crème brulée character rising in the mouth along with dried figs and raisins, good weight and texture mid-palate and beautifully balanced on the finish with a tawny marmalade tang.  18.5     

 FC 1880 Malvasia ***

According to the great madeira collector Patrick Grubb, this wine was bottled in 1955 ‘when almost a liqueur’. It was rebottled in 2010. FC stands for the wine’s owner, Francisco Costa: deep amber – mahogany with an orange rim; rather vegetal on the nose, boiled cabbage, singed, fading to roasted coffee with raisins and butterscotch underneath; well defined raisiny concentration of flavour, offset by pronounced acidity, dried apricots through to the finish, so much better on the palate than on the nose. 16   

Blandy 1880 Malvasia ***

From a great Malmsey vintage, it is possible that this wine shares a common origin with the Cossart Gordon 1880 which Noel Cossart describes as coming form ‘the best Malvasia vineyards…kept in wood for 75 years before being bottled…a great luscious, pungent wine with fine, lingering sweetness.’ Deep amber-mahogany with an orange – green tinged rim; raisins with a hint of coffee and marmite on the nose, not a great combination in my book; certainly pungent with a savoury character, still fresh and well defined on the palate, a classic, rich style of wine with good mouth feel and a soft, round, flattering finish. This wine did not quite live up to its star billing.  15.5

Barbeito 1880 Malvasia MMV ****

Just 37 bottles of this wine from a single demi-john, bottled in 2014, the remainder going into the Mãe Manuela blend. MMV stands for Maria Manuela Vasconcelos, the mother of Ricardo Diogo of  Madeira shippers Barbeito. This wine probably originated from the Hinton or Favila Vieira families:  red tinged mahogany with a thin amber-green rim; pungent, lifted, wild, herbal aromas (‘verbena’ said one taster), verging on funky though once again this wine was opened and decanted on the morning of the tasting; quite angular on the palate with razor sharp acidity almost masking the underlying richness, pineapple freshness on the finish and a touch of cinnamon spice. A very unusual wine with a big impact, but not to everyone’s taste so rather difficult to mark. I didn’t like it initially but my respect for the wine grew on retasting.  17

Herdeiros Dr. Castro Jorge 1879 Malvasia **/***

From the heirs of Dr. Jorge Castro, bottled in 1943 and recently re-corked and re-waxed: slightly cloudy, deep reddish amber; rather demure on the nose, slightly earthy/musty and lacking in definition; sweet initially, quite light and delicate in style, grows in the mouth leading to a candied orange peel finish, but not quite all there and a bit of a let down. 14.5 

Henriques & Henriques 1875 Special Reserve Malvasia **

A very rare wine, bottled in 1957: very deep, dark mahogany colour, opaque at the centre; clearly very rich with a hint of treacle but not that expressive, there seems to be a black hole at the centre of this wine; very sweet and rather too unctuous, verging on PX in style mid-palate and only just offset by the acidity on a rather ponderous, burnt finish. I imagine that this wine has received a hefty dose of caramel at some point in its history. 13   

D’Oliveira Malvasia 1875 ****

A bottling form the 1970s, rebottled in 2014, the origin of this wine is possibly the same wine as the Barbeito below. Still available for sale from D’Oliveira alongside an 1875 Moscatel and Sercial: mid-deep mahogany with just a touch of sediment in my glass; raisiny slightly floral character on the nose, but not all that expressive though not at all rustic, a character which I often associate with this shipper; soft, sweet and mellifluous in style, lovely richness offset by playful acidity leading to a fine bitter-sweet finish.  17.5   

Barbeito 1875 Malvasia ****

Possibly the same origin as the wine above, this wine was purchased by Barbeito from the Hinton family in 1946 or 1947. The wine was acquired in a 620 litre cask but only 75 litres remain, transferred into demijohns in 2008.  The grapes are believed to have come from Ribeira Brava.  This wine was bottled in 2003: another very deep coloured, mahogany wine, nearly opaque at the centre; wonderful aromas, rich and smoky, a touch caramelised but in no way ponderous; sweet, rich and slightly burnt in style, very intense with lovely richness opening up mid-palate, akin to dark honey yet offset by fine acidity on the finish. 17 

 Blandy 1870 Malmsey Reserve ***

Released by Blandy’s in the 1960s with a label signed by Ferdinando Bianchi. According to the front label, only 48 bottles were produced, of which this is bottle 34. The wine was acquired from D. Maria Favila Vieira who inherited the wine from her family: mid-deep mahogany amber colour; distinctly lifted and rather edgy, floral aromas; rich, slightly singed bitter-sweet fruit, caramelised around the edges off-set to begin with by fine acidity, quite powerful and pungent yet let down by a rather dry bitter-sweet finish. Not quite all there any longer. 15.5       

Barros e Sousa 1864 Malvasia Fajã ****

A lovely stenciled bottle from Barros e Sousa, a company founded in 1921 and recently purchased by D’Oliveira. The wine presumably comes from the famous Fajã dos Padres: red tinged amber mahogany; open, aromatic and quite complex, honeysuckle initially on the nose, tending to furniture and floor polish; gentle, playful, elegant, sweet and well defined, flavour of fresh figs, still very fresh with a gentle honeyed finish, sweet but not all that rich. This wine divided opinion but I rather liked it from the start. 17.5   

Blandy 1862 Malvasia Velha

Stenciled bottle. It seems that the words ‘Malvasia Velha’ were painted at a different time from the words ‘1862 Blandy Madeira’: pale to mid mahogany-amber; not very expressive on the nose, in fact rather hollow; more on the palate, initially quite powerful with honeyed sweetness mid-palate then a rather dry, flat, bitter soily finish. Not very pleasant. No mark awarded.      

Blandy 1839 Malvasia Fajã dos Padres *****

From the famous Fajã dos Padres, a bottle stenciled ‘Shipped by Blandy’s Madeira Lda.', mid-deep reddish amber; gently lifted, ethereal aromas, fine expressive yet at the same time wonderfully restrained; beautifully round, rich figgy fruit (fresh figs) perfectly balanced by a streak of acidity which keeps the finish alive. Mellifluous, sweet and seductive: a near perfect expression of Malvasia from one of the greatest vineyards on the island. Wines like this are worth crossing the Atlantic for: unsurprisingly this was the winning wine of the entire tasting.   19.5    

Acciaioly 1836 Malmsey Special Reserve ****/*****

A bottle from a huge lot (170 bottles) sold at auction in London in July 1989. I recall that this was perhaps the least impressive of the superb Acciaioly wines sold at the time, although that is very much relative: mid-deep amber with a green rim; very expressive, high toned aromas, quite heady, a touch of varnish but this wine really sings from the glass; elegant well-defined dried fig and tawny marmalade richness with lovely length that goes on and on.  A multifaceted wine that left me lost for words. 18.5 

H.M. Borges 1830 Malvasia **/***

A wine that remained with the Borges company (rather than the family), the label (though no seal or origin) suggesting the wine was released sometime by Borges in the 1950s: mid-deep amber mahogany; rather sour on the nose and perhaps hollow too (although maybe overwhelmed by the previous two wines); much more to it on the palate, quite rich, caramelised oranges turning to toffee mid-palate then falling away rather on the finish. 14.5    

Quinta do Serrado 1830 Malvasia ****

The estate of the Henriques family, located at Câmara de Lobos. This was another wine sold at Christies, London in 1989 (nearly 1,000 bottles) having been put into demijohn in 1935 and bottled in 1988 shortly before the sale. Beacause of the quantities and the poor state of the market at the time, the wines made relatively low prices and I always regret not having the confidence to bid at the time. Deep amber – mahogany; rich, perhaps slightly roasted on the nose, walnuts; lovely rich, powerful style of wine, with an emphatic, slightly saline citrus tang mid-palate and on to the finish, grapefruit marmalade. Long and very fine. 18     

Malvasia Candida 1811

From an old Burgundy or Champagne bottle with a wax capsule and the suggestion that there may have been a JNV (Junta Nacional do Vinho) seal. Relatibely long cork. The label reads: ‘Vinho de Malvazia / Bebe pouco / E viverais com alegria’. (Malvazia Wine / Drink a little / And you will live with happiness). Sadly this wine did not make me happy: relatively pale mid-amber colour with considerable sediment; thin and washed out on the nose, I questioned if this had been fortified, hollow and rather meaty; light in style, only just hanging together, saline (iodine), skinny and dried up on the finish.  No mark.  

Leacock Solera 1808 **

A bottle from the late William Leacock’s collection sold at Christies in London in 2008. There is no indication of the grape variety but this is probably based on the MWA 1808 Malmsey Solera: mid-deep amber-mahogany; fine but not terribly expressive on the nose; light, quite dry initially, without much weight mid-palate, distinctly saline with high acidity and rather stretched/attenuated on the finish, not very sweet or rich – is this Malvasia?  14   

Blandy’s Malvasia Solera 1808 ***

One of the most famous of the MWA soleras, of which they may have been as many as 15 different bottlings according to Paul Day, one of my fellow tasters. The Cossart Gordon 1808 Malvasia Solera was, according to Noel Cossart, ‘one of the best ever known with the original madre (mother wine) coming from Malvasia Candida grown on Fajã dos Padres. It became a solera in 1873 and was discontinued in 1955 due to a lack of suitable Malmsey to top it up. Deeper in colour than the Leacock wine with more on the nose, torrefaction, slightly singed, a touch of furniture polish; much more profound than the Leacock wine, sweet, quite rich initially, bolo de mel  (honey cake) with caramelised fruit mid-palate, turning dryer on the finish. 16       

Henriques & Henriques Malvasia Candida ****

This rare bottle came from the estate of the late John Cossart, managing director of Henriques & Henriques and belonged to his father Peter before him. The wine almost certainly dates back to the early years of H&H (founded 1850) and was bottled in 1939 and rebottled in 1957:  mid-deep mahogany-to-amber, straw to green on the rim; rather odd rubbery aromas initially which disappeared in the glass to reveal tropical, peachy fruit; lovely butterscotch flavours, rich and complex with lovely fresh acidity leading to a fine finish. Rather let down by the nose to start with, this wine certainly redeemed itself. 17.5     

Henriques & Henriques Malvasia Reserva ****

 One of the so-called ‘heavenly quartet’ identified by Alex Liddell in his book Madeira. Bottled in 1964, this wine dates from the early 1800s, prior to the foundation of H&H in 1850: deep mahogany, almost opaque in colour; very rich and concentrated on the nose, smoky aromas, an autumn bonfire; similarly rich and powerful on the palate, prunes and raisins offset by the cut of brisk acidity, long pungent and powerful with a full, sweet pruney finish. 18 


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