Sensational Sercial

This is the fourth in a series of tastings that I have attended focusing on one of Madeira’s leading grape varieties, this time Sercial. The tasting was put together by Mannie Berk and Roy Hersh, both madeira enthusiasts and I am especially grateful to them for their research into the background of many of the wines. All the wines are pre-phylloxera, spanning the period from 1875 back to 1800. Despite being one of my favorite styles of madeira wine, Sercial is not the easiest grape especially for a vertical tasting such as this. Without the sweetness to offset the high levels of natural acidity, Sercial can be quite hard work after a few wines. It is perhaps for this reason that I did not find the ‘wow’ factor here even though there were some exceptionally fine wines in the line up. There were also two very poor wines, masquerading as something that they were not. Caveat emptor!        

More information on the background to these and other historic wines can be found in the new paperback edition of my book, Madeira, The Islands and their Wines.

D’Oliveira 1875 Sercial ***

A bottling from the 1960s or 1970s: mid-deep amber mahogany, one of the darker wines wines in the line-up, very lifted, high toned and rather balsamic on the nose, quite pungent and smoky too; rich initially, thick cut but dry marmalade with a rather coarse, slightly salty finish, the richness offset by pronounced acidity. 15.5 

Blandy’s 1875 Sercial ****/*****

From the collection of Dr. Michael Grabham who acquired his wines primarily though his marriage to Mary Anne Blandy: deep amber with a lovely, gentle, toffee apple character both on the nose and on the palate, very pure and fresh, slightly toasted, long and linear with a dry yet slightly caramelised peaty finish. Rather demure yet very elegant in style, having probably aged mostly in glass rather than cask. This was one of my favorite wines in the tasting for its purity and elegance, a view not shared by every taster. 18.5  

‘RV’  1870 Sercial ****

This wine belonged to the Vasconcelos family, owners of Quinta da Piedade in Jardim do Mar. The family were both grape growers and distillers of sugar cane until the business ended in the 1980s. A demijohn of this this wine came to Ricardo Freitas of Barbeito from his nephew, Ricardo Vasconcelos, the same wine having been previously bottled for his nephew’s wedding. This was a small but successful vintage for Sercial, immediately prior to phylloxera: rather dull nut brown colour; very yeasty and beefy on the nose with a Bovril and consomée character; similarly savoury beef tea character on the palate with just a hint of raisiny sweetness mid-palate, with a long, appetizing seemingly saline finish. I liked this wine more on second tasting than at first impression. 17

Blandy 1869 Sercial

Pale, rather cloudy amber colour; stewed up rancio character, rather flat on the nose; soft, very dry in style, savoury yet flat on the finish despite the acidity, simple and not a satisfying wine to drink. Closer inspection of the bottle revealed that this wine is an almost certain fake, probably a ten year old Sercial from the 1970s, re-labelled. Beneath the Blandy capsule was a stopper cork and the remains of a modern paper seal. No mark to award.        

Torrebella 1865 Sercial  *** / ****

Bottled in the 1930s (in a heavy champagne bottle) and re-corked in 1974 and 2013, specifically for a sale at Christie’s. I have tasted this wine on a number of occasions and this not a very easy wine to drink: mid-amber; lovely pure, lifted leafy, hedgerow aromas with just a touch of mothballs; intriguing spicy, rather funky curried character on the palate, seemingly bone dry and very austere in style, not an easy wine but redeemed by its rather lovely nutty finish. 16.5  

Torre Bella 1864 Câmara de Lobos Sercial ***

From a Bordeaux-shaped bottle with a back label indicating that the wine originates from the heirs of Francisco E. Henriques: mid-amber / mahogany; very restrained on the nose, quite polished with a touch of butterscotch underlying; fine, quite rich, dry orange peel character with a pronounced tang on the palate, sweet and sour, rather aggressive, leading to a tangy but slightly peaty finish that falls away quite fast. 15

Henriques & Henriques 1864 Sercial ****

The back label tells the story: ‘This will serve to certify that this bottle contains a genuine very old Sercial Madeira which, when inherited from Mr João Joaquim Henriques, Managing Director of this firm, from his father who died in 1895, was known to be a wine of the 1864 vintage. This wine was kept in oak casks until bottled in 1931 and was rebottled in 1961. Only 208 bottles remain in existence. This particular bottle had been imported to the United States by the American Wine & Importing Co. of Dallas: mid-amber mahogany; extraordinarily lifted and aromatic, grassy with more than a hint of cat’s pee; richer than you would expect on the palate with a lovely savoury character, quite through to the finish, slightly singed and dry without being austere. 17.5

D’Oliveira 1862 Sercial ****

Probably bottled in the 1970s: mid-deep, red tinged amber; lovely pure, lifted floral character, orange blossom on the nose; rich and orangey in style initially, pronounced acidity offset by a touch of candied peel and spice on the savoury finish.  Seemingly quite sweet for Sercial but there is nothing at all rustic about this. 17 

H.M. Borges 1860 Sercial ****

Two labels on this bottle indicate separate bottling dates:  1977 and 1994. This wine was sold by Christies in New York in December 2015, having come from a family collection on the island, believed to be the Araujos. It predates the foundation of Borges as a company and is likely to have been acquired by H.M. Borges himself. Mid-deep amber; gentle but rather funky herbal/floral wasabi character on the nose; lovely lemon and lime character, very pure with a touch of sweetness to offset the undeniably nervy acidity leading to a gentle rounded grapefruit marmalade finish. 17.5  

Avery’s 1860 Sercial ***

Sourced by Avery’s from the Madeira Wine Company, this wine is likely to be the same as Cossart Gordon’s 1860 vintage Sercial although there is speculation as to whether it is in fact a solera: mid-deep amber/mahogany; gentle, lifted, pronounced beef stock aromas; similarly savoury on the palate with a seaweed character, seamless and smooth in texture with pronounced acidity leading to a full, tangy and slightly peaty finish. 16                              

Adegas do Torreão 1855 S */**

It was assumed that ‘S’ signified Sercial though the wine did not conform to style: mid-deep amber / mahogany; dried figs, rather pruney on the nose; similarly rich and pruney on the palate, rich and meaty without much in the way of finesse, drying out on the finish. 12.5  

Sercial 1852 ‘Selected by General Sherman on his visit to Madeira, 1871’ **

William Sherman, a General in the Union Army during the American Civil War (1861 – 65), sailed on the Wabash from Boston in November 1871 stopping at Madeira on its way to Europe. According to a letter to his son, Sherman visited a Mr Walsh (sic) whilst on the island. It is possible that this was in fact a Mr Welsh of Welsh Bros. and this could be the source of the wine. This bottle came from a family on Long Island where it had sat for three decades, having clearly been re-corked at some stage in its history: mid-amber in colour; quite restrained on the nose and not very expressive with a hint of bolo de mel (Madeiran honey cake) and wood smoke; pronounced treacle toffee on the palate, dry but with a soft toffee and molasses character. A touch singed too. Historic wine, rather lacking in finesse. 14         

Henriques & Henriques Reserva ‘H.H’. Sercial ****/*****

Thought to be around 200 years old, this is a wine that was rebottled in 1965 and acquired from a Christie’s New York auction in 2015: lovely pure, lifted tea leaf aromas with a touch of wood smoke, ethereal; dry and delicate with fine nervy grapefruit acidity weaving its way through the wine, long, linear and very refined. 18.5

Perestello 1827 Sercial ***/****

Bartolomeu Perestello, a navigator of Genoese origin, landed on Porto Santo with Madeira’s founding fathers in 1418 and took charge of the island. The family became important in Madeira and were involved in many businesses including wine. This wine was probably bottled in the mid-twentieth century: mid-deep amber; slightly attenuated toffee and wood smoke on the nose; quite rich initially with a savoury, rather saline character rising in the mouth leading to a full finish combining nervy grapefruit acidity and toffee sweetness. Quite elegant in style. 16.5  

1825 ‘S’ 

Thought to be a wine from the famous Kassab collection, this bottle did not however have the distinguishing B.A.K. seal. Very deep mahogany in colour, the colour to be expected of a Bual rather than Sercial; aromatic funk on the nose, similarly funky on the palate too, rich in style with a dirty pruney character with a finish akin to dry syrup of figs. Pure funk. No mark. 

Monteiro 1810 Old Reserve Sercial *

Monteiro (Vinhos) Lda, described as ‘Wine Growers and Shippers’ were important in the 19th century, shipping to the United States prior to the Civil War. Brands like Monteiro’s Meteor, Monteiro’s Old Brazil, Monteiro’s Nord Polen and Manteiro’s London Particular regularly appeared on hotel wine lists in the US although the shipper now seems to have been entirely forgotten. This wine numbered bottle no 12 was imported to the US by Kraus Bros, New York City, probably in the 1950s judging by the label: mid-deep amber/mahogany; rather pruney on the nose, rich and heady without much in the way of finesse; similarly very sweet and pruney on the palate with rather coarse toffee fruit, short and astringent. Not Sercial as we know it! 11

H.M. Borges 1810 Sercial  ****

From the collection of José Gonçalves Borges sold off in 2012, this was one of the wines most prized by Henrique Menezes Borges which he passed on to his three children on his death in 1916. According to the information that accompanied the wine at this tasting, ‘on February 13th 1989, this bottle of 1810 Sercial was bottled from demi-johns by H.M. Borges personnel in the presence of the Borges family. Of the 14 demi-johns bottled that day, two were of 1810 Sercial, producing 45 bottles, shared among five children and a half-sister’.  All the wines are believed to have been vinhos da roda i.e. they were shipped to the Indies and back when young. This wine is thought to have spent around 100 years in cask: lovely bright mid-deep amber, very; beautifully refined, high toned aromas, grassy and floral with a touch of caramelised fruit and also with something slightly wild and funky going on underneath, redolent of Armagnac; very fine, pure lemon and lime marmalade flavours, fine and linear with candied peel leading to a dry, rather astringent finish.  Having been decanted nearly a week in advance of the tasting this wine showed much better on the nose than it had when I tasted it at Patrick Grubb’s tasting three years earlier. In New York it was voted the favorite Sercial of the tasting though I had a more strained relationship with the wine.  17.5

Braheem Kassab ‘BAK’ 1808 ‘SS’ Sercial ****/*****   

A wine definitely from the famous Kassab collection with the BAK wax seal: lovely, bright mid-amber; lifted and gentle on the nose, slightly peaty and redolent of a fine malt whisky; soft, gentle dried apricot and crystalised orange  with a streak of grapefruit-like acidity running all the way through to a long, clean, dry finish. Still very fresh, beautifully integrated and quite remarkable for its age. 18.5

Roque Teixeira 1805 Sercial ****

Tristão Vaz Teixeira was among the first to discover Porto Santo and Madeira in 1418 and the Teixeiras on the island claim to be descendants. This bottle which is believed to have come via the Welsh family was sold at auction in London in December 2013 having been rebottled in 1949 and recently recorked: mid-deep red tinged amber – mahogany; malt and toffee on the nose, slightly singed with a touch of funk; apple and cinnamon on the palate with a fine streak of bracing acidity all the way through the wine, bone dry and not an easy wine to drink but rather lovely nonetheless. 17   

1800 Sercial ****

Believed to be from the Araújo family, this particular bottle came from a Christie’s auction in New York in 2015: mid-deep amber, lovely bright colour for its age; fine, fragrant aromas, quite complex with blossom, a hint of peat and smoke; savoury, nutty, very fine, dry and delicate with a gentle, savoury saline finish. Just showing signs of drying out but still remarkably fresh and alive for a wine of this age. 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