Most wine has turned to vinegar by the time it reaches 175 years old, but not the 1834 Barbeito Malvazia Madeira I had the pleasure of trying at the annual Winetasters Society of Toronto Christmas Party at Casa Loma a few days ago. I look forward to this event every year as I get the chance to taste wines I would otherwise probably never have the opportunity to try. Old vintages of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chateauneuf-de-Pape, and California Cabs are among the gems brought out for this event.
The 1834 Barbeito Malvazia Madeira was a real treat. You may wonder how it managed to stay alive after 175 years…well, it’s a Malvazia Madeira, also known as “Malsmey” in England, which is the sweetest, richest style of the fortified wine from the Portuguese island of Madeira. Madeira is probably the most resilient and longest lived wine in the world, undoubtedly as a result of the way it is aged.
A long time ago when wine from Madeira was exported to North America, Africa, and Asia by ship, it was noticed that Madeira which had spent 6 to 12 months or more pitching and rolling in the ship’s hull and sometimes being subjected to extremes in temperature, actually tasted really good! Vinho da roda (wines that spent a round trip on a ship), became greatly sought after compared to vinho canteiro, (wines that matured on the island). Wine from Madeira continued to take long tropical sea voyages until the 1900s when it became impractical, and more shippers began to use estufas to age their wine.
Estufas are rooms or tanks in which the wine can be artificially heated in order to stimulate the creation of the same special flavours they gained by travelling around the world. The best Madeiras, however, are aged naturally in canteiros, where no artificial heating is used. The wine ages in pipes (600 litre barrels) stored under the eaves of buildings, and is heated naturally by the sun for at least 20 years. Many stay in the attic for much longer, sometimes up to a century or more before bottling.
Madeira is able to take all this abuse while many wines would die quickly in such situations. The combination of sugar, acidity, and alcohol also help preserve the wine.
1834 Barbeiro Malvazia Madeira: Concentrated and intense aromas of coffee, chocolate, caramel, raisins, mincemeat, prunes, and molasses dominate the nose. The rich, luxurious texture makes one weak in the knees and the finish seems to go on forever. The high sugar content of the wine is balanced by the great acidity of the Malvazia grape. To be able to try a wine that still tastes amazing, and was made from grapes that grew 175 years ago, really gets the imagination going and takes you back in time to a much different world.