When I was approached by Calhoun & Company Communications, as a follow-up to last August’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, California, to sample Blandy’s Alvada Madeira, my initial reaction was to say no. First of all, I don’t actually review wines, I write stories. Mostly personal stories about how wine relates to my life, how I foresee wine intersecting with pop culture or simply about enjoying wine and food during my travels abroad. A dinner at a winery reminded me of some of the great food movies that I’ve seen (Big Night on the North Fork.) A barrel tasting with one of the pioneer winemakers on Long Island made me feel like one of the Beatles during their famous pilgrimage to India to meditate with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (It Was Twenty Years Ago Today.) As I traveled to a pseudo principality high up in the mountains in the Liguria region of Italy I was suddenly transported into one of the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby road pictures of the 1940’s (The Road to Seborga.) At first glance, a visit to a sparkling wine producer in England sounded like it was going to be the punch line of some Monty Python skit (A Man Walks into a Pub and Orders a Glass of English Wine.) You get the idea.
Also, I didn’t want to feel obligated to write a review on the wine. Like I said, I’m not a reviewer. I’m not even a journalist. I’m just a guy who enjoys writing about his life, a life in which wine, food and travel play a big part. But I changed my mind as I thought back on my first visit to Portugal in the early 1990’s when I discovered the joys of both Port and Madeira. While my fondness of port wine that was established on that trip continues to this day, I realized that I had not had a glass of Madeira since that trip. I purchased a bottle of Araujo Henriques Madeira Verdelho on my first day of a 10-day stay in Lisbon and every night when I returned to my hotel after dinner, I would savor a sip (or two) while I contemplated my plans for the next day. I was so fascinated with this new type of wine (at least for me) that I soaked off the label so I could remember the name when I returned to the States. Sad to say, I never followed through, so that was both the beginning and the end of my Madeira drinking. But I did paste the label on my kitchen wall, where I had started a collage of wine labels. Every now and then, when I was working in the kitchen, I would be reminded of my broken promise to drink more Madeira. So this was a good chance to correct that mistake and get reacquainted with an old friend.
First a little history. Madeira is a fortified wine made on the Portuguese Islands of Madeira using a unique winemaking process that involves heating the wine. Madeira can be made in many different styles, ranging from an aperitif type dry wine to a sweet dessert style wine. The islands, which are located off the coast of Morocco, have a long history of winemaking, dating back to the Age of Exploration when Madeira was a regular port of call for ships travelling to the new world and the East Indies. To prevent the wine from spoiling on long sea voyages, neutral grape spirits was added to the wine. Because many of these voyages involved sailing to hot regions of the world, the wine producers of Madeira soon discovered that heating the wine transformed the taste, which they found quite desirable. And because of this unique process, Madeira normally has an extraordinary long shelf life. As for the grapes, the main grape is Tinta Negra Mole, which is the result of a crossing of Pinot Noir and Grenache. But you’ll also find: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey (Malvasia).
British tariffs imposed on European imports to the colonies made Madeira a popular drink of our founding fathers because it was imported from the Island of Madeira rather than mainland Europe. As a result, it played an important part in revolutionary America. Members of the Continental Congress raised a glass of Madeira in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776 to toast their independence. George Washington was a serious collector of Madeira. When John Hancock’s sloop the Liberty was seized on May 9, 1768 after unloading a cargo of Madeira, riots erupted in the streets of Boston. And it is rumored that Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence in between sips of Madeira.
John Blandy, the founder of the family business, arrived in Madeira in the early 1800’s due to his declining health. Shortly thereafter, he established the family business. Today, Blandy’s is the last remaining of the founding producers to still be owned and managed by the original family. In fact, the current CEO, Chris Blandy, is a 7th generation producer. Blandy’s Alvada is aged for five years in seasoned American oak casks using the traditional Canteiro system (ie, heated naturally by the sun with no artificial heat) and is a 50-50 blend of Baul and Malmsey grapes.
Because of the connection with American history, I thought that election night would be the perfect time to open my bottle. The wine had a nutty, complex flavor, with overtones of figs, dates and rich chocolate. And while the notes included with my bottle suggested serving it chilled, I exercised my American right of freedom of choice and enjoyed my glass at room temperature. As I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning watching the presidential election results, sipping my Madeira and reminiscing about my first trip to Lisbon, I came to a conclusion about whom I would back in the next election. A unifying candidate with a broad appeal that will be able to bring this country together. A seasoned veteran of many campaigns with an impressive record. A candidate that we all can be proud of. I therefore throw my unwavering support behind not just Blandy’s Alvada, but the entire Madeira party line. “Drink Madeira Grape Again!”