Wine Books: Alex Liddell
Alex Liddell started out as an academic, lecturing in philosophy and politics until turning his hand to wine importing and advising instead in the late 1980s. A life-long interest in the wines of Madeira, combined with his academic bent, has resulted in an encyclopaedic knowledge of the island and its wines, and this is plainly perceived in his well-informed writings.
Having visited Madeira only last year, scrambling up and down mountainous volcanic slopes and trekking along the lavadas for myself, I am familiar with the beauty of this island. I am also quite aware of its diminutive nature; it is, as Alex Liddell rightly informs us on the very first page of this book, just 57 kilometres long and 23 kilometres wide. And yet, despite this being a mere drop of volcanic rock in the ocean, and despite its wines being no more than a mote in the eye of a rapidly modernising world that seems to prefer bright and bone-dry table wines, the island and wine both enjoy a wide reputation. This is despite that fact that the entirety of the area planted to vines, as described in Madeira's 2009 agricultural census, is little more than 1100 hectares, equivalent to a Bordeaux left-bank commune such as Pauillac or St Julien.
I learnt much during my time on Madeira, and one realisation that quickly dawned on me was that some sort of guide to its wines is an absolute must. Its rather restrained size should not be taken as an indication of simplicity; the history of Madeira is complex and intriguing, the Madeira varieties are unusual and in some cases very unfamiliar indeed, and the vinification of Madeira is unlike that undertaken in any other part of the world. Nowhere else will you find cellars in attics, casks of eighty-year old (or older) wine still waiting to be bottled, gently sweltering in the heat of a near-equatorial summer. If only I had had a copy of Liddell's book in my hand at the time; having read through this newly published tome, it is rich in depth and detail, with seemingly no volcanic stone of Madeira left unturned.
If the name Liddell seems familiar, particularly if taken in association with Madeira, then perhaps you have seen a previous edition of this book. First released in 1986, Liddell authored the Faber & Faber guide to Madeira; of course Faber & Faber have, to the best of my knowledge, ditched wine publishing, and following in the footsteps of Richard Mayson, the author of Faber & Faber's tome on Port, Liddell has taken to a new publishing house in order to rework his text. This second edition is most welcome, as the first was originally published in 1986, nearly thirty years ago; despite Madeira's image as untimely and never-changing, the favoured tipple of maiden aunts (have some Madeira m'dear? - a phrase naturally used by Liddell in his flap copy) nothing could in fact be further from the truth. There have been huge developments in Madeira in the last three decades, and this book brings Liddell's story of this peculiar wine bang up to date.
When looking through a specialist, regional text book, I want to see evident depth of knowledge, evidence that the author knows the nitty-gritty of the region and its wines. This book has this in spades, as even after reading just the very first page I had learnt something new, as Liddell explores to a new degree the controversy around the discovery of Madeira. There is a wealth of information on the history of Madeira and its wine, stretching over six chapters, followed by a detailed examination of soil, grape varieties, vineyards, viticulture, vinification, maturation, and distribution of the wines. In every chapter I sense Liddell's long association with the wines of Madeira, as he injects his text with stories and anecdotes from as long ago as the 1950s. These are not simply regurgitated stories, but first-hand accounts from conversations not only with the producers but shippers, distributors and agents, giving us a very complete view of Madeira and its complexities. Naturally Liddell continues his account of the island with a run-down of the producers, from Barros & Sousa to Barbeito; his account of the evolution of the Madeira Wine Company into a Blandy-led business, including the union and subsequent divorce from the Douro's Symington family, is certainly the clearest and most complete account of this major Madeira producer I have ever read.
Liddell naturally rounds off the Madeira story with a look at the state of the wines today, and of course he also looks to Maderia's future. Even the appendices, especially those on geology and the mystery of Vidonho and Vidonia, make for good reading. These appendices are representative of the depth of information presented here - this is not a skip through a list of producers and a few rehashed tasting notes, padded out with a little introductory text. This is, I am sure, now the reference text for the wines of Madeira, and I would urge anybody with an interest, and certainly anybody set to visit the island, to take a copy with them. It will guide you through the mysteries of the wine, but - especially if you like a little history, as I do - also provide some fascinating pool-side reading. (11/5/14)