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Blandy's Madeira 5-Year Old Alvada

It would be somewhat perverse if I returned from Madeira without reporting on at least one bottle of the wine for which the island is so famous. As I revealed in last week's report on the 2012 Vinha da Defesa from Herdade do Esporão, although most of my drinking when there came from Portugal's Alentejo, followed by the Douro, it would be a lie to say I didn't partake of a little Madeira as well. And naturally there is a broad range to choose from on the island; every supermarket has a well-stocked selection, and Funchal - the island's capital - is blessed with several dedicated wine merchants and tasting rooms, with Blandy's, D'Oliveira, Barbeito and others all having some presence, in one form or another, in the city.

Curiously, however, you do not need to cross the threshold of these lodges, tasting rooms or wine merchants in order to track down some older Madeira - and by older I am thinking of wines from the early 20th century, and also back into the 19th century. Strolling back to my hire car in Porto Moniz, which sits at the very north-western tip of the island, I passed a shop which displayed all the features of a tourist-trap full of holiday tat, or souvenirs as you might also think of them. Outside, there were comedy hats and children's toys; inside, embroidered linen, fridge magnets, confectionery and packages of the local honey cake with an illegible sell-by date. You name it; if there was half a chance a gullible tourist might buy it, it was there. And on the back wall, a range of wines from D'Oliveira; 5-year old blends, 10-year old blends, and frasqueira (single vintage) wines, from the 1980s, 1970s, 1960s, 1950s in fact all the way back to the early 1900s. In a tourist's souvenir shop, stacked up on shelves with no airs or graces. Similarly, in a shop in Funchal's old quarter, near the bus station, this time featuring cheap jewellery, key rings and other souvenirs, including a variety of spirits - especially the local rum-based throat-tickler named poncha - I found another wall of older Madeira, this time going back to the 1850s. These wines might be pricy (although not really, when we consider their age and quality) but they aren't exactly rare or difficult to come by.

The wine under the spotlight today though is not quite so aged or esoteric; nevertheless, it is a very unusual wine, certainly worthy of a few moment's contemplation. This 5-year old blend from the Madeira Wine Company, under the Blandy's label, perhaps the best known used by the company (others include Cossart Gordon, Miles and Leacock). In an innovative move back in 2001, the Blandy's winemaker Francisco Albuquerque decided to construct a new blend which was christened Alvada; it is a mix of 50% Boal and 50% Malvasia, producing a wine with the richness of the latter, but the defining cut of the former.

Blandy's Madeira 5-Year Old Alvada

Two features of the wine really make it stand out; first, blending the 'noble' white varieties Malvasia, Boal, Verdelho, Sercial and Terrantez is something of a taboo in Madeira. In blended wines (by which I mean wines of different ages blended to create a wine of an average age, typically 5, 10 or 15 years) some degree of varietal blending, to a maximum of 15%, is permitted. This means that the 10-Year Old Verdelho you're about to enjoy could in fact include 15% of a secondary variety, almost certainly Tinta Negra, Madeira's workhorse variety. But a blended wine, a 50-50 mix, was unheard of. Because the Madeira varieties are inherently associated with certain styles (dry Sercial, medium-dry Verdelho, medium-sweet Boal and sweet Malvasia), Blandy's were forbidden from declaring the name of the varieties on the label. Hence the new 'brand', Alvada.

Secondly, the packaging is notable for attempting to throw off Madeira's very staid, fusty image; most bottles have very conservative, old-fashioned labels. Some are quite charming, whereas others - those of D'Oliveira in particular - look as though they were thrown together by a colour blind-design student who has over-indulged on psychotropic mushrooms. But the Alvada label manages to be eye-catching without inducing an instantaneous headache. All the bottles are just 50 cl, another appealing feature. The wine was tasted twice, first from a bottle I purchased, later at the Blandy's lodge in Funchal when I visited. The note here really refers to the first of these two tastings; I have kept them separate because there were notable differences between the two wines. I suspect the wine I bought had been languishing in the distribution chain for some time, and was perhaps an older blend, whereas that tasted at Blandy's would be the latest kit. The wine has a rich, walnut-brown hue; it has been blended from wines aged in barrel, and during my visit Blandy's denied the use of caramel to add colour, and so the wine has taken on a remarkable hue for its age. The nose is a very traditional style, despite that innovative packaging. There are walnuts, figs, dried fruits and a light, nutty, toffee-tinged sweetness, along with a twist of fresh, citrus definition. The palate is rich, full, broad and very classic for a rich Madeira, with plenty of evident residual sugar, dried fruits, raisins and of course Madeira's very typical, vibrant acidity. On the whole, a good wine with nice definition and lift, despite the broad sweetness it carries. Interestingly, the wine tasted at the Blandy's lodge in Funchal showed a more vegetal character behind the fruit; more on that in my Madeira Wine Company profile, coming tomorrow. 15.5/20 (5/8/13)

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