Blandy's Madeira 20 Years Old Terrantez
During my trip to Madeira last year I learnt many things. I learnt, for example, that the Portuguese have created, in the pastel de nata, one of the most delicious and mouth-watering delicacies known to mankind. No, scrap that, it is the most delicious and mouth-watering delicacy known to mankind. You might consider that an extreme statement to make, but bear in mind that I have enjoyed a long love affair with the egg custard tart in all its forms and shapes. That which the Portuguese have created eclipses many I have eaten over the years.
Sorry, you were perhaps expecting some new nugget of wine information? Yes, to no-one's surprise I did partake of a little wine tasting while I was on Madeira, and I learnt plenty too. I learnt of the domination of Tinta Negra, and the paradox of the white varieties, widely regarded as producing the highest-quality wines, and yet they account for only a fraction of the island's plantings. This strange situation is a consequence of the agricultural system on Madeira, where grapes are largely cultivated by smallholders, and then purchased for winemaking by the few remaining Madeira houses, such as Blandy's (more correctly, the Madeira Wine Company) and Barbeito. The houses would probably like more of the white varieties - Sercial, Malvasia, Verdelho and Boal - but it is perhaps only natural that the smallholders tend to prefer the more disease-resistant, heavy-cropping Tinta Negra. Today, to get hold of the white varieties they desire, major houses have to plant their own vineyards, and indeed this is something Blandy's have undertaken in recent years.
Among these white varieties, however, was one with which I was less familiar. Its name, seemingly spoken in only hushed tones, was Terrantez. Here was a variety which, prior to my visit, I had encountered even less frequently than the great pastel de nata. It is a distinctly Madeiran variety, with no apparent relationship to any other more familiar vines found across the European mainland, many of which seem to be descended from Savagnin, or Gouais, or maybe even both. Terrantez is a genetic loner, not even closely related to varieties with similar names, including Terrantez da Terceira and Terrantez do Pico, both white-skinned varieties cultivated on the Azores, a few hundred kilometres north-west of Madeira. And Terrantez is increasingly rare, with only a few hectares planted on the island, although there was once much more; its decline is perhaps down to its tendency to ripen late, and also its susceptibility to botrytis, a consequence of its thin skinned nature. After the devastation of phylloxera, any smallholders who had been cultivating this variety must have found the temptation to switch to Tinta Negra at this time overwhelming.
Despite this Terrantez is still very much part of the Madeira wine scene, and although many houses have some delicious older bottlings in stock it is the recent attempts by a couple of houses to reintroduce the variety into their current portfolio of wines that is more noteworthy. The latest effort I have encountered is this 20-Year Old blend from Blandy's, a pure Terrantez aged in the canteiro system and then blended before release. It is medium rich, and carries the classically high acidity of Madeira (7.95 g/l in this case) which in combination with the oxidative winemaking practices is why these wines can live for centuries and then still excite the taste buds with all the energy and vibrancy that we would associate with much younger wines. This wine has a burnished, toasty brown hue in the glass, which fades out to a wide and overtly green rim. The scents are evolved and suggest sweetness, with a lightly raisined quality to the fruit, along with a walnut nuttiness, hints of coffee and a little baked earth. Full marks here for the wine's very pure, defined, aromatic and expressive character. The palate is hugely confident, textured with a sweetness in keeping with the medium rich style, with more nutty dried fruit as per the aromatics, and a savoury bite alongside the sweeter backbone. There is a good energy and freshness to it, with that acidity showing through, lending precision through the middle. It feels finely balance, with nothing out of place, and I am sure this will develop in bottle for many years. I can't help feeling, with a softening of the sweetness with time, it may well have more vinous appeal in the future. Nevertheless it is very harmonious and should please those who prefer the sweeter side of Madeira no end. 16.5/20 (24/3/14)