Story and photo gallery by Dwight Casimere
NEW YORK--"Madeiera is immortal." That pronouncement was made with conviction by Rui Falcao, a celebrated wine writer, as he led a Master Class on Madeira wines, sponsored by the Madeira Wine Institute at the Millennium Hotel, 1 United Nations Plaza.
"You can taste a Madeira that is more than a hundred years old, and it will still be as vital as when it was first released. I've tasted wines from as old as 1712 and they were delicious. The key word for Madiera is 'acidity.'"
Sommeliers and wine writers were the beneficiaries of the special afternoon session, held as the inaugural event of the Madeira Wine Institute's national tour, which included New York, Chicago and San Francisco, to reacquint the wine drinking public with one of the world's most amazing wines.
As the wines were poured, with their rich, distinctive burnished tones, like the color of Stradivarius or Guarneri violins, a perusal of the tasting sheet revealed the treasures that lie before us; D'Oliveiras Terrantez 1977, HM Borges Sercial 1979, Justino's Colheita 1995, Blandy's Colheita Malmsey 1996, Henriques and Henriques Single Harvest Boal 2000 and Barbeito Single Harvest 2003.
Maderia is a wine that is synonymous with history. Produced in the Madeira Islands off the coast of Portugal, its history dates back to the Age of Exploration when Madeira was a port of call for ships heading to the East Indies or the New World.
Madeira is a fortified wine in which neutral spirits, made from cane sugar, were added to prevent spoilage. On long sea voyages, the wine was kept in large open barrels on the ship's deck, exposing it to extreme heat and the sun and the ship's movements, which enhanced the flavor of the wine. When unsold shipments of wine would return to port, the producers became enraptured with its delightful transformation and thus, Madeira wine, as we know it today, was born.
The winemaking methods today are considerably more sophisticated, but no less time and labor intensive. The wine is fermented and then heated to temperatures as high as 140 degrees Farenheit (60 degrees C). The wine is also deliberately exposed to a considerable degree of ozidation. Distilled spirits used for stabilization were later replaced with brandy. This unique process creates an unusually robust wine that can withstand the test of time.
"Madeira is not only an integral part of world history, but of American history as well."
Falcao asserted. "Maderia wine was used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was already a favorite of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Franklin even mentioned it in his autobiography and Adams wrote to his wife about the magnificent properties of Madeira."
Madeira is a time and labor intensive wine, which also makes it even more precious. "No
one goes into the Madeira production business to make huge amounts of money. In fact, the opposite is true. If you want to make a small fortune in the Madeira industry, start with a large one," Falcao joked wryly.
Later that evening, at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's flagship restaurant, the 3 Michelin starred Jean-Georges at the Trump International Hotel and Tower at 1 Central Park West, near Columbus Circle, the Madeira Wine Institute presented a wine pairing dinner overseen by Rui Falcao and Paula Cabaco, President of the Madeira Wine Institute, along with the Jean George culinary team, headed by Executive Chef Mark Lapico and Sommelier David Morris. This was, without question, the best wine pairing dinner I had ever attended.
Madeira wines are tricky to pair with food because of their tendency to present themselves as "sweet" wines that, at times, appear to be overpowering. A closer examination, however, reveals the contrary. The wines, because of their high acidity, make them a perfect compliment with food. Even those that seem to have a sweet inital taste, turn out to have a somewhat dry finish because of their high acidity. Thus, the dinner at Jean Georges proved to be a revelation.
The first course, Caramelized Foie Gras with Fresh Fig Infused with Spices was paired with two Madeiras; H and H Verdelho 15 Anos (years) and Blandy's Malmsey 10 Anos. While the Malmsey was the sweeter of the two and would seem the most likely to pair with the fresh figs that dominated the dish, the drier H and H Verdelho won the day hands down. This is a dish that you would normally pair with an off-dry Reisling or a Sauterne, but Falcao and company showed how a Madeira can more than adequately fill the bill.
The next course, an exquisite Black Bass Crusted with Nuts and Seeds and a Sweet and Sour Jus, a JG favorite, was paired with Barbeito Ribeiro Real Verdelho 20 Anos. This was a match made in heaven with the wine perfectly matching all of the flavors in the dish, from the nutty crust and similar flavor notes in the wine to the interplay of sweetness and spice with the dish's earthy mushrooms and tiny, sweet onions careening off of the mandarin orange and dried apricot notes of the Madeira.
The next course was almost sensory overload, with a Muscovy Duck Breast topped with my secret passion, cracked Jordan Almonds and an irresistable Amaretto Jus. I asked to take this dish home, to savor in solitude, as I could not account for the sensory exclamations that might ensue from its public consumption. Justino's Colheita 1995 was served as the accompanying wine. I savored it on its own, and found it a complex wine, worthy of meditation.
Dessert of melted chocolate cake, ice cream and assorted cookies and floating islands was paired with HM Borgas Malvasia 14 Anos. The final wine of the evening, D'Oliveiras Boal 1968, was savored on its own, a fitting end to an exquisite dining experience.
If there were any question that Madeira is a wine to be paired with food, it was resoundingly answered in the affirmative.
Erica A. Seed, Principal, Haus Alpenz LLC (l)