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Madeira struggles to simplify message

Madeira must find a simpler, more unified message if it is to emulate the recent surge of interest in Sherry and Port, according to Henriques & Henriques CEO Humberto Jardim.

Henriques & Henriques vineyards in Madeira
Henriques & Henriques vineyards in Madeira

Noting the resurgence of interest in Sherry, driven by special editions such as en rama, and Port, thanks to the success of its 2011 vintage campaign, Jardim acknowledged the need for Madeira “to bring to market something that will catch the attention of someone.”

At Henriques & Henriques this involves new initiatives such as the introduction of six-year-old barrels from Kentucky. Describing this as a move which “brings something new to Madeira,” Jardim suggested that he might use the barrels to create a special three-year-old style for the US market.

Although pointing to the similarly fresh outlook and dynamism now in evidence from other Madeira houses – “we are all a new generation” – Jardim noted a weakness in marketing the ever-improving quality of their wines.

In particular, he acknowledged the lack of a unified release strategy from the island’s eight producers, which might help to focus the world’s attention in a similar way to the Port industry’s “very smart” shared springtime declaration.

However, Jardim also noted the far more limited promotional capacity of Madeira’s industry. “Port produces 80-90 million litres in one year; in Madeira it’s 4m – the cost per litre is incredibly high compared to Port or Sherry”, he explained.

Above all though, Jardim argued that the complexity of Madeira’s presentation was the most pressing issue to tackle, conceding: “The message of simplicity never came from Madeira.”

At the large volume end of its youngest 3-year-old expressions, Madeira produces six different styles: dry, medium dry, medium sweet, medium rich, rich and Rainwater, which is most commonly found in the US market.

Just above this comes the 5-year-old expressions, which feature four different sweetness levels and, in common with the three-year-old category tend to be based on the high yielding Tinta Negra grape variety, which accounts for around 85% of the island’s total vineyard plantings.

Suggesting that so many different styles at this entry level could be over-complicating the category, Jardim remarked: “For example, medium-dry and Rainwater – either one would be ok so why do we produce two different wines at very similar levels of sugar?”

Above this come the 5 (Reserve), 10 (Special Reserve), 15 (Extra Reserve) and 20-year-old expressions. Each of these can be made from any one of the four “noble” Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey – or Malvasia – grape varieties.

The 20-year-old category may also feature the rare Terrantez variety, which Jardim described as “somewhere between Verdelho and Bual with a very nice aroma, but its skin is very thin so it’s a very sensitive grape.”

As part of a wider move supported by European Union funding to decrease the proportion of Tinta Negra plantings in favour of Madeira’s noble varieties, Henriques & Henriques planted a small amount of additional Terrantez in 2011. However, Jardim noted that Madeira’s total production of this variety is no more than around 3,700 kilograms.

Next come a variety of colheitas, wines from a single vintage, which must mature for a minimum of five years before bottling, although Jardim noted that 10 years is more usual.

Finally comes the vintage expression, which must be matured for at least 20 years old, although again this can vary considerably between houses.

Although banned when Portugal joined the EU, examples of Madeira’s rare, often very old solera expressions still remain available on the market.

To complicate this message still further, Jardim remarked: “I have different styles of Malvasia and my style is different to, say, Blandy’s or Justino’s.”

Despite stressing the need for Madeira to present itself in a less complicated fashion, Jardim warned against abandoning the current classification system entirely, arguing: “If we simplify, we get simple.”

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