What Is Vermouth?


The short answer – but that doesn’t mean that you should stop reading – is:

Vermouth is a fortified, aromatised wine.

Essentially, you take a neutral wine (historically, a poorly made, probably oxidised, local wine), give it some flavour and then stabilize your concoction by adding brandy (or some similar distilled spirit.)

The hallmark botanical for vermouth is artemisia, otherwise known as the mystical herb, wormwood.

Wormwood in English -> Wermut in German -> Vermouth in French.  Continue reading


What Are The Different Styles of Madeira Wine?


Part One: The Illustrious History of Madeira Wine

Part Two: How Sweet Is Madeira Wine?

Part Three: What Makes Madeira Wine Special?

Part Three talked about the unique way in which Madeira wine is aged. However, the labels don’t tend to mention these methods of ageing (estufagem and canteiro) … probably because if you’re not Portuguese, you have no idea how the two words should be pronounced!

Instead, you commonly find these terms:


This is the highest quality of Madeira wine. Made from just one grape variety in one particular year, it has been aged for a minimum of 20 years in an oak barrel via the canteiro method. As you can imagine, the production of this kind of wine is extremely limited (normally just 700-800 bottles per producer per year) and therefore most are sold en primeur. It really is something pretty special.


Also one grape variety and one harvest but a Colheita can be bottled after just 5 years, not 20. Consequently, it is not as rare nor as complex as a Frasqueira but it is fortunately less expensive and still utterly delicious!

Whenever you see a vintage marked on the bottle, this is an indication that it is either a Frasqueira or Colheita.




Then there are the blends. These are just blends of different vintages, NOT of grape varieties. (As we said in Part Two, Madeira wines are thankfully single-variety.)

You find the following ages: 3, 5, 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 and now (but only since Jan 2015) 200+ years.

You may have started to nod your head, at this point. However, it’s not that simple. Unlike port, rum or whisky, a 10 year blend of Madeira doesn’t mean that the wine blended in that particular bottle is over ten years old. Nor does it mean that it might be 50% composed of a 8-year-old wine and 50% of a 12-year-old. No, that would be too easy!

Instead, the word “blend” refers to a specific style.

For Madeira wine, there’s a special process. Before bottling, a producer submits a sample of the blend to an independent tasting committee. The committee then asks themselves: “Is this what we expect of a ten year blend?” And this of a 20 year blend?” The answer is a straightforward “yes” or “no“.

“Yes” means the proposed multi-vintage blend can be bottled. “No” means back to the drawing board.

Because this is a little too complicated to explain to the average punter, wineries tend to play up the “aged for five years” card, although this is not strictly correct.

This complicated blending process shows how important it is for each Madeira house to have an excellent master-blender. Not only do the wines have to exhibit a style to please the tasting committee, but they also have to show a distinctive identity for that particular winery.

Think of it how you might analyse developmental characteristics in children… You look for certain traits. How is their hand-eye coordination? Their communication skills? A three year old child behaves differently to a ten year old and very differently from a twenty year old. Now imagine if you have fifty different variables (or in this case, barrels) to pick from in order to compose your style…

Advanced Level Reading

Here are some other terms that you frequently find on Madeira labels, especially in export markets:

Rainwater – a light blended Madeira, made from Tinta Negra, exhibiting a young 3 year old style.

Seleccionado / Selection / Finest –  the definition for this is “showing an exceptional quality for its age” … which basically means “marketing blurb.”

Reserve / Reserva – a 5 year old style blend.

Special Reserve / Reserva Especial – a 10 year old style blend, most likely made from one of the more noble grape varieties (i.e. not Tinta Negra) and possibly heated by the canteiro method.

Extra Reserve – a 15 year old style blend, very likely to be a noble grape variety and heated by the canteiro method.

Solera – Before Portugal entered the EU in 1986, it was permitted to produce a Madeira wine with fractional blending (i.e. solera) during the canteiro method. You can still find some old bottles, laid down before the change in legislation took place. Now, although some topping-up is allowed for the Colheita and Frasqueiro, at least 85% has to come from the vintage on the label.

Part Five : coming soon – common mistakes and curious facts about Madeira wine.

What Makes Madeira Wine So Special?


Part One: The Illustrious History of Madeira Wine

Part Two: How Sweet Is Madeira Wine?

I said that the two most important features of Madeira wine are the fortification and the ageing. Part Two dealt with the fortification part so that brings us onto ageing.

If you know anything about wine, you know to keep your bottle of wine in a cool, dry place and that once you’ve popped the cork, you should finish bottle in the next few days. However, with Madeira wine, it’s completely the opposite – they heat it up and expose it to oxygen!

Legend says that the 17th century traders discovered that the wine made on the island of Madeira was actually better after a long time at sea. The story goes that one barrel of Madeira had been forgotten during a long journey across the Equator and was only discovered once the ship arrived back at port. They then realised that the wine was of far better quality, despite having been under the hot sun for many months, than it was when it was first loaded onto the boat! This type of wine is called a Vinho da Roda but it has now become very much a rarity.

photo-1414073875831-b47709631146Sending barrels out to sea is a hugely time-consuming and laborious process, so nowadays there are two ways in which they recreate the same effect: estufagem and canteiro.

Estufagem is the most common method, mainly used for the young blends. Basically, you put your fortified wine in a stainless steel tank. This tank will be equipped with a “radiator” of hot water below. During 3 or 4 months, the wine will be heated to around 50-55 degrees C. (The exact temperature depends on the producer and they like to keep these things secret!) Afterwards, this fortified-and-heated wine will spend a minimum of 3 years in wooden barrels.

Canteiro is the more laborious approach. The wine is put in large, old barrels on the top floor of a three storey building, directly under south-facing windows. There’s no artifical heating, just the warmth of the sun. After a year or so, they move the barrel down to the middle level, and then finally (and we’re talking many years later) down to ground floor. Why is this so special? Because the level of evaporation (what we call the angel’s share) when made this way is enormous… and you end up with a deliciously concentrated and complex wine.)

Generally speaking, a canteiro aged wine will be far more expensive, but also of better quality than a wine aged via estufagem.

As you will no doubt understand, this idea of heating a wine is completely unique to Madeira and it is one of the major contributing factors why Madeira wine is so special.

It also means that a bottle of Madeira can be opened and left for a month, two months, six months, even a year without going bad!

I don’t know of any other wine for which this is possible!

Part Four: The Different Styles of Madeira Wine.

How Sweet Is Madeira Wine?


Part One: The Illustrious History of Madeira Wine

If you have read Part One, you’ll understand how unforgiving the environment is on Madeira for growing vines. In the same way that Champagne (for a long time Europe’s most northerly wine-producing region) has its own style of making its base wine palatable (think bubbles!) Madeira also needed to develop something.

It can be simply broken down into two parts: fortification and ageing.

If you are not familiar with the concept of fortification, it can explained as: the addition of a strong neutral alcohol at some point during the fermentation process. This instantaneously kills the yeasts and as a result, you can end up with some sugar left in your grapes – think port or vin doux naturel.

Most fortified wines are sweet. What is special about Madeira (but also what complicates it significantly) is that you can choose when that neutral alcohol (normally it’s 96% ABV!) is added.

If you add it early in the fermentation process, you have a lot of sugar left over.

If you add it at the end, once all the sugars have been transformed by the yeasts, you can have a dry wine.

There are four different levels of sweetness for Madeira wine… and we’ll come to that later.


Ceci n’est pas un crachoir.

There are five main grape varieties used in Madeira wine production. These are:

  1. Sercial – pronounced “ser-seal
  2. Verdelho – pronounced “verd-ell-o
  3. Boal or Bual – pronounced “boo-al
  4. Malvasia or Malmsey – pronounced “malm-see
  5. Tinta Negra (the only red-skinned grape in this list)

Why all these different styles?

After 5 centuries of winemaking, techniques have evolved to create optimal wines. Think of it as natural selection. They have learnt that sercial is best when allowed to fully ferment and made into a dry wine.
Interestingly, sercial was once upon a time grown at an altitude of 800m. Now all the plantations are between 150-200m because they realised that it was better when grown right next to the sea.

Don’t worry! This is where it gets easier…. those first four grape varieties also refer to the level of sweetness.

Sercial is always dry. This is strictly reglemented.
Verdelho is always medium dry.
Boal / Bual is always medium sweet.
Malvasia / Malmsey is always sweet.

The only tricky personality is Tinta Negra because it can be any level of sweetness and unfortunately Tinta Negra represents 83% of the total production.

Fortunately, Madeira wines are (nearly) always 100% varietal wines, meaning that if ever you see a bottle of Madeira wine with the word Sercial on the label, I can guarantee you that it will be bone dry. Same with Malvasia / Malmsey, it will be sweet.

If none of those four styles are mentioned, it will be a Tinta Negra (but the law changed in January 2015 and you will start seeing Tinta Negra more often) so you need to check on the back label.

Just a quick aside because there are two other grape varieties on the island:

Terrantez (also known as Cascal) – a white grape accounting for 3 hectares in surface area but only 500 kilos of grapes in harvest 2014.

Bastardo (also known as Trousseau in France) – it’s a red grape and not even one bottle of 100% bastardo is made on Madeira.

If you happen to stumble across either of these two varieties, it will be marked on the label. However, because of their ridiculously low yields, Madeira wine growers have no interest in growing either of these varieties and they have practically become extinct.

Part Three: What Makes Madeira Wine Special?

Vendredis du Vin #79: Vinotherapy


If you’re not familiar with the French wine blogging scene, you probably have never heard of the “Vendredis du Vin.”

It’s a online community of francophone wine buffs who, like well-trained puppets, on the last Friday of the month, write a blog post in response to a deliberately provocative prompt.

Every month a new theme is announced, I make a note of it, but every month, without fail, the deadline whizzes by. However, with an image like the one above from Miss Lilou, I was not going to be forgetting this month’s prompt any time soon.

–> Personally, if I could make just a couple of changes to that image, it would be me in that barrel of wine, and I’d swap in a proper wine glass. <– 

Sébastien Nickel, our VDV President this month, set us the theme “Vinotherapy” or, in other words, to talk about a wine which makes us feel better.

If I had thought that remembering the date was the hardest part, I hadn’t realised that I’d actually need to find the time to sit down and write the blog post. I’m yoyo-ing between the UK and France right now and as soon as I get home in the evenings, I fall fast asleep.

So, here I am, a day late, enjoying the best of both cultures for breakfast – a delicious pomegranate tart from Du Pain and a pot of Lady Grey tea – and trying to get my sluggish brain to concentrate on wine.


I was racking my brain for the wine that I had drunk recently which made me feel at ease. Was it a Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc? I’ve drunk so many of them over the last few months and yet I still manage to keep appreciating their minerality. Would it be an elegant Barolo? Last week, I was delighted that a friend decided to open two bottles of 2009 Barolo from Giuseppe Mascarello and that I just happened to be on hand to, err, help.

Bubbles were up there because of their rather flirtatious and frivolous nature. Beer also crossed my mind because in order to relax, I tend to go to grains rather than grapes. Finally, I realised that the style of wine that gives me instant pleasure without any of the anxiety that goes hand-in-hand with prestigious crus, were sweet wines.

I opened a bottle of Massandra South Coast White Muscat last weekend for my birthday.


It is made with Muscat Blanc à petits grains grapes, grown on the south-facing coast overlooking the Black Sea. This is the same variety that is typically used for Moscato d’Asti in northern Italy as well as the many vins doux naturels from the south of France – in particular, the Muscat Beaumes de Venise where it often goes by the pen-name Muscat de Frontignan.

Crimea is specialised in the production of fortified Muscat wines. I visited the Massandra winery, near Yalta, in 2012 (which you can read about here)… although I didn’t get the same treatment as Putin and Berlusconi!


Now that Crimea is part of Russia, we can’t find these wines in Europe anymore – blame the trade embargoes. As a result, these last bottles in my cellar feel even more special.

Therefore, my vinotherapy comes in the form of the Massandra Winery’s fortified South Coast White Muscat NV, bottled on 13 April 2012.

At first, it has a beautiful toffee colour with a syrupy, viscous texture. I lose myself amongst the comforting aromas of stewed apricots, dates and wild-flower honey. Taking a tentative sip reveals a luscious balance of sugar and alcohol. The wine is aged for a minimum of two years in oak before bottling and accordingly, the diverse elements are harmoniously intertwined. It was a perfect pairing for a sticky toffee pudding.

Cheers!! Bon weekend à tous et à toutes!


The Illustrious History of Madeira Wine


Madeira is both an island and a wine. It is a story which goes back over 500 years. It is as much tradition as it is modernity. It is also a journey which touches all four far-flung corners of the world.

Despite being a Portuguese territory, the minuscule island of Madeira is actually closer to the coast of Morocco. I can’t really say “located just off” because we’re talking about a distance of 400 miles (640 km.) That’s almost the same as Land’s End to John O’Groats.


As a result, the climate on this fertile island is distinctly tropical. The temperature rarely varies during the year: you would expect an average of 19-20 degrees in winter and 22-23 degrees in summer. Sounds perfect, right?

Well, yes, for humans but not for growing grapes and making wine. There is sunshine all year round – but it’s rarely strong enough to ripen the grapes. There’s also a “British amount” of rain which falls upon the island’s mountainous terrain – meaning that mildew is always a concern.

This peculiar island gets even stranger:

Madeira is quite possibly the only place on Earth where you can find a field of sugar cane or bananas growing adjacent to a vineyard.

Only 8% of the island is arable land.

The soil is primarily composed of volcanic basalt, which until only very recently was considered as a very poor terroir.

Because of the steep rugged mountains, the vineyards are often right next to the sea.

Were it not for its fortuitous location on the transatlantic shipping route, in all likelihood, we would never have heard of Madeira wine.

photo-1447756905006-7f41fc2a2bc9 (2)

Legend says that the Portuguese first landed on Madeira and its neighbouring islands (Porto Santo and the Desertas) in 1420. At that time, Porto Santo was considered more suitable for agriculture because the island is low-lying, warm and sandy rather than green, wet and mountainous.

It was only with the settlement of the colonies in America and the extra traffic that it brought (16-17th centuries) that the port of Funchal, the capital of Madeira, emerged as the more practical choice for a naval shipping hub.

The 18th century was the golden age for Madeira wine. While new export markets were slowly opening up in Russia, northern Africa and the UK, it was actually the fledgling American colonies who had the lion’s share, consuming a quarter of total annual production. It was so popular that Thomas Jefferson is said to have toasted the Declaration of Independence (1776) with a glass of Madeira wine. Madeira was also mentioned in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography (1791.)

We talk about the Boston Tea Party in 1773 as being one of the defining moments in the run up to the American Revolution…. but I didn’t know that there had actually been a riot in Boston five years before over Madeira wine. An American-managed ship (later to be known as the HMS Liberty) was carrying a few cases of untaxed Madeira wine and found itself in the centre of a controversy in 1768. The subsequent riots and eventual sinking of HMS Liberty was one of the first openly defiant acts against the British government.

So what is Madeira wine? How does it differ from Port or Sherry? Follow this link for Part Two: “How Sweet Is Madeira Wine?”

Actually, why not also sign up for updates to the blog? Link on the left-hand side of this page.

In The Vineyards With: Valentin Mityaev (Massandra, Crimea)


Visiting in the Massandra winery in the Crimea region of Ukraine in May 2012 was one of the most markedly different visits I’ve ever experienced.

Not for any outstanding viticultural reason, because, as is fairly standard for the region it seems, the grapes are bought in from the surrounding vineyards in the rugged mountains just outside Yalta, on the Black Sea coast. Don’t forget that in Russian, a winery is called a vinzavod, a “wine-factory.”

The wines made here are predominantly fortified : “portwine”, “madeira”, muscat, but there is also some dry Cabernet Sauvignon and Saperavi. There’s a significant distinction between the every-day drinking wines and the Collection, which have been known to go for thousands at auction.

I was being shown round by Valentin Mityaev, the Deputy Director of Massandra Winery.


What you see is the largely symmetrical Massandra Winery… what you don’t see is the extensive labyrinth of tunnels and cellars below ground.

As you can see from the photo above (click to zoom in), the vast “wine factory” is made up of two buildings, mirror-images of each other. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The real treasures are actually underground. The cellars constitute 7 tunnels bored into the mountain, each 100m long. There are also several bottle-aging galleries as well as an “Exhibition Gallery” boasting bottles of Chateau d’Yquem 1865 and Chateau Margaux 1919, as well as old expressions from Massandra itself. The collection is really quite staggering.


Chateau Yquem


A map showing the breath-taking Massandra tunnels, bored into the mountains behind the winery.

The history museum element of my visit doesn’t stop there. I was regaled with stories of Russian Tsars, Prince Golitzyn, White Russians and Stalin. There were also barrels bearing the emblem of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, meaning that they date pre-1918. I was impressed!

DSC05033 Adding to the experience was the moment I met Valentin’s formidable mother, Galina Mityaeva, Chief-Winemaker and Director at Massandra. I don’t think I will ever forget the moment that I was left in front of her, trying to explain in Russian how to make a straw wine! Fortunately, for the rest of the visit, Valentin was on hand for translation emergencies.

It’s also the first time I’ve ever visited a winery and been forced to wear a lab coat. (I should also mention that Valentin’s mother also  suggested that I borrow some socks, because she thought I was under-dressed. I politely declined the offer.)

After the visit underground, the tasting and lunch in the staff canteen, I spent the rest of the afternoon in the Galina’s office drinking tea, coffee, gossiping with a gaggle of young girls from admin, drinking portwine and eating chocolate cake. In true Russian-style, we were doing toasts. The third happened to be for my future marriage. Err what?! 🙂