The name Madeira, when used in the wine context, refers to the fortified wines of the island of the same name. However, unfortified wine is also made on the island, which falls under the protected designation of origin appellation Madeirense. Justino’s, Blandy’s (Madeira Wine Company) and, since 2017, Barbeito, are the only fortified Madeira wine producers that also make DOP Madeirense. There are currently 12 table wine producers on the island making certified table wines.
But while Madeira’s producers are well equipped with the casks and space needed for the fortified ageing process, many do not have the equipment needed to produce still wine. To help them out, the Madeira Wine Institute (IVBAM) has come up with a novel scheme. In 1999, IVBAM set up its own winery at São Vicente, a small town situated on the north coast of Madeira. The winery is equipped with presses, tanks and other equipment.
One producer who benefits is Tito Brazão, owner of Quinta do Barbusano, named after the laurel tree endemic to the island of Madeira, which has a grand total of 6ha of terraced vineyards near São Vicente. Barbusano grows the white varieties Verdelho and Arnsburger, a Riesling cross created in 1939 by Heinrich Birk at the Geisenheim Institute in Germany and named for the Arnsburg Cistercian Abbey in Wetter in recognition of the role of Cistercians in the German wine scene. It arrived on Madeira thanks to a German consultant. The red varieties Aragonês, Tinta Negra and Touriga Nacional are also grown at Barbusano.
In exchange for a small fee, Brazão gets access to a winery with a total capacity of 300,000L, plus an assortment of steel tanks for fermentation and storage, ranging from 200L to 15,000L. Tanks have to be booked well in advance, as demand is high, and the barrels are paid for and owned by the producers.
Wine can be made at the winery in one of two ways. The producer can use their own winemaker and take control of the process, or the winery takes responsibility for the complete production process; grapes are received from the producer on an agreed date and after consultation, the resident winemaker makes the wines. A bottling line and a laboratory are also provided.
For now, Brazão is sharing the tasting room with a number of other producers. The IVBAM winery is giving him the breathing space he needs in between developing his wine range and investing in a winery. His ultimate goal is to buy more land and expand his vineyard, and then build a proper tasting room.
The entire island is home to less than 450ha of vines, which cling to unreasonably steep hillsides in tiny, terraced vineyards. Overall, still wine production counts for a mere 4% to 5% of the island’s total production, meaning there aren’t a lot of bottles to go around: the majority of the wines stay on the island.
The future of still wine
The roots of the still wine movement on Madeira date back to the late 1970s, when IVBAM began experimenting with more than 50 different varieties to see which would be best suited for the production of unfortified wine. Verdelho shows real promise as a still wine on Madeira and several producers have bottled crisp, dry, bright examples of this grape, while others have blended it with an interesting mix of grapes (like Arnsburger) not used for the production of Madeira.
Today, there are more than 12 different table wine brands totalling 65,000L to 90,000L depending on vintage, 99% of which stays in Madeira; however, while the production of still white and red DOP Madeirense wines has grown, there doesn’t seem to be much long-term prospect for significant growth in this area. To fully invest in making still wines on the island, growers and producers would have to make a sharp turn away from their deeply held tradition of producing one of the world’s best fortified wines. And there’s simply no impetus for making such a dramatic shift. But a large fortified wine industry and a small still wine industry can both exist in the same place and time.
The market is already there – most wine drinkers on the island would happily drink Madeira table whites with their excellent seafood instead of the fortified wines. The total production is small, but the passion is evident.