ENGLISH EDITION : Barbeito – Madeira, revisited

27/02/2018 - Once the plane has landed (on one of the most dangerous airstrips in the world, squeezed between the ocean and the mountains), the visitor can relax : he or she will be able to enjoy this magnificent island… and its wines.

Some 350 miles West of Morocco, and 600 miles South-West of Lisbon, Madeira benefits from a sub-tropical climate with many microclimates. Those are created by a rugged terrain going up from sea level to peaks ranging from 4,000 to 5,000 ft. Therefore, viticulture must adapt to various altitudes. And it is one of the few places in the world where vineyards are near banana plantations!

The vineyard of a volcanic island

The landscapes of Madeira are truly beautiful. No wonder that so many painters came here to paint them, including Sir Winston Churchill (in 1949). Impressive slopes, a luxurious vegetation, the mosaic of tiny plots of land sculpting entire hills, contrast with the Atlantic Ocean, so blue in fine weather, so ominous in stormy weather. The 480 ha (1,190 acre) vineyard is spread out in micro-plots of land (0.2 acre in average), belonging to some 1,600 small land owners. They are more gardeners than winegrowers – and none of them produce wine. This is the job of the producers/shippers, who buy the grapes from the growers. There are only 6 of them, including Vinhos Barbeito.

The varietals

Vines grow on basaltic soils between 600 and 2,100 ft high.
At the lowest level, and near the Southern coast, the Malvasia (44ha/109 acres) will provide the grapes with the most sugar ;
On the highest terraces, mostly in the North, the Sercial (18ha), a cousin of the Riesling grape, will be used for the driest wines.
In between, Verdelho (46ha), a cousin of Pedro Ximénez will be used for the medium dry and  Boal (28ha), for the medium sweet wines.

All grouped together, these four grapes – often called «noble grapes» only represent 136 ha, or one third of the total planted area. The rest is occupied by the Tinta Negra Mole (60% of the total). This crossing between Grenache and Pinot Noir, is often used to make the infamous “cooking madeira” or added rather anonymously to noble grapes. No wonder its reputation is quite poor. However…

Vinhos Barbeito

This company is the youngest of the Madeira shippers – it was created in 1946. But the real change – a change that would impact the whole of the Madeira production – came much later.
In 1991, Ricardo Diogo Freitas, grandson of the founder, joined the company. In a few years, he proved to be a genuine innovator, giving the wines a totally new dimension.
On the one hand, he put the emphasis on freshness, getting away from the traditional oxidative style of Madeira.
On the other hand, he has shown that Tinta Negra has a real potential in terms of fruit and acidity, provided that the yields are not excessive and that the evaporation rate is reduced during the ageing in wood cask (the canteiro method, instead of the estufagem method, used for “cooking-Madeiras”.  Which is made possible by reducing the exposure to heat during the hotter season.
Thanks to all these efforts, in 2015, the Madeira appellation decided that the mention Tinta Negra could now appear on the labels – it is thus now considered as a noble grape in its own right.
Of course, Ricardo does not add any caramel to his wines, although it has long been a common practice in Madeira.

The Madeira Collection

This part of the range illustrates perfectly Ricardo’s innovative efforts. The five blends also represent the 5 different styles of Madeira on the market.

The Madeira Collection 2 (Dry)

Dried almonds and gingerbread on the nose, super-lively and crisp on the palate, with aromas of Mirabelle plum and toffee. Remarkably elegant in spite of the 19° of alcohol. Very fresh and pure finish. Ricardo has added a little Verdelho and Sercial to the Tinta Negra. Like the four wines following, this wine was 10 years-old when bottled (in 2006).

The Madeira Collection 4 (Rainwater Medium Dry)

This wine is slightly less alcoholic than the others – 18° instead of 19°. Its nice acidity and its lower level of oxidization enhance its aromas of candied citrus, honey, blond tobacco and spices. It is rather softer on the palate, with a more voluptuous texture, but on the whole, the wine shows a perfect balance between sugar and acidity. Same blend of varietals as the previous wine.

The Madeira Collection 1 (Medium Sweet)

This wine blends a majority of Tinta Negra (vintage 2000) with Malvasia (vintage 2003) and Verdelho. Buy its complexity also comes from the little part of old Tinta Negra aged in barrels for 60 years.
This wine needs some air before it can express its orange zest, dried apricot, honey and somewhat oxidative notes. It shows a perfect balance on the palate – the sugar is very well integrated and balanced by the freshness of a blood orange.

The Madeira Collection 3 (Sweet)  

100% Malvasia, partly young, partly barrel-aged. On the palate, sweetness comes first but is quickly superseded by acidity. Bee wax, brown tobacco and various spices accompany the tasting -the enjoying- of this true meditation wine.

The Madeira Collection 5 (Medium Dry)

For this wine, Ricardo carefully selected 10 year-old Verdelho and Boal which he blended with some old Tinta Negra aged for 70 to 80 years in barrels, so as emulate the character of old classic Madeiras. Deep golden colour. Armagnac, candy, pineapple-flambé notes on the nose, a rather commanding body balancing glycerol and acidity (the best equilibrium of all the wines tasted so far), for a velvety touch. But the very long finish evokes a dry and salty wine.

These 5 wines illustrate the modern and fresher style of Barbeito, also demonstrating the interest of the Tinta Negra grape when grown and vinified with due care.

And now for more classic Madeiras…

Then we tasted older Madeiras that speak more of the past of Barbeito than its future. But we liked them none the less!

1997 Tinta negra Colheita, medium sweet, single cask

This Colheita has a higher volatile acidity and a darker colour; it was aged for 17 years in 650 litre casks. It is complex on the nose (smoky notes, celery, almonds, toffee); it appears a little rustic on the palate, with a sort of “contained violence”.

Ribeiro Real 1998, tinta negra Colheita, medium dry

The vineyard of this estate that used to belong to the island’s nobility is said to produce the best Tinta Negra. This wine was bottled in November 2015. It shows more elegance than the previous Colheita, both on the nose and on the palate. A lot of complexity too – notes of sloe, tobacco, Moro blood orange, and then again, and superb balance between sweetness and freshness. The volatile acidity contributes to this freshness. The wine is full of energy in spite its 19° of alcohol.

Verdelho 2000 Colheita, single cask

Bottled after 15 years of barrel-ageing, this wine shows a golden-brownish colour. On the nose, on finds caramel, celery salt, blond tobacco and citrus notes. The wine is very harmonious on the palate, a hint of sweetness counterbalancing the naturel dryness of the Verdelho. Very sapid finish in spite of the alcohol.

Boal 1992 Frasqueira

Contrarily to Colheitas, Frasqueiras must be barrel-aged for a minimum of 20 years. This Boal spent 21 years in the cask, which explains its brownish colour. Volatile acidity, caramel and smoky notes on the nose; very powerful on the palate thanks to the acidity, with a lot of complex tertiary aromas.

Sercial 1978 Frasqueira

Here, the original fierceness of the wine has been mitigated by time. The fragrances on the nose are less brutal, on finds grilled almonds, cocoa and coffee notes. The wine is almost dry on the palate, its acidity bringing energy and youth to a texture polished by 29 years of ageing in barrel. Its perfect balance between freshness and softness makes it the perfect after-meal meditation-wine.


Bernard Arnould


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