Devotion; Why I Love Madeira

This is my entry for the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge  This month’s theme is ‘Devotion.’

Cossart Gordon Bual Madeira, NV 10 years

Cossart Gordon Bual Madeira, NV 10 years

Amber in color, rich and nutty with some zest in the finish, Cossart Gordon Bual Madeira NV, aged 10 years tastes like the warmth of Christmas on a cold, snowy night. In the lushness of this fortified wine it was the zest on the finish that surprised me.

Madeira is commonly made from one of five grapes. The driest is Sercial, also known as Esgana Cao which translates to ‘Dog Strangler.’ I’d say that’s pretty dry. Grown a little lower on the island, and slightly less acidic is Verdelho. At sea level are the grapes Bual and Malvasia, the latter being the least acidic, and usually made into the sweetest style of Madeira. The one red grape used to make Madeira, and the one most commonly used is Tinto Negro Mole.

The Madeira I had recently is made from the Bual grape which is also known as Semillon, the other white grape of Bordeaux. In both Bual Madeira and still Semillon, the grape presents a beautiful contrast between lushness and tangy acidity.

Like other fortified wines, Madeira, because of its high alcohol content and through the process of ‘maderization,’ is a very sturdy wine that travels well with little threat of breaking down during the voyage. Its sturdiness was a great benefit during America’s colonial period when a ship could take months to get from Europe to the colonies. For that reason, it was the wine that was served in the colonial taverns.

Think of it, during the constitutional convention, while all those great minds hashed out the details of a new nation, they were probably all sipping Madeira. When Washington travelled to Williamsburg to discuss with George Wythe and Peyton Randolph the possibility of war, the conversations occurred, I’m sure over a glass or two of Madeira. Jefferson was no stranger to wine, but his beloved Bordeaux would not have made the voyage to Virginia, so it was probably Madeira that loosened his quill as he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Married to a Quaker, there’s a chance Madison wrote the constitution completely sober, but if he did have a drink, I’m sure it was Madeira.

General Washington

General Washington

I won’t go so far as to say that Madeira built our nation. But I do not think it is a stretch to say that Madeira is the wine that fortified our nation, or at the very least, Madeira fortified our founding fathers.

Finding Closure

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASome wine makers feel very passionately about how to find closure for their wines. Yes, I am referring to the old screw cap vs. cork debate. And many well-respected wine experts are taking very different sides of the conversation.

Over the past decade or so, screw caps have been losing their once bad-boy reputation. Formerly thought of as cheap, fast and classless, screw caps are more readily accepted as a legitimate wine bottle closure, even for high-quality wines. As a matter of fact, they may have some advantages over the traditional cork.

The biggest appeal of screw caps, and one of the reasons that whole countries (i.e. Australia) have been moving toward them, is that a wine with a screw cap is much less likely to be affected by TCA, trichloroanisole, cork taint. TCA develops from a mold that can be found on cork. The mold combines with trace amounts of chlorine from bleach used on winery equipment or on the corks themselves, and trichloroanisole is formed. It is easily recognizable in the wine as a dank, wet newspaper smell, and while not dangerous to ingest, completely overpowers the natural aromas and flavors of the wine, leaving a distasteful liquid that pairs with nothing worth eating. It ruins the wine and can’t be remedied. However, TCA is not just found in wines with corks. It can be formed on the winery equipment and seep into the wine that way. So, a screw cap is no guarantee against it. Further, there are other flaws a wine can develop other than TCA including several bacterial flaws as well as some sulfur flaws. So, even if screw caps could wipe out the problem of cork taint, which they cannot, there are still plenty of other flaws that can develop regardless of the closure.

Two things a cork closure will do to enhance the wine are, they allow some minimal oxidation, which helps a young wine mature, and they contribute some tannins to the wine. Cork is a wood product, after all. Tannins and minor oxidation during aging is a benefit for a full-bodied, red, but a delicate white wine would not benefit from either. A screw cap creates a closure impervious to oxidation, with no contribution of tannins.

Things are no more clear cut on the environmental front. At first glance one might think the natural, biodegradable cork is much more environmentally friendly. Cork itself is renewable and sustainable as the cork is harvested without harming the tree. However, cork comes from trees grown in Portugal and Spain. The corks have to be shipped to new world wineries, and that creates a carbon footprint. Screw caps, on the other hand, can be manufactured locally from recycled aluminum. And they can be recycled again after use.

Perhaps the right answer is that different closures are right for different wines. We, as consumers, need to be let go of our long-held beliefs that a screw-capped wine is a cheap wine, as well as our futile hopes that getting rid of the cork will get rid of the cork taint. Closure, like other wine-making choices, should be left to the wine maker. As yet, there is no clear closure for the debate on closure.

Why Do We Love Wine?

Cincuenta, 2009‘This is like watching a golf match,’ our host commented as we all sat swirling, inhaling and tasting in complete silence, focused only on the wine. ‘She holds the glass. Her nose goes down into the bowl, inhaling deeply,’ he said with the hushed reverence appropriate for said golf match.

I’ve fallen in with a group of CS’s and CSW’s who get together monthly to explore and learn wine, one grape at a time. December was Syrah. January was a religious experience (aka Nebbiolo.) I’ve hosted wine tastings with my friends, and I love it. It gives me a chance to try new wines, share something I’ve learned and try my hand at food/wine pairing. But with my ‘normal’ friends, the conversation winds around to books, kids, trips, and ultimately away from the wine. With my new group of wine obsessives, we never stop talking about the wine, that is, once we take our noses out of our glasses and start talking. These people say things like, ‘I can taste the iron in the soil. It must be from Washington.’ I am learning so much. But, why, I wonder, do we love wine so much?

Yes, reader, I am including ‘you’ in the ‘we.’ You must think about, write about, study, swirl, smell, and taste wine on a fairly regular basis with a fair amount of obsessive passion, otherwise, I do not think that you would be here in this growing circle of wine, shall we say, philosophers, theorists, perhaps? At any rate, here we are, obsessing about wine each in our own way, but why? What is it about wine that has captured our respective imaginations?

It seems that often those who love wine, also love food, and also love to travel. Because wine and food are associated with particular regions, they become a way of travelling, visiting a country, a culture, a people, learning their likes, their climates, their daily joys from a dish and a glass. Spain may be a long plane ride away, but an evening spent enjoying some chorizo with a glass of Cincuenta Rioja with its crisp cherry and spice aromas with just a hint of leather might get us a little closer.

Not everyone who loves to travel, also loves wine. But I have, yet to meet someone who loves wine, but does not love to travel. Be honest. When was the last time you had a glass of Tannat from Madiran and did not get out a map to see exactly where Madiran is? Wine and place are inextricably entwined, not just viticulturally, but, (dare I say it?) spiritually. That is to say, the close association of wine and place is the strong pull of wine for those of us who are obsessed with it. We are explorers in a world where there is little left to be explored. Yet, wine, with its myriad of grapes, regions, soils, aromas and climates leads us tantalizingly with, always, more to discover.