I attended a 7 course tasting menu for a friend’s birthday this past weekend. This was not your average tasting menu, however. It was a tour of the seven continents and it was at somebody’s house. I have talented friends.
Yes, we had kangaroo and no, I won’t divulge (yet) what was served for the Antarctica course until a later post. What I want to do here is highlight one of my favorite courses of the evening, mostly because of its killer wine pairing.
For the 6th or what would traditionally be the cheese course, we traveled to Europe and were served a twice-baked three cheese soufflé with cream alongside a house made quince ravioli in beurre noisette. It was paired with a 1969 d’Oliveiras Sercial Madeira. A guest at the party asked if we needed to be concerned about oxidation, given the age of the wine, so while our host (who knew the answer) puttered in the kitchen for the next course, I broke it down for everybody.
The beauty of Madeira is that it has been purposely oxidized, so there’s little you can do to harm it once it’s in your possession. Like many other beverages, it came about as a happy accident. Madeira is the name of a Portugese island, 400 miles off the coast of Africa. The island was important stop for folks traveling to the New World and to the Far East – one last chance to pick up provisions.
Good sailors wouldn’t travel without wine, but to protect it for the long journey, they would fortify it by adding neutral spirit or brandy. The extra alcohol made the wine more stable, helping to prevent re-fermentation or microbiological spoilage. The big casks of wine would sit in the belly of the ship and the constant rocking motion of the boat accelerated the aging process. The heat of the tropics slowly cooked the wine into an amber, nutty, caramelized beverage. When the sailors consumed the wine at their destination, it tasted a heck of a lot better than when they had started.
The term “maderized” has come to explain the change in Madeira’s flavor profile as it undergoes a controlled, hot oxidation. Sending ships back and forth across the Atlantic is not terribly efficient, so now there are 3 ways to achieve a similar end result.
1. The quickest and cheapest way is to put the wine in concrete vats and circulate hot water through it using a submerged coil. This heats the wine directly and it maderizes in about 3 months. The wine is sweetened and fortified after it has been heated.
2. Another method is to place the wine casks in a heated warehouse. The intense heat of the room maderizes the wine in 6-12 months. The flavors achieved this way are more integrated, as the wine is fortified prior to the start of the aging process.
3. The most expensive and time consuming method is to put the casks in a non-temperature controlled warehouse and just let them sit. This process can take a number of years, but yields wines of extraordinary quality.
For those of you who are interested, there are 4 traditional “noble” grapes of Madeira.
1. Sercial. This is used to produce the driest Madeiras (0.5 to 1.5% residual sugar). The sweetness is offset by its searing acidity. Often tastes of almonds.
2. Verdelho. Produces moderately sweet Madeiras (1.5 to 2.5% rs). These often have a pronounced smokiness. You may recognize the grape name, as it’s also used to make white wine in Portugal and Spain (under the name Verdejo).
3. Bual. This has a raisiny sweetness and a residual sugar level of 2.5 to 3.5%.
4. Malmsey. This word is the English corruption of the word Malvasia, a grape used to make tasty white wine in Italy. This is the sweetest style of Madeira (3.5 to 6.5% rs), with a nutty grapiness, but still with well-balanced acidity.
Look for more posts on this around-the-world-feast soon.