On Thursday evening it was off to the Savile Club for this year's Madeira Dinner, hosted as ever by G. This year marked a change in theme from producer to grape, and the grape of the evening was Sercial.
First up was this "five year old" solera of 1980s wines made by Manuel Eugenio Fernandes. G found this on the island and thinks it was bottled around 1995. It was a deep gold colour, with a dry, savoury nose. On the palate it was quite sharp and I didn't enjoy the finish. Given that there were 11 more to come, I dispensed with my glass after a couple of sips.
Things picked up with no.2, a 1986 vintage Sercial made by ABSL aka Barros e Sousa. G and his father have been visiting their place for years and there's a nice article about it here. Apparently this wine was bottled in 2008 giving it 22 years in barrel. It was a dark gold, had a pleasant nose and was relatively fruity on the palate. T mentioned varnish, and again it was very dry but this time much more elegant.
No.3 was a 1979 vintage from HM Borges. This was bottled in 2008 giving it 29 years in barrel. Now we were talking! This was almost sweet after 2, and reminded me of marmalade. It was much more my kind of thing, but arguably not typical of Sercial. Satisfying and with a lovely finish. Dare I mention that we finished it off at lunchtime today and very enjoyable it was too.
No. 4 was a 1969 vintage made by Adegas de Torreao. When first opened, this was very pungent on the nose (turps!), and that hadn't abated even two weeks later. It was hard-going and not likeable after the lovely no.3, so was rapidly consigned to the bucket. Often Madeira which has been in bottle for a long time is "bottle-sick" and needs several days for the nose to come through, but T said that "sometimes there comes a point when you have to accept that it's not sick, but terminally ill".
No. 5 was a 1950 Sercial made by Justino Henriques. For Burgundy and Beaujolais, I firmly believe in the Inverse Law of Labels i.e. the worse the label, the better the wine. Sadly, this law does not appear to apply to Madeira. The label is a horror, and the wine was worse. On one memorable occasion in the past, T described something as smelling of sick - this time he went a stage further and described it as "alcoholic sick". It didn't taste better than it smelled. It was vile. Oh dear.
G thinks that as this was bottled before the EU came into being, it wasn't actually Sercial at all but the inferior grape, Tinta Negra Mole. For once, we have something for which to thank the EU.
The staff of the Savile had laid out dishes of crackers for palate-cleansing purposes, behind which were dishes of Bendicks mints clearly intended to go with the coffee. I was seriously tempted to eat a Bendicks mint at this point to take the horrible taste away.
Fortunately we got right back on form with no.6, a 1940 vintage from Blandy's, bottled in 1996. This was provided by T and was a really enjoyable wine, and a great example of Sercial. It had an enticing nose and was rich and relatively sweet in style. I detected vanilla and apricot. G compared Blandys as being like Taylors for port, i.e. it has a big, rich, distinctive full-on house style.
No. 7 was a 1937 from D'Oliveiras. This was bottled in 2003 giving it 66 years years in barrel. Until recently, Waitrose sold this online, but I can't see it on their website at the moment. It was very dark in colour reflecting the long period in barrel, and I found it very savoury and gravy-like on the palate. G said it was monumental, and it had a lovely gloopy quality.
Sadly, no.8 was another duffer. This was the 1928 made by Izidro and bottled in the mid-1970s. Again, it smelled revolting and G's father said it was cheesy. G said to be fair it wasn't actually labelled Sercial, so perhaps it was no surprise that it turned out not to be. Ghastly and straight into the bucket.
We sat down to dinner at this point and had no.9 and 10 with a chicken consomme. No. 9 was a 1927 from Leacock, with the SJ on the label standing for St John, which is a particular vineyard. This was bottled in 1937 so only had 10 years in barrel. T and I both got varnish on the nose, but not in a bad way. It was eye-bleedingly dry, hardcore sercial. I liked it, but I wouldn't want to drink a lot of it.
No.10 was a 1920 vintage from Barbeito, bottled around 1970. This was perfectly nice but not exceptional, given the company in which it found itself.
Steak pudding and claret followed, then we had the last two Madeiras with the cheese course.
No. 11 was an 1860 solera wine from Leacock. This was bottled in the 1950s according to G with his bottle-detective skills (no stamp = pre 1967, and apparently the stencilling in that shape is very 1950s). A Madeira solera has to contain at least 10% of the original vintage, unlike a sherry solera. I could have sat there sniffing it for ages. It had an unctuous mouthfeel and was rich yet still dry. Well-balanced and full. This was my wine of the evening, and many of those present agreed with me. It was very special indeed.
Finally, no.12 was a 19th century solera bottled by Nicolas the French wine firm in the 1950s. They were virtually the only French company to buy casks of Madeira and bottle it, as on the whole the French don't understand Madeira and use it to cook with - tchah! This had butterscotch on the nose and was very elegant and perfectly-balanced. It was G's favourite of the evening.
After that, we had lemon tart with some of G's excellent 1985 Bonnezeaux, and then went downstairs and sat outside on the terrace drinking up the box of leftovers, which was almost like having another tasting all over again. The conversation flowed into the small hours, but I was still remarkably functional yesterday - another reason why Madeira has the edge over port, in my opinion.
Conclusions of the evening: Sercials are dry in style but vary in terms of their fullness, from sharp and piercing to big and rich. The wines of Justino Henriques are to be avoided at all costs, while Leacocks are the way forward.
Once again, thanks to G for another exceptional evening. It's such a privilege to drink these wines which he has collected and in many cases kept stashed away for several years waiting for the right occasion to bring them out. Bring on next year!