Madeira: The Surprising Affability of the “Incredible Hulk” of Wine

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by Jeff Harding with photos by Will Blunt
Vol. 28
July 2012   

So how much Madeira did you drink on the Fourth of July? Not as much as you should have—that is if you’re patriotic. Back in colonial days, Madeira was the most popular wine in America, due to a tax loophole. Since it didn’t come from Europe, it was exempt from British taxes, and you know how our forefathers felt about that, right?

Well, it’s no longer the cheapest wine you can drink, but it’s certainly among the best. We had an opportunity to taste some great Madeira with Wine Director Michael Scaffidi at Plume at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, DC. The restaurant has an extensive collection of Madeira (one of the largest in the country, in fact) both as an homage to the hotel's namesake and Madeira aficionado Thomas Jefferson and owing to Scaffidi’s love of the stuff.

In addition to pouring 42 Madeiras by the glass, Scaffidi’s collection includes three vintages from Jefferson’s lifetime, and the last remaining bottle of the1780 Borges Bual in the country. Plume offers flights of three tastings, including a 50-year flight, a 150-year flight, and a 400-year flight (the age of the wines add up to the “name” of the flight). In the 400-year flight, you get one glass from each of the last three centuries. Talk about drinking in history!

Sommelier Michael Scaffidi

Scaffidi’s passion for Madeira ignited during his time at French Laundry, where he became fascinated with older wines that still tasted amazing. He calls Madeira the “Incredible Hulk” of wine, because it can’t be destroyed. “You can open a bottle now, and in 50 years it will taste the same,” he says. Due to the nature of the wine (during the winemaking process, the wine is “cooked”), its shelf life after opening is almost infinite compared to other fortified wines. Hence the tastiness of a 300-year old wine.

When he started the Madeira program, Scaffidi sought out the legendary Mannie Berk, of The Rare Wine Co. Once he had proved his dedication to a successful Madeira program, they worked to build the stellar Madeira collection that still shines at The Jefferson today.

And don’t worry about remembering what you drank from visit to visit. Scaffidi’s dedication to excellent service includes registering the wines you try during your visit into their reservation system. So you can sip something different on your next visit, or they’ll remember the wine for you, if you want it again. The host or maître d’ also gives the guest a printout of their selection(s) to take home.

D’Oliveiras Bastardo Reserva, Madeira, 1927
Butternut Squash Tartlet with Arugula Pesto, Butternut Squash Pearls, Pine Nuts, and Parmesan Tuile
Pairing Note

Chef Chris Jakubiec’s Butternut Squash Tartlet is a dish that’s made for Madeira. Caramelized fruit, light baking spices, and a delicate nuttiness from the pine nuts are all flavors found in Madeira. A classic pâte brisée is filled with a purée of squash, corn starch, egg yolks, and semi-secret ingredient quark, a fresh cheese comparatively unknown in the states but popular in central Europe. The dish is completed with butternut squash pearls, arugula pesto, pine nuts, and a parmesan tuile. Creamy and rich, with a subtle tang from the cheese and a peppery touch from the arugula pesto, Scaffidi’s pairing starts to make sense before we even get to the glass.

Sweet wines for a first course can be a hard sell, but Scaffidi tells us that when diners opt for the wine flight, it’s a bit easier because they’ve put themselves in your hands. And in a house known for its Madeira collection, how could one say no? The 1927 D’Oliveiras Bastardo Reserva is a powerhouse wine but subtle enough that it doesn’t overpower the dish. Made from the red Bastardo grape (most Madeira grapes are white), we get big, ripe, red fruit notes, cooked apricots, and liquid toffee. “Typically a wine so rich would be too much of a contrast, but part of the beauty in Madeira is [its] dancing acidity,” says Scaffidi. “It works with the peppery notes because of the acidity, and the richness of the wine and tartlet are in complete harmony together.” The almond-toffee notes highlight the nuttiness of the pine nuts and pastry crust, and we found ourselves shrinking our sips and bites as we tried to make each last a little longer.

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