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Notes on Some Very Old Wines

2011 May 27
by Mike

Last November, I took part in a pre-auction Madeira tasting that Christie’s hosted at its New York headquarters. The tasting was led by Charles Curtis, who recently transferred to Hong Kong to oversee wine for Christie’s Asia, and was attended by a small group of Madeira buffs, among them importer Mannie Berk of The Rare Wine Co. Berk has spent the past two decades waging a crusade to revive interest in Madeira, a favorite tipple of the Founding Fathers. His efforts are finally paying off; Madeira seems to be making a comeback, and it was against the backdrop of this encouraging development that the Christie’s tasting was held. The consignor, who asked to remain anonymous, was a longtime Madeira enthusiast with a renowned collection of this distinctive fortified wine from the Portuguese island of the same name (for a primer on Madeira and its history, you can read this piece that I did for Slate last year). All of the bottles at the tasting came from his cellar, and he was on hand for the event. The wines had been decanted four days in advance—how about that?—and their ambrosial perfume filled the entire upper floor at Christie’s. It even followed me into the men’s room, which I particularly appreciated. The evening’s lineup included two legendary Madeiras, the 1827 Quinta do Serrado Boal and the 1795 Barbeito Terrantez, both of which showed beautifully. There were several other outstanding wines, too. But the conversation was nearly the equal of the wines; Curtis and Berk provided superb commentary, as did several other Madeira aficionados. Needless to say, it was a thrill to attend the tasting.

You will note that a number of the wines bear the name “Cossart.” Cossart Gordon is one of the great Madeira houses, and also the oldest: it was established in 1745. The late Noël Cossart managed the company from 1936 until 1953, when his family sold its stake in the firm. He remained active in the Madeira trade thereafter, and in 1984, he published a book called Madeira: The Island Vineyard. The book was widely recognized as the definitive account of wine production on the island. However, there was only one print run, and the book eventually became such a rarity that copies were selling for as much as $500. But Berk and The Rare Wine Co. have just published an updated edition of Cossart’s classic. I haven’t read it yet, but it looks wonderful, and I think it will only serve to deepen the renewed enthusiasm that we now see for Madeira.

Anyway, the tasting notes:

1860 Cossart Gordon Sercial Solera: A superb perfume redolent of candied fruit, cinnamon, flowers, and iodine. A dry, very intense and spicy wine, with a crème brulee aspect on the palate. Good acidity and a long, slightly bitter aftertaste. Very good. A-.

1934 Cossart Verdelho: Leather, honey, figs, and spices greet the nose, giving way to a rich but dry and abundantly spicy Madeira, with a pronounced burnt note on the backend.  Some sweetness creeps in on the finish and persists. Also very good, but lacks just a little oomph and cohesion. A-.

1795 Barbeito Terrantez: Seems almost sacrilegious to even write a tasting note for this fabled Madeira, but here goes: Opens with an ethereal, exotic bouquet evocative of menthol, toffee, molasses, roasted nuts, and honey, leading to a rich, chewy, but supremely elegant wine with flavors that simply do not quit. Drinking a wine this old is humbling; the fact that it is so delicious and full of life is mind-bending. A privilege to experience it. I told my kids that I found one of George Washington’s teeth in my glass, but they didn’t believe me—so young, and already so skeptical. A+.

1927 Leacock Bastardo: The 1795 was an impossible act to follow, but the Leacock acquitted itself well under the circumstances. Aromas of salted nuts, earth, caramel, and figs. Full-bodied and rich, and projects a real sense of harmony in the mouth. It falls apart a bit on the backend, suggesting its best days are behind it. At 83 years old, it can be forgiven. All in all, a pleasurable wine. A-.

1900 Barbeito Malvasia: A deep shade of brown, and a deep, brooding nose to match, with notes of earth, leather, tea, and wood. Full-bodied and very rich, with a lovely candied fruit note across the palate, superb acidity, and a long, fresh finish. A terrific wine with a wonderful completeness about it. A.

1827 Quinta do Serrado Boal: The evening’s other pièce de résistance. Decadently perfumed, with scents of butterscotch, brown sugar, flowers, and raisins soaring from the glass. Incredible finesse here, with an impeccable balance of sweet and savory notes and superb acidity. A quiet intensity that just builds and builds and builds. An endless finish rounds out a staggeringly good Madeira. A+.

1845 Cossart Gordon Bual Solera: A very assertive aroma, marked by notes of molasses, tea, dark chocolate, and saline minerality. The sweetness is very apparent on this one, and there is not quite the acidity to support it, which results in a rather fat, heavy finish. Not bad, of course, but not great, either. B+.

1900 Manuel de Sousa Herdeiro Boal: An inviting bouquet of orange peel, caramel, truffle, and sea salt. A rich wine with a lovely spice note across the palate, excellent acidity to parry the sweetness, and a pleasantly bitter edge to the long finish. Impressive. A-.

1920 Cossart Bual: One of the evening’s weaker links. A very appealing nose gives way to an elegant but rather one-dimensional wine that fades in the backstretch. This bottle, at least, was clearly past its sell-by date, though by no means a burden to drink. B+.

1934 Cossart Bual: A tough aroma to get by—this one reeked of vomit, to put it bluntly. Duty obliged me to plug my nose and take a sip, and it was better on the palate, with an excellent brown sugar note ringing throughout. A slightly corpulent wine, but otherwise not bad so long as you don’t inhale. B

1941 Cossart Bual CDCG: A rarely seen wine, which was made by Noël Cossart to mark the birth of his son David, who went on to become a Master of Wine and to work in the Christie’s wine department. A senational nose offering up notes of spice, lemon peel, flowers, and salt. Some nuttiness on the palate, along with a bit of toffee. Elegant, with terrific acidity and a long, exhilarating finish. If only we could all have wines like this to commemorate our births. A.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Kent Benson permalink
    June 1, 2011

    Mike, thanks for the tip on the Cossart book. I went straight to the Rare Wine Company and ordered it. By the way, the $32 price includes shipping. Here’s a link to an enthusiastic endorsement from Clive Coates:

  2. May 31, 2011


    Thank you very much for stopping by and for the kind words. 1690? That’s incredible. What an amazing experience. I completely agree with you about the old versus young debate. There are virtues to both, and fortunately, we don’t have to make a choice–we can drink both kinds, happily. But there is something very special about drinking older wines. Even if a wine from the 19th or early 20th century isn’t very good, there is enormous pleasure in getting to taste something with that much age on it, something that has endured so long. The pleasure is maybe more intellectual and emotional than gustatory, but it is very satisfying all the same.


  3. May 29, 2011

    Amazing Francois- merci beaucoup!

  4. May 29, 2011

    François Mauss gave me the link to read this wonderful report. I have bought one year ago a lot of Madeiras meant to be before 1850. According to the form of the bottle, the oldest was from circa 1780. I drank it. It was extraordinary, with an unbelievable youth. And ten days ago, I drank a bottle of a wine that can be dated around 1690 whose picture is there :
    It was not a flashy wine but it was wine, and the historical evocation is unique.
    I am a lover of old wine, and I do not enter in the debate old versus young. There are pleasures with both wines, but the ones with old ones are unique.

    Congratulations for your report.

  5. Jack Bulkin permalink
    May 28, 2011

    Mike, I stand corrected. My friend Sean advised me that the Madiera bottle was a 1792 Blandy’s not an 1788 or 89. Sorry for the let down. : )

  6. May 27, 2011

    Jack, that sounds incredible–and a wine even older than the one I tasted! For me, one of the many pleasures of wine is how it connects us to the past. When I drink, say, a 96 Burgundy, I’m instantly transported back to Hong Kong, where I was living in 1996. That’s just one example of many. To taste something from the late 18th century is simply mind-blowing. In fact, I found it almost overwhelming–the rush of thoughts, emotions. I couldn’t completely process it, and many months later, I still can’t.

    No 18th century Madeiras this weekend, alas; just a lot of Beaujolais for the Memorial Day weekend, which isn’t too bad, either.

  7. May 27, 2011

    That’s a great point, Francois. Forget even the 18th or 19th century; just think about how comparatively primitive winemaking was 60 or 70 years ago, and yet, a lot of remarkable wines were produced back then. In certain wine circles, there’s a tendency to glorify the past, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, you have people who insist that wines in general have never been better than they are today. I personally think the truth is in its usual spot (somewhere in between). Clearly, though, the old-timers had some wisdom, and you can taste it in wines such as those ancient Madeiras.

  8. Jack Bulkin permalink
    May 27, 2011

    I have a friend who recently moved to AZ who is a huge Port/Madeira fan and collector. He brought a wine from 1788 or 1789 to my house that apparently was re-fortified in the 20th century. It was a very unusual and memorable tasting.

  9. mauss permalink
    May 27, 2011

    Quite an emotional comment on those wines done at a period where very few things were known about the wine mysteries.
    When I read that, I think always to these men who did make these wines : only with their intelligence, experiences and lessons from their fathers.

    Maybe Tokaj is the only other region with such old vintages ?

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