Madeira, A Wine that Stands the Test of Time!


When I was the GM at the Fairmont in San Francisco, I was in charge of the “owners” restaurant, Masons. Mel Swig was the owner of the Fairmont Hotel and the gentleman that started that iconic brand. He hired me as the GM to  upgrade the food, beverage, and service.

The restaurant was built for magnificence, with rare Brazilian wood pillars that framed the Connemara marble floors. The walls were adorned in hand-woven silk tapestries that were custom made to fit each panel outlined in the blonde, Cerejira, Brazilian wood, polished to a mirror like finish. Carpet was outsourced from India and the ceilings reflected a complex checkerboard design sculpted in Avodire, African wood.

The Chef I outsourced from the famous L’Etoile restaurant at the Huntington Hotel on Nob Hill, his name was Claude Bogaurt.  When he left for Masons, they had to close L’Etoile. His culinary acumen was unparalleled, adding a sophistication to proven dishes loved by the residents of Nob Hill and tourists alike.

I also added world famous piano player Peter Mintun, (also from the Huntington Hotel), making Masons synonymous with international sophistication.

Herb Caen the famous San Francisco gossip columnist wrote about Peter Mintun over 100 times. Celebrities and musicians alike revered Peter Mintun for his repertoire from memory that spanned from the 1920’s to the present day popular songs.

With those pieces in place I expanded the wine list and added another very important composition to this culinary puzzle, Madeira. Madeira is produced on the island of Madeira (Madeira means, “Island of the forest”), 480 miles southwest of Lisbon, off the coast of Portugal.

Madeira is oxidized through a unique process involving heat and aging. This intense process results in a virtually indestructible wine that will last (even in an open bottle!) for centuries. The style is characterized by a dark color, and a rich texture with coffee and caramel flavors. The wine is made from the Malvasia grape used because of its high levels of acidity which balances the high sugar content.

There are four main recognized different types of Madeira:

  1. Sercial is a white grape that produces some of the driest Madeira wines. This varietal originates from the region of Bucelas, near Lisbon.
  2. Verdelho is semi-dry characterized by a bitter, nutty taste with aromas of dried fruit and honey.
  3. Bual is semi-sweet with distinct notes of spice, dried fruit and a touch of botrytis (noble rot), accentuating it’s late budding, not allowing it to be exposed to spring frosts.
  4. Malmsey is the most famous Madeira wine. This is the richest, sweetest style of Madeira. Light golden, smooth and luscious on the palate with chocolate notes woven with caramel, hazelnut, a finish of honey, and a threat of mango. This  ultimately makes Madeira one of the most desirable dessert wines in the world.

Shortly after accepting the GM job, I was invited to a Madeira tasting at the Ritz Carlton on Nob Hill sponsored by the Wine Spectator. I was excited because this tasting featured one of the most famous wine critiques in the world, Michael Broadbent. After writing his classic book, “The Great Vintage Wine Book”, Mr. Broadbent went on tour teaching restaurateurs about one of his favorite wines, Madeira. Mr. Broadbent actually has his own line of Madeira’s bottled for him by Blandy.

This event at the Ritz wasn’t only a tasting of vintage Madeira’s but an opportunity to taste some of the rarest expressions of that grape. I tasted quite a few Madeira’s at that tasting. It was really the first time I had been exposed to such a variety of this rare wine. Most restaurants of an elegant nature didn’t serve Madeira’s as a dessert drink option.

I thought that this was the perfect pronouncement of elegance to finish a fine meal. Thus, I brought Madeira to the Fairmont for the first time in it s illustrious history. This event was written up in the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Bringing Madiera to Nob Hill is a flawless gesture for a beverage that is the perfect end to a meal. What could be better than to have dinner at this elegant restaurant, finishing with a vintage Madeira,  while listening to the unbridled music mastery of Peter Mintun?”

I brought in non-vintage Bual and Malmsey as choices that were not priced to high for the average guest, and thus summarily promoted by our staff. I did however also bring in a Madeira for the more adventurous. I purchased a case of 1863 Madeira which I served at $100.00 a glass.

When asked by patrons that were interested in renting our private dining rooms, “Is that 1863 Madeira worth the price per glass?” I would exclaim, “Personally, I drink nothing this century. Yes, it’s a beverage experience that creates a fond memory. How much is that worth?”

And so, later this year, Nancy and I will venture to the island of Madeira. This is a dream come true. Madeira is my close second favorite wine behind the red Burgundy of France. The journey to explore wine regions around the world, learning the exciting variables that honor these artists and create memories in a bottle is an expedition to a time and place never to be forgotten.