Basically there’s two ways of looking at it; either you blame the grape variety of Tinta Negra* for Madeira’s decline – or you actually consider it a savior, rescuing Madeira wine as we know it from eradication. Isn’t it about time we go for the latter and start realizing Tinta Negra not only can produce some pretty nice wines, it already does. Treat it with the same care as the big five ones and Madeira’s future are looking brighter than in a long time.
Yes, Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, Malvasia and Terrantez are noble grapes. Or traditional. This is the stuff we want to buy. To enjoy. Sercial as an appetizer, Malvasia as a contemplative drink after the meal. The red Tinta Negra is crap; we all know that because everyone says so. Have you ever read a piece saying something nice about the grape? No, didn’t think so. But look at it from a different perspective. Pretend:
You’re the farmer
Pretend you’re a farmer in Madeira, sometime during the last two centuries. Monoculture rules during the 19th century. Vines that is. Some sugar cane plantations as well but wine is the main income source. Nevermind, the thing is; you’re probably pretty poor. It’s 1852. Oidium just struck the vineyards of the island. During more than ten years you struggle with the powdery mildew which wiped out a massive amount of your vines – before a solution is presented.
Not only you are struggling. The producers buying the grapes from you are desperate as well, using their older stocks to have enough volume to meet demand. Many of them are sadly going out of business. Anyway, you try to look at it from the bright side, now when you know how to act against the darned mildew, and start re-fixing the vineyard, replanting most of it. Maybe for a second you thought about other crops but then again quickly dropped it. After all, the only thing you know is vines and besides – Madeira is wine! Hence you invest your few remaining réis in the replanting.
The wine louse
1872. Your vineyards are producing but you’re still poor. Time for the next uninvited guest, the wine louse, Phylloxera Vastatrix. You just stand there, watching your vines dying. Can’t do a thing. The root system is simply being destroyed. Income lost again. This time it takes even longer before the solution, graft an American root on a Vitis Vinifera, is in place. The government on the mainland sends thousands of American vines to Madeira, with instructions how to graft the root on a Sercial, Verdelho and so on. Well, what do you do?
No, your vocabulary doesn’t suit to be printed here. But yes, I do understand. You’re hungry, the kids as well, there’s no hope and you just want to leave the bloody island. You don’t care anymore and simply plant the American vine without grafting. Who cares if the taste is less good? The shit doesn’t die and it produces grapes.
Shippers are now really struggling. The inventories are emptied, businesses closed. No money left but even worse, during the loss of production important markets were reduced as well. Yet an incentive not to care too much what was replanted. However, there was this grape called Tinta Negra. It seemed capable of adapting, producing and handling diseases extremely well. A cross between Grenache and Pinot Noir you say? Never heard of them. Don’t care either. The grape produces and I’m less hungry. Quite quickly you and the producers start figuring out Tinta Negra’s chameleon abilities and how it can resemble the old grapes – without the risks. Let’s plant more of this grape!
First world war. It’s tough to ship the wines from Madeira. Even more after the war ended. Changed consumer preferences. And it didn’t help either when Salazar and his junta took control of the country – and expropriated land. Second world war. Your neighbors managed to emigrate before. Good for them. Sadly you’re out of escudos and stuck since the producers can’t send the wines. Battle ships controlling the ocean vs Madeira wine transportation. 1:0. The number of producers and shippers has been reduced – again. True, you’ve heard about the Madeira Wine Association where a bunch of producers joined, to fight the decline together. Together we’re less weak. Still, you’re skeptic.
Second world war ends. Consumers want to drink wines with less alcohol, more refreshing drinks. Good bye Madeira wine, I’m out of here. Now I uproot and start cultivating other crops. Bananas are good. They don’t have a growing season and doesn’t give a damn about Phylloxera.
Portugal is poor. Madeira is poor. The producers are poor. You’re poor. Then, Salazar gets ill, Caetano enters the scene but only for a few years before the left-wing revolution in 1974. However, the revolution hardly helps the remaining Madeira producers, seeing their bank loans being stopped by the new holders of the banks who wishes everyone to be able to own their land. A just as unconsidered an idea, ideology, line of action – call it what you want – as the junta reigning. Kill the little income their actually is?
Madeira and Portugal are still struggling and you see your government puts their hope in fixing this by joining the EC in the mid-1980′s. New rules, benefits and hope. Infrastructure on the island, tourism expanding, a new airport. Hotels. And a stop for hybrid grapes! No more Vitis Labrusca can be called Madeira wine. EC (EU) regulations. Thank god there were lots of Tinta Negra planted, saving the industry and giving hope for the future and increased plantations of the other traditional grapes. Maybe there’s a future after all for Madeira?
Yes, Tinta Negra still runs the show. More than 80 percent of the wine production comes from the red wine grape. That can’t be neglected if talking about Madeira, because a vast majority of the consumers will most likely drink a wine based on the grape rather than a Verdelho. So, what to do? Easy. Never forget the reason why it got so strong. Never forget the history. Today the wine-making skills and the general viti-cultural knowledge are at such levels that good Tinta Negra is easy to produce. Treat the variety with the same care as the other traditional grapes. The grape’s been around for a while by now and there are some pretty old vines with lower yields and higher concentration.
Both Vinhos Barbeito and Justino’s are for example working with organic Tinta Negra grapes. Ricardo Diogo Freitas (Vinhos Barbeito) always mentions an extremely old Tinta Negra site in Estreito with passion. A site which by the way is run organically today. Tinta Negra wines are today also bottled as Colheitas or Single Harvest wines. Some really good ones available, sending out signals Tinta Negra not only can be good but also is – when treated as a noble one.
Think about this – put it in context and pretend you were the farmer 150 years ago or up until the EC entrance – before mocking Tinta Negra again. Time to give the grape a fair chance, isn’t it?
NB. Today, the grape is called Tinta Negra in Madeira, to avoid confusion with the mainland’s Tinta Negra Mole.
* If you’re new to Madeira: Tinta Negra fully dominates the vineyards and is by many considered a lesser grape, at least when compared to the classic ones. But it is less vulnerable and has shown an amazing adaptability which saved Madeira during the most depressing times of the island’s history of cultivation.
All photos are Tinta Negra related but that you’ve probably figured out yourself.
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