The runway looks tiny beneath you as you swoop in from over the towering cliffs and it feels as though you'll never stop in time before the runway disappears into the sea!
I take my hat off to the pilots – no wonder this runway regularly features in the top ten most difficult to land on. Still, it's an exciting way to start the trip and wake up all on board!
Staying at the beautiful Palheiro resort owned by Blandy's was a real treat not least because of the abundance of wild flowers and plants. But there was no time to unpack or take a stroll, straight away we were whisked off to the sunset harvest and a midnight grape-picking experience.
My fellow travellers include the charming sommelier from the Fat Duck restaurant and a number of other wine merchants in the UK, many of whom, like me, haven't been to Madeira before. And slightly bizarrely some who don't even sell it.
Coach trip around the island
One of the good things about Madeira is it's small, so perfectly feasible to get around it in a day. However, the roads are windy and the drops are occasionally sick-making! It is a great way to get a feel for the place though and it really brings home how much the islanders have to make use of every spare inch of land.
We stop at various wineries and vineyards along the way, taking in the stunning scenery and learning a lot about the product in its different stages of maturity from the juice we picked last night to older examples from the different varieties (see below for my run-down of these).
We learn that Blandy's produce 1.5 million litres a year and that sustainability is key; they have been here for 200 years and are in it for the long haul. In the last couple of years Blandy's have relocated their whole operation from up-town Funchal to the port which must have been a huge logistical challenge. In the main cellars at the port where most of the wine is stored long term, very long term, they have to analyse everything from the temperature fluctuation to humidity. Every three seconds a measurement is taken. I have seen this sort of precision in other wine regions but nowhere is it done quite so assiduously or at least, frequently.
Exciting times for Blandy's
'These are very exciting times', says Chris Blandy now head of The Madeira Wine Company, as we are getting growth in sales every year. To put this into some kind of perspective, Blandy's have had to make huge capital investments; they have around £90m worth of stock and they make around £5m each year and sell around £1m worth of Madeira. It must be an accountant's nightmare.
But this points to one of the aspects that makes Madeira wine so special; it's the huge investment in time both in barrel and in bottle, something very few, if any other wine regions do. And when you taste the older wines, there is nothing quite like it either. They are incredibly multi-layered and have an amazing tension between richness and acidity, it's almost like you are tasting history itself. So any bottle produced now which is to be called Madeira won't be ready for a minimum of three years. The vintage isn't so much a factor it's more about the length of time it spends in barrel or in bottle with the best wines ageing for 20 years plus and the longer it ages the finer and more complex it is.
We got to taste tinta negra after it had just been harvested even before fermentation which was unusual to say the least. Very pleasantly fruity but also very acidic which is the secret to its long life. The soil is volcanic and adds to the complexity of the wine as the roots of the vines go quite deep into the soil and pick up minerality as they search for moisture and nutrients.
There is an amazing juxtaposition of rustic and modern on the island with vineyards grown in the locals' back gardens even abutting the local supermarket and mixed in with banana trees in places, and then you move in to very high-tech bottling lines at the wineries. There are around 450 hectares of vineyards on the island and now only around seven producers of Madeira left compared to the large number of small independents around fifty years ago. There's a need for huge capital investment in bottles produced now that won't be ready for three years hence, so the producers all get a subsidy to age the wines. Without this support they just wouldn't survive.
We get to tour round Blandy's new winery and taste the grapes we picked last night at the sunset harvest; very acidic and they need to be if they are to be in a bottle for the next 20 years! Then back on to the bus for another hair-raising bus trip to a tasting of wines made from the verdelho grape and as with all Madeira wines, despite the richness, your palate is left feeling refreshed. It is a good job we don't have to drive ourselves with all the sheer drops either side of the roads.
The Estufa process – the secret behind the magic of Madeira!
In the 15th century Madeira wines were taken on board ships as victuals and brandy added to each barrel of wine to improve its keeping qualities during the long sea voyages. The heat of the ship's hold was found to have dramatically improved the wines, making them richer and more complex, as well as making them stable and capable of ageing almost indefinitely. In the 18th century winemakers experimented with replicating this process on land. Initially they simply used the heat of the sun to warm up the barrels. This is known as the Canteiro process and it is still used today.
Later special 'ovens' or Estufas were created to heat up the barrels of wine. The Estufa process has been modified in recent years. The wines are now kept in containers, mainly of stainless steel, which are heated by 'jackets' containing hot water. This enables the wine to be maintained at the required temperature for a period of three months. After heating, the wines are allowed to cool down gradually.
The length of time a wine is left to age is a decision based on quality and the style of wine required. The wine is aged in old wooden barrels and then offered as a 3, 5, 10 or 15-year-old wine, with the very best being offered as vintage Madeira after a minimum of 20 years cask ageing.
The main grape varieties
Most Madeira is labelled by grape variety with said grape making up 85% of the blend and offering an insight into how the wine will taste.
A white grape usually grown in the coolest vineyards at heights of up to 1,000 metres on the north side of the island. With fortification and cask ageing a good sercial is pale, dry, tangy and austere. A good match with smoked salmon or roasted almonds.
A white grape also predominately planted on the cooler north side of the Island, tends to produce a medium-dry to medium-sweet wine. More mellow than sercial, it retains the acidity.
A white grape grown in warmer locations on the south coast of the island, it produces a dark, medium-rich raisin and caramel wine which again retains its acidity.
A white grape produced mainly in the warmer locations on the south of the island around Camara de Lobos to the west of Funchal. Produces a richly sweet wine that avoids being cloying due to maintaining the high level of acidity found in all Madeira wines. A good match for fruit cake, chocolate or coffee flavoured desserts.
And finally… a very special tasting
At the end of our last day we were invited to attend a rather special event marking 600 years since the discovery and settlement of the island of Madeira in 1419. To celebrate, Blandy's are releasing a special blend named MCDXIX, The Winemaker's Selection. Chief winemaker Francisco Albuquerque was given carte blanche in terms of its creation, and the result is a multi-variety blend that includes most of the grape varieties Sercial, Verdelho, Terrantez, Bual and Malmsey (in increasing order of richness). The final blend comprises 11 different wines from vintages between 1863 and 2004, all aged using the traditional Canteiro method. (Storing wine in barrels in the rafters of the cellars where it's at its hottest as opposed to estufagem which uses hot water pipes).
Just 600 crystal magnums have been produced (at €4,370 per magnum!). It was an absolute honour to be able to taste it at the launch event and what a way to finish my trip. I used to have the odd bottle of Madeira at home but now it's become a staple, always in the fridge for slow sipping or sploshed in to gravies and soups (it's brilliant with both cheese and puds too) which transforms each. The beauty of it is, it can stay in the fridge for months and it just gets better. No house should be without a bottle – especially at Christmas!