New World vs. Old World with Mary Burnham – September 29

October 5th, 2015


In our second intro class, New World versus Old World, we compare wines from Europe to those from “newer” wine making areas like South Africa, America, New Zealand, and Australia. The trick is to guess between two similar wines of mostly the same varietal and determine which is from the New World and which is from the Old World. Mary Burnham, wine writer, explained that, in general, New World wines tend to be more fruity and oaky with higher alcohol compared to Old World wines, which tend to be more earthy, savory, acidic and minerally. However, the line between Old and New has been blurring, with some NW producers going back to the old style and some OW taking a more modern approach. For this reason the Pinot Noir comparison totally stumped the group, since the Oregon version was quite savory and the Burgundy version was more of a NW style.  Two more interesting but difficult pairs to discern in this group were a Chenin Blanc duo from France and South Africa and a Tempranillo duo from Spain and Washington State. As slightly lesser known varietals, we really had to put our wine thinking caps on to try and determine what made these wines different and how those differences were attributable to their places of origin. The other challenge with these two pairs was that the wines really needed food to show at their best. Some cheese helped.

The only certainty tonight was that the majority of the class preferred the New World selections!

Wine List:

1. Wolf Blass Dry Riesling 2009 – South Australia ($12)

2. Metternich & Salomon Kremstal dae Reserve Pfaffenberg Riesling 2009 – Austria ($30)

3. Domaine Laffourcade Savennieres 2010 – Loire Valley FR ($25)

4. Mulderbosch Western Cape Chenin Blanc 2010 – South Africa ($14)

5. Amisfield Central Otago Pinot Noir 2005 – South Island of New Zealand ($32)

6. Vincent Girardin Vosne-Romanee Vieilles Vignes 2005 – Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, FR ($52)

7. Pesquera Ribera del Duero 2009 – Spain ($38)

8. Gramercy Cellars Tempranillo Inigo Montoya 2009 – Walla Walla, WA ($53)


– Melanie Solomon

Torbreck Tasting – September 22

October 2nd, 2015

The Torbreck tasting on September 22 was an outstanding celebration of Australian Rhone varieties from one of the classic producers of collectible wine in the Barossa Valley.  Torbreck Vice President – Americas Matt Lane opened the festivities with some classic down home Aussie humor and interesting factoids. We discussed the dynamic and complex history of wine in Australia, with a special focus on the ancient soils (oldest in the world) and ancient fruit, as well as the recent challenges the industry has faced in the world wine market. Matt by the way makes no apologies and well he shouldn’t as Torbreck showed us again how great these wines can be at their pinnacle. Winemaker Scott McDonald took us through a truly spectacular tasting of many of Torbreck’s red wines, including the much-acclaimed 2012 Pict Mataro and the 2012 Run Rug Shiraz.  The unique and evolving aromas and flavors of each wine kept our guests on their toes as the wines gained complexity and expanded across our palates with a wonderfully silky weight combined with undeniable balance.  To insure the tasting was truly unforgettable, Matt and Scott ended the night with two unexpected treats – magnums of the 2006 Les Amis Grenache and the 2006 Struie Shiraz.  Each of these wines exhibited a subtlety and depth of fruit that had everyone asking for more.  We are putting together our post class order as we speak so friends of SF Wine Center can purchase Torbreck’s wonderful wines by emailing  A complete list of the wines we tasted is below:

2013 Cuvee Juveniles
2011 The Steading Grenache Shiraz Mataro (Mourvedre)
2012 The Pict Mataro
2012 Descendant Shiraz Viognier
2012 The Factor Shiraz
2012 Run Rig Shiraz
2006 Les Amis Grenache (magnum)
2006 The Struie Shiraz (magnum)

Introduction to Wine with Jordan Mackay – September 15

September 21st, 2015

class 9.15

We kicked off Fall Wine School @ San Francisco Wine Center with our Introduction to Wine class, led by wine writer Jordan Mackay.  This class provides an overview of the top wine-making grapes and where they are grown around the world, from the classic regions to the up-and-coming. We discussed how soil and climate have dictated which grapes grow best in the classic regions and how other countries have adopted their own style of these wines, and we noted how blending and labeling vary by country.  In Europe, the location of the grapes is most important, so most wines are labeled by the vineyard or the region, not the grape. Outside of Europe, wines tend to be labeled with the dominant varietal in the wine, though a particular vineyard may also be named. California was largely responsible for varietal labeling as a marketing tactic when American wine-making was starting to gain traction in the 1960s.

Students enjoyed describing the wines in the glass and learning what potential foods might go with them, a nice preview to a future wine and food pairing class. Join us for Wine School this season!

Wine list:

1. Hunters Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012– New Zealand ($18)

2. Pascal Clement Bourgogne Chardonnay 2013 – Burgundy, France ($25)

3. Ansgar Clusserath Steinreich Riesling Trocken 2010 – Mosel Valley, GER ($35)

4. La Bête Croft Vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2007 –Oregon ($30)

5. Ruffino Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale 2007– Tuscany, Italy ($25)

6. Plantagenet Omrah Shiraz 2007 – Western Australia ($20)

7. Bodega Jean-Louis Raffy Tupungato Valley Malbec Réserve 2010 – Mendoza, ARG ($25)

8. Chateau Puy-Blanquet Saint-Émilion Grand Cru 2008 – Bordeaux, France ($25)


— Melanie Solomon

Introduction to Wine: Tasting and Describing with Jordan Mackay – January 27

February 3rd, 2015

We kicked off the new session at the Wine School @ San Francisco Wine Center in style with our ever-popular Intro Class, Tasting and Describing. James Beard Award-winning wine author Jordan Mackay led a record sized Intro class of 24 guests through a blind tasting of popular varietals in classic styles made around the wine world. From color, aromas and flavors to acidity, tannin and alcohol, this class serves as an important foundation in recognizing the attributes of wine and pinpointing them to certain grapes and countries. As guests focused in on training their senses like professional sommeliers, Jordan also dropped a heavy dose of knowledge on them from the basics of winemaking to a summary of the most important wine growing regions of the world.

For the white wines, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc displayed the bright, zesty, citrus flavors typical of this wine; a Chardonnay from Chablis showed the crisp apple, blazing minerality and subtle creaminess of this grape’s motherland; a German Riesling added a little touch of mid-palate sweetness to the flight.

For the red wines, Oregon Pinot Noir warmed our palates with cherry, spice and soft tannins. Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero was punchier with added weight and an earthy element. Sangiovese from Chianti made mouths water for red sauce and pasta, and bold Shiraz from Australia introduced a meatier element that segued nicely into the grand finale, a juicy and bold Napa Cab from the highly respected 2001 vintage.

Thanks to Jordan and SF Wine Center Owner, Brian McGonigle, for a great line-up of wines and a fun introduction to the world of wine! If you’re in the Bay Area this Spring, come join us for other exciting tasting classes including Pinot Noir Shoot Out, Three Big B’s of Italy, New World versus Old World, Indigenous Varieties of Spain, and many, many more! Visit for more information. Cheers!

Wine List:

1.   Hunters Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012– New Zealand ($17)

2.    Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis Premier Cru Vau de Vey 2011 – Chablis, FR ($28)

3.   Max Ferdinand Richter Graacher Dompropst Riesling Kabinett 2004 – Mosel Valley GE ($26)

4.   Archery Summit Premier Cuvee Pinot Noir 2009 – Dundee Hills WV OR ($100 mag)

5.   Dominio de Atauta Ribera del Duero 2000  – Ribera del Duero SP ($60)

6.   Castello di Ama ‘San Lorenzo’ Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2010 – Tuscany IT ($50 & Wine Spectator Top 100)

7.   Schild Estate Barossa Valley Shiraz 2005  – South Australia ($30 & Wine Spectator Top 100)

8.   Tor Kenward Clone 4 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 – Napa Valley, CA ($80)

– Melanie Solomon

Champagne Master Class – December 2

December 7th, 2014

Ahh, Champagne. Around the holidays Americans always drink more bubbly – it’s a festive time of year, and people view Champagne (or any sparkling wine) as a celebratory drink. Personally, my favorite kind of wine is the kind that bubbles, and I find any excuse I can to drink it.  Mauro Cirilli, instructor for our Holiday Champagne Master Class at San Francisco Wine Center, said he needs to have a glass of Champagne every day, and he suggests we do too. Well, you don’t need to tell me twice.

Why is Champagne so special? It’s the magical second fermentation in the bottle that produces the bubbles, but it’s also the harsh growing conditions in the region of Champagne, France, that contributes to the high acidity of these wines. Champagne only averages about 1650 hours of sunlight per year, versus over 2000 for Bordeaux. This results in very acidic and unripe grapes. Through the Champagne method of winemaking, that acidity combined with extended aging on the yeast cells and just the right amount of added sugar result in complex, bright, toasty, creamy flavors that delicately dance on the tongue.

Tonight’s line up featured non-vintage (blends from different years to produce a consistent style) and vintage (from a single year) wines from grower houses and well-known luxury brands. Champagne can range in price from $40 to $400, and we tried a full range. Unfortunately, 2 bottles of Dom Perignon were faulty so I can’t say my first Dom experience was life changing. But among the rest there was beauty all around and I had a hard time choosing a favorite.

Champagne List:

  1. Doyard Cuvée Vendémiaire Brut NV ($40)
  2. Vilmart Cuvée Grand Cellier NV ($75)
  3. Larmandier-Bernier Vieilles Vignes de Cramant Grand Cru Extra Brut 2007 ($75)
  4. Gaston Chiquet Brut Cart d’Or 2002 ($70)
  5. Salon Brut Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil 1999 ($275)
  6. Pol Roger Cuvée Winston Churchhill 1999 ($195)
  7. Dom Perignon 1999 ($165)
  8. Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé NV ($70)

For comparison, we also tried sparkling wines from Spain and California. These were very elegant and enjoyable, and for $20-30 you could easily justify opening one of these any night of the week and any month of the year.

Not Champagne:

  1. Raventos i Blanc de Nit Rosé 2011 ($22)
  2. Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 2006 ($30)

Happy Holidays from San Francisco Wine Center! If you need some bubbly for your holidays please let us know.

– Melanie Solomon

Burgundy: Gevrey-Chambertin and Nuits-Saint-Georges – November 19

November 24th, 2014

Gevrey-Chambertin and Nuits-Saint-Georges are two of the most famous and well-regarded communes in Burgundy for Pinot Noir. As part of the Cote de Nuits wine region in the Northern part of the Cote d’Or, limestone and clay soils create the perfect environment for complex Pinot Noir. Of course, Burgundy is known for its varied and coveted terroir within each sub-region’s individual vineyards, so full-bodied Gevrey-Chambertin wines are often designated Grand Cru, while many wines from Nuits-Saint-Georges receive Premier Cru distinction. During this class, James Beard award-winning author and resident Pinot Noir expert, Jordan Mackay, took us through a flight of beautiful red Burgundy from these two regions.

The first four wines came from Nuits-Saint-Georges; three of these were Premier Cru. I particularly enjoyed the 1995 Robert Chevillon, with its floral but rustic perfumed nose that smelled like autumn in a glass. Super smooth on the palate, the velvety body was balanced by a nice acid profile.  The 2001 Dominique Laurent smelled like pickles at first, which I didn’t mind, but as it opened up I enjoyed the violets and roses on the nose and the lingering finish.

The next four wines from Gevrey-Chambertin were a bit more complex and earthy. My favorite, the 1998 Domaine des Chezeaux Grand Cru, had a funky, earthy nose with spice, fruit and flower on the elegant palate; this wine had great texture.

Many of the wines kept changing in the glasses as we tasted them, reminding us that wine is a living thing that constantly evolves in its various environments.

Jordan had some suggestions for wine touring in Burgundy, which is a great way to learn about the terroir. From CDG in Paris it’s about a 3-hour train ride into Beaune, the town he recommended staying in; from there you can drive around the region or bike around the vineyards. That is a trip I would love to make.

Wine List:

  1. Emmanuel Rouget Nuits-St-Georges 2009 – $110
  2. Robert Chevillon Nuits-St-Georges Les Pruliers 1er Cru 1995 – $225
  3. Perrot-Minot Nuits-St-Georges “La Richemone” ULTRA VV 1er Cru 2007 – $220
  4. Dominique Laurent Nuits-St-Georges Les Vaucrains 1er  Cru 2001 – $65
  5. Denis Mortet Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes 2006 – $100
  6. Dujac Gevrey-Chambertin Aux Combottes 1er Cru 2011 – $175
  7. Frederic Esmonin Mazy Chambertin Grand Cru 1996 – $200
  8. Domaine des Chezeaux Griottes-Chambertin Grand Cru 1998 – $200

As we approach the holidays, all this Pinot Noir that we’ve been enjoying in the last couple wine classes has primed our palates for turkey and all the fixings. If you need some wines for your holidays, let us know. Happy Thanksgiving from San Francisco Wine Center!

-Melanie Solomon

Pinot Noir Around the World with Gillian Ballance – November 11

November 17th, 2014

The world of Pinot Noir stretches way beyond Burgundy – though each new world version is compared to the French mother lode. Known the world over as a finicky grape, Pinot Noir is difficult to maintain since it ripens so early and is prone to rot due to its thin skin. Genetically unstable, many different clones exist and can have marked differences. In this wine class, Gillian Ballance, Master Sommelier and former wine director of Plumpjack Hotel & Restaurant Group, describes Pinot Noir as “charming – exhibiting grace as well as power.” She took us through a varied flight of Pinot Noir from places like Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, in addition to Burgundy, Oregon and California.

We started the evening off right with a well-aged Pinot from Central Coast: Calera Mt Harlan Jensen Vineyard 1999, grown on one of the few limestone vineyards in California, which was planted in 1974. It was very much alive, with balsamic, stewed fruit and good tannin.

Further north in Willamette Valley, Oregon, J.K. Carriere held tonight’s crowd favorite with the 2005 Shea Vineyard – a little funky on the nose but very Burgundian, with nice spice and good acidity.

Over on the other side of the world, South African Pinot showed its funky side with some rubber, pine and earthiness that was quite interesting and unique.

Finally, we went down under to Australia’s Yarra Yarra valley, in the Victoria district, a cooler area on the southern coast of the country. This wine was beautiful with pomegranate, cranberry and great acidity. It brought me back to a trip I took to this area in 2009, when I sampled my first Aussie Pinot and took a $25 bottle back home with me, halfway around the world to New York, where I lived at the time. This 2004 is a steal at $20! Then, from neighboring New Zealand, a Marlborough version also showed really well, with pretty fruit, leather, good acidity and a long finish. While I’m partial to Burgundy, I found these two wines to be the most exciting of the night (and the most affordable).

But speaking of which, the Burgundy of the evening, a 2008 Premier Cru from Cote de Nuits, showed refined fruit, floral and herbal qualities with elegant structure and a long finish. I can’t help it – this was my favorite.

Most of these wines are available for purchase at the San Francisco Wine Center – contact us if you are interested!

Wine List:

1. Calera Mt Harlan Jensen Vineyard Pinot Noir 1999 – Central Coast ($140)

2. Labyrinth Yarra Valley Viggers Vineyard Pinot Noir 2004 – Australia ($20)

3. JK Carriere Shea Vineyard 2005 – Willamette Valley, Oregon ($60)

4. Patrice Rion Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes 1er Cru 2008– Cote de Nuits, Burg, FR ($99)

5. Cobb Joy Road Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2009 – Sonoma ($65)

6. Seresin Marlborough Pinot Noir “Leah” 2009 – New Zealand ($40)

7. Copain Anderson Valley Monument Tree Vineyard” Pinot Noir 2012 – Mendocino ($70)

8. En Route Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Les Pommiers 2010 – Sonoma ($65)

9. Paul Hobbs Hyde Vineyards 2012 – Napa, Carneros ($69)

10. Hamilton Russell Hemel-en-Aarde Valley Pinot Noir 2012 – South Africa ($39)

Bonus Wines!

  1. Alois Lageder Tenutae Lageder “Krafuss” Pinot Noir 2007 – Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy ($45)
  2. Foxtrot Okanagan Valley Pinot Noir 2009 – British Columbia, CAN ($56)
  3. Domaine Michel Gros Chambolle-Musigny 2012 – Cote du Nuits, Burgundy, FR($72)

– Melanie Solomon

Indigenous Italy with Mauro Cirilli – November 4

November 9th, 2014

Italy is one of the most varied wine countries in the world, particularly because they have so many indigenous varietals – over 6000! There are no generalizations to be made, especially in a country whose climates and soil are so varied from one section to another. Italian wine labeling doesn’t necessarily makes thing any clearer, since sometimes the name of the grape is used and sometimes it isn’t. Personally, I’m always trying to learn more about Italian wines, since there are so many different wines to try and some can be very good values. Mauro Cirilli, native of Venice, former Wine Director of Perbacco and Barbacco, current Wine Director at Press Club and Director of the North American Chapter of the Italian Sommelier Association, helped us break it down in Wine School. We started with Prosecco, the refreshing bubbly wine of the Veneto region in northern Italy. Formerly named for both the grape and the region, things got confusing when Prosecco achieved DOCG status, the highest quality designation for Italian wine, so they since went back to using the name Glera for the grape. Prosecco is not “Italian Champagne” – it’s a completely different style of bubbly wine that is meant to be light, fruity and refreshing.

In the Mt Etna wine region of Sicily, vineyards grown on volcanic soil surround the tallest active volcano in Europe and one of the most active in the world. Mt Etna white wines are made from the grapes Carricante and Catarratto; the version we tried was dry, austere and a little bit funky.

Vermentino, a white wine usually varietally labeled, is an expressive grape that grows in Liguria, Tuscany and Sardinia; we tried a Sardinian version grown on minerally soil, with a rich creamy palate of chamomile. Cannonau is a red Sardinian varietal that we sampled, which is their local name for Grenache or Garnacha. I love Sardinian Cannonau for its earthy and funky qualities; this one didn’t disappoint me with its barnyard, herbs, mushrooms and long finish.

Back in the Veneto, Valpolicella is a red wine typically made from 3 grapes – Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara – each contributing important characteristics to the wine including color, tannin, spice and body. The one we tried was earthy and spicy with dried fruit character.  Refosco, a wine made from grapes with red stems, also comes from the north, in Fruili-Venezia. This wine had bright fruit and flowers with a good texture.

Finally, on the sweeter side of things, we sampled Lambrusco, the slightly “frizzante” red wine from Emilia-Romagna, and Moscato, the floral dessert wine from Piedmont.

A wide variety of wines, quite representative of Italy – thanks for a great education, Mauro!

Wine List:

  1. 2011 Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore, Cuvée del Fondatore, Rive di Col San Martino, Merotto
  2. 2013 Etna Bianco, Murgo
  3. 2012 Capichera Vermentino di Gallura
  4. 2012 Paladin Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso
  5. 2010 Cannonau di Sardegna, Neopente di Oliena, Gostolai
  6. 2010 Valpolicella Ripasso Capitel dellla Crosara Montresor
  7. 2004 DeConcilis Naima Aglianico 2004
  8. 2005 Masi Serego Alighieri Vaio Armaron Amarone Classico
  9. 2010 Medici Ermete Le Tenute Bocciolo Lambrusco Dolce Grasparossa
  10. 2010 Moncalvina Moscato

– Melanie Solomon

New World vs Old World with Mary Burnham – October 14

October 17th, 2014

As the line between new world and old world wines continues to blur, we found ourselves stumped this evening as we blind-tasted through 6 comparisons of typical varietals made by old world and new world producers. With each pair, the class was literally split every time on which was which. As Mary explained, when we talk about old world, we mean Europe, while new world encompasses everywhere else. Old world wines are generally more earthy and savory, with marked acidity and minerality and less alcohol. New world wines are typically more fruit-forward, less acidic, and higher in alcohol. Did these generalizations hold up in this group?

In the first pair, wine #1 was fruity and dry, with grassy notes, citrus peel, and marked acidity. Many guessed it was a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc – but it was a white Bordeaux. Wine #2 was creamier, with sweet vanilla oak, lemon merengue, and peach; more complex, silky but still crisp. Were we in Pouilly-Fumé, France? Actually, Washington State. I didn’t even know anyone was making Sauvignon Blanc in Washington – this was actually majority Semillon (61%) with 20% Sauvignon Blanc – but I expect I will be re-visiting this producer, Buty.

In the next pair, many immediately thought #3 was a German Riesling due to its pungent petrol character. I got beyond that and began to think we were in Australia, since theirs take on that character as well but tend to be very lime-y and dry, which was how I would characterize this wine.  Wine #4 was more floral and peachy, like many Rieslings I’ve had from Finger Lakes producer Hermann J. Wiemer that highly mimic a German Mosel style when young.  The big reveal – #3 was from Oregon and #4 was Austrian!

The next two sets were a bit more obvious to me – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. New World chardonnay tends to have more pronounced oak, and I almost always prefer a more refined French style. With Pinot Noir, new world versions tend to be very fruity, whereas French versions are more funky and earthy, which I also prefer. Both sets were more typical expressions of new world and old world, though not obvious to everyone.

The second set of reds was a fun one – meaty, savory and spicy with firm tannin against brambly, sweet spice and soft tannin. We had ourselves a Crozes-Hermitage Syrah against a Barossa Valley Shiraz. We learned that the Barossa Valley does not cool off at night, so the grape skins don’t thicken, contributing to softer tannins in the wine. This was a great pair that solidified my favorite for the night in the Crozes-Hermitage, since I love this style and producer and the price cannot be beat, especially for a wine that will continue to improve with cellar time.

The last set was another tough one, mostly because both these wines were very tight and could use some more aging and air. The first had a eucalyptus nose with black fruit and violets on the nose. The second was a bit more closed on the nose but we could discern some vanilla. With a few bites of cheese, things started to become clearer – these were Cabernet-dominated wines, Bordeaux from Graves against Napa Valley’s Opus One.

A wonderful selection of wines with some curveballs…

  1. Chateau Lamothe de Haux White Bordeaux 2011 ($15)
  2. Buty Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc-Muscadelle 2010 – Columbia Valley, WA ($25)
  3. Chehalem Willamette Valley Dry Riesling Reserve 2007 – Oregon ($20)
  4. Hogl Wachau Riesling Smaragd Bruck 2007 – Wachau, Austria ($30)
  5. Domaines Leflaive Macon Verze 2012 – Burgundy, France ($39)
  6. Wente Riva Ranch Estate Chardonnay 2012 – Arroyo Seco, Monterey, CA ($18)
  7. Flowers Van der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir 2000 – Sonoma Mountain ($60)
  8. Domaine Trappet Chambertin Grand Cru 2000 – Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France ($200)
  9. Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitage 2012 – Northern Rhone Valley, France ($30)
  10. Two Hands Gnarly Dudes Shiraz 2011 – Barossa Valley, Southern Australia ($28)
  11. Chateau Smith-Haut Lafite 2006 – Graves, Left Bank, Bordeaux, France ($90)
  12. Opus One 2006 – Napa Valley, CA ($290)

-Melanie Solomon

Madeira Master Class – October 10

October 13th, 2014

We were thrilled to host this Madeira Master Class at SFWC, led by professionals from The Madeira Wine Institute – the governing body of winemaking on the island of Madeira, Portugal. Madeira is a fortified wine known for its longevity – but did you know the best Madeira can last 300 years? Rui Falcao, our instructor, told us about the oldest Madeira he’s tried, which was from 1715. It was not only good, but very good – nowhere near tired or gone. How does this tiny, mountainous island whose subtropical climate is always 70 degrees produce one of the world’s most indestructible wines? Acidity! Like Champagne, Madeira’s wine grapes produce extremely acidic wines that are undrinkable in their normal, vinified state. But this acidity provides the backbone of a wine balanced by natural sugar levels and the addition of neutral spirit to raise the alcohol from about 9% to 18%. With the right amount of aging, a beautiful, complex wine emerges.

Madeira is always a single varietal wine. The 5 main permitted varietals vary in natural sweetness, so their wines will usually follow suit. Sercial is a always a dry wine; Verdelho – medium dry; Boal/Bual – medium sweet; Malvasia/Malmsey – sweet/rich; Tinta Negra is the only red varietal, vinified as a white, and it can be any level of sweetness. Though it accounts for 82% of Madeira production, it used to not be talked about, but as recently as the day of this class it had been recognized as a Noble grape varietal and will be included on the label going forward.

Madeira has a total of just 900 acres of vines. Vineyards are managed separately from the wineries, and there are only 8 Madeira wineries in existence. One of these opened 3 years ago and it was the first new winery in 60 years. Clearly, Madeira winemaking is a very old tradition. (Fun fact: the fathers of the U.S. Constitution toasted its signing with Madeira!) The Madeira Wine Institute does all of the analytics on each wine and tastes them before bottling to make sure the wine matches its proposed labeling criteria. After a blind tasting, an approval allows the winery to bottle and sell the wine. Madeira wines are either a blended style (meaning a blend of different years, not grapes); a Colheita single harvest – also known as a “baby vintage” that must be aged for a minimum of 5 years to be labeled as such; or a Frasqueira/Vintage – which must be aged for a minimum of 20 years to be labeled with that vintage.

The tasting included a wonderful sampling across these grape varietals and aging categories. We learned that Madeira should be served cold, and one shouldn’t try to follow it with any other wine – the finish is long and lingering.  Despite the “sweet” character of many Madeiras, the bracing acidity actually balances that sweetness, making it a friendly wine on its own or with food.

Typical Madeira aromas include toasted almond, caramel, molasses and raisin. My favorite was the Colheita 1996, with its honey and orange blossom character; the finish went on forever. The Malvasia 1989 was also a treat, with burnt orange peel and caramel.

Wine List:

  1. H&H Sercial 10 Años
  2. The Rare Wine Co. Savannah Verdelho
  3. Broadbent Malvasia 10 Años
  4. Blandy’s Colheita 1996
  5. D’Oliveiras 1989 Malvasia

Thank you to Rui and the Madeira Wine Institute for choosing SFWC to host this informative and delicious tasting!

-Melanie Solomon