An Homage to a Madeira Great

May 7, 2010

It took great courage for Mario Barbeito to start a new Madeira house in 1946. These were desperate times for the Madeira trade, with sales having hit rock bottom during World War II.

The U.S. market, just beginning to recover from Prohibition, dwindled to virtually nothing as our government banned the poorly made wartime glass bottles coming out of Portugal. And the all-important British market was devastated by years of Nazi treachery. Because of marauding U-Boats, Madeira merchants found themselves unable to ship wine to England, and a number lost irreplaceable wine when their London cellars were bombed during Luftwafte air raids.

The situation was so bad that the last two British houses to remain independent, Miles and Cossart, would soon throw in the towel, consolidating with all the other British houses in the Madeira Wine Association.

Yet, Mario Barbeito had a vision that he could make it in that difficult time. Like H.M. Borges in 1877who founded his own company into the teeth of PhylloxeraBarbeito launched a new Madeira house at a time when many others were bailing out. He used his imagination, good business practices, and love of history to build his young company into one of the island's last independent houses.

Most notably, he took advantage of the weak market in the 1940s and 1950s to buy up substantial stocks of rare vintages, which were to serve the company well in coming years.

Mario Barbeito led his eponymous company for nearly four decades. After his death in 1985, his able and charismatic daughter, Manuela, managed the firm, before turning over its management, and even the winemaking, to her gifted son, Ricardo Freitas.

Remembering Barbeito

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Mario Barbeito's death and so, this spring, we invited Ricardo to collaborate on a pair of Madeira dinners in the United States in honor of his grandfather. Between us, we came up with a dozen fabulous old Madeiras that had a particular association with Mario Barbeito. Six of the wines came from Mario Barbeito's private cellar, including wines that we had never before tasted or even known about.

Two of the wines are likely never to be seen again, having been the last 40 ounces or so remaining in their original demijohns. They gave a special meaning to something that Ricardo said at both of the commemorative dinners: until the day he died, his grandfather never really had any money. But he did have a lot of great wine, and that was the most important thing to him.

To host the events, we hooked up with two of America's finest restaurants, The Modern in New York and Quince in San Francisco. Both chefsThe Modern's Gabriel Kreuther and Quince's Michael Huskcreated brilliant menus to showcase the Madeiras, course by course.

We were fortunate that a number of experienced Madeira tasters were on hand both days, and two have so far posted detailed tasting notes: Marco DeFreitas and Richard Jennings. Both sets of notes are now available, with photos, on the For the Love of Port website, courtesy of Roy Hersh. If you click here, you'll find Marco's superb notes on the Madeiras in New York and equally lucid comments from Richard on the Madeiras in San Francisco.

Roy Hersh expects to publish his own notes in the next issue of the For the Love of Port newsletter. (For subscription information, click here.)

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