Talking Madeira wine with producer Bartholomew Broadbent
“I grew up with the best wines in the world. I started when I was seven. But my parents told me that drinking too much wine would stunt my growth. I’m 5’11½” now.
Somerset-born Bartholomew Broadbent pioneered the reintroduction of port and Madeira to the United States, he produces his own Madeira and is the first producer to sell Single Cask Madeira.
“Essentially, they are the very best of the hundreds of Madeira casks that we alone have identified as worthy of bottling,” says the former pupil at Milton Abbey School in Dorset.
“The best rainwater in the world is found in the Atlantic, four hundred miles off the west coast of Africa. Rainwater Medium Dry Madeira can be considered an excellent entry-level Madeiran wine, but is also an excellent fortified wine in its own right. Madeira practically disappeared from the US after Prohibition.”
“No one really knows why Rainwater happened,” adds the Englishman, who now lives in Virginia. “One theory is that a gentleman in Savannah, Georgia tried some and said, ‘It’s as good as rainwater.’ Naturally, pre-industrial acid rain.
“The second theory is that some casks sent to the United States for merchant William Neyle Habersham were also left in Savannah at the port. They were left outside and watered down by a tropical storm.”
Today, Rainwater is still a light Madeiran style. By law, it must also be light. The wine is usually bottled when it is around three years old, but some producers, such as Justino’s, have bottled rainwater that is 10 years old. They are made primarily from Negra Mole grapes, but could also contain Triumfo or Complexa.
He launched his own Broadbent Madeira in 1996 and sent his parents to the island to develop blends and buy wines from vintages dating back to 1933. He tells me: “Selling Madeira is easy. people like it. It has a very refreshing acidity and flavors that are more or less universally loved. It’s also very versatile, from dry to sweet, and it’s handy that a bottle won’t spoil after opening. It can be kept open for years. It’s also the ultimate dessert wine. Most late harvest wines and Sauternes are sweet and have a long sweet finish.”
Madeira also has very strong ties with the US. George Washington drank a pint a day, Betsy Ross had a side table with Madeira on it when she sewed the flag, and the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were officially toasted with Madeira. Wine was even invented by shipping it to America when it was found to have improved after being stored in barrels in ships’ holds where it was heated and we still simulate the voyage by using Heating Madeira as part of the production process.
In fact, it was America’s first tax loophole when the King of England declared that all goods shipped to America should be taxed, but Madeira forgot. As part of Portugal, Madeira was the first country to recognize America’s independence.
Broadbent states, “Up until Prohibition, it was the best-selling wine in America. All of that makes it a very easy wine to sell.”
Rainwater Madeira wine is aged in “estufas” rooms and its secret is that a small amount of distilled alcohol made from cane sugar is added to stabilize the wine.
Traditionally there have been four primary high acid grapes used to make Madeiras. In ascending order of sweetness, from very dry to sweet, these were Sercial (from the North), Verdelho, Bual (found mainly in the South) and early harvested Malvasia (also known as ‘Malmsey’ and also grown in the South). Because Madeiran wines were originally ‘made’ on board ships on long voyages to keep them from spoiling, they were known as ‘vinho da roda’ (wines that made the round trip) wines.
Bartholomew, son of the famous wine critic, auctioneer and director of Christie’s, the late Peter Broadbent, as well as his father’s favorite desert island wine, is also a champion of wines from his adopted homeland of Virginia.
He says: “My father’s new book, Vintage Wine, came out in 2002 and I organized the book tour. Luca Paschina, the winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia, heard we were having a book signing in Charlottesville and invited us to dinner at Palladio, the winery’s restaurant. It was on condition that he could pour some of his wines alongside mine. Barboursville turned out to be superior to all the wines I brought with me. It opened our eyes!”
Bartholomew worked in London for the wine department of Harrod’s, Harvey’s Fine Wine Merchants in Pall Mall and Christie’s. He worked in Australia for Rothbury Estate and Yalumba Winery. In France he worked in cognac for Hennessy and in Paris for L’Academie du Vin. He moved to Montreal to work for Schenley Canada Inc., later to Toronto as a wine consultant.
In the United States he founded Premium Port Wines, Inc. for the Symington family which he ran for 10 years before founding Broadbent Selections, Inc in 1996, lectures on wine onboard cruise ships and has been a judge on most prestigious wine awards . The eponymous Broadbent has always been synonymous with fine wines.
Broadbent is evasive: “When I started my business, I wanted to represent wines that were the best quality in their price range, whether it was $5 or $400. My South African The Curator is one of the best in the US for $7. The reason we didn’t include French and Italian wines was because in 1996 the best wines from there were already represented, so I went to the New World like New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, Portugal, South Africa and Lebanon. We have adhered to represent only high quality family businesses.
“Musar is the most natural wine in the world with nothing added, just as it was made thousands of years ago. I discovered it with my father at the Bristol Wine Fair in 1979. It was the only red wine at my wedding. It makes a white wine from Obaideh (later known as Semillon) and Merwah (a Chardonnay/Chasselas cross) that is absolutely unique as some of these vines are 150 years old. The two most exciting places for wine today are South Africa and Portugal. Our Broadbent Vinho Verde is the third best Portuguese wine in America.”
After living in San Francisco for 21 years, Bartholomew moved to Richmond, Virginia. Historically, Virginia wine was not sold outside of the state. He says, “Barboursville was the first American wine we represented. What struck me about his wines was that they were much more European in style than American. When I moved, it was at the peak of Napa’s trend toward over-extraction, over-concentration, and over-ripening, resulting in high alcohol levels in the wine.”
In 2006 he launched Dragon’s Hollow Wine in China. “I enjoy giving lectures and lectures on the subject of wine on cruises. If I hadn’t grown up with so much good wine, I would have loved to be an actor. Francis Ford Coppola, himself a winemaker, told me I had the perfect name for an actor,” Broadbent tells me.
All images provided by Broadbent selection