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Terrantez: Is Madeira’s near-extinct vine on a comeback?

by Richard Mayson  richardmayson • posted on February 15, 2016

Terrantez, the most highly prized of all Madeira’s grapes and the wine most sought after by a growing band of Madeira wine aficionados, is about to receive an official subsidy to encourage more growers to plant this rare variety. From 2016, growers who plant terrantez will receive €1.30 for every kilo of terrantez produced over a three-year period, as well as free viticultural advice from IVBAM, the government authority that regulates the Madeira wine industry. It is hoped that this will encourage the island’s growers to convert their vineyards from either tinta negra or the so called “direct producers” (non-vinifera varieties) that make up over half of the island’s vineyards. The total area of terrantez on the island is currently just under five acres.

No one is quite sure about the origin of terrantez but it is thought to have reached Madeira from the Portuguese mainland alongside other local white varieties like sercial, verdelho and bual. In the glory days of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, terrantez was relatively widely planted on Madeira, and a run of good vintages included 1795, 1802, 1842, 1846, 1848, 1862 and 1870. But terrantez was all but wiped out by oidium in the 1850s and, with inherantly low yields, it was largely overlooked in the restocking that followed phylloxera. By the 1920s it was reported as being extinct on Madeira, although a small amount continued to grow on the sandy soils of the neighboring island of Porto Santo.

Wines made from terrantez typically combine sweetness and astringency in near equal measure and can be ethereal, spiritual and, at their best, magical. The 1795 Terrantez from the shipper Barbeito is a testament to the resilience of Madeira. This wine, botted as recently as the mid-1980s, still stands the test of time with its amber-mahogany color: gentle, slightly smoke-singed aromas of green tea, jasmine and a touch of lapsang; fabulous concentration with crisp, clean, penetrating crystalized fruit flavors and a peacock’s tail of a finish. Barbeito still carries a small stock and occasionally releases bottles for auction.

Wines made from terrantez typically combine sweetness and astringency in near equal measure and can be ethereal, spiritual and, at their best, magical.
But for all the approbation surrounding terrantez, the fact remains that it is a tetchy grape to cultivate. Although relatively easy to grow and train, terrantez continues to be very susceptible to oidium in Madeira’s warm, humid climate. It ripens late but the small, compact bunches of grapes are very susceptible to bunch rot and are usually picked when they reach 9 to 9.5 degrees Baumé. For this reason terrantez has not endeared itself to the island’s growers.

Before the 1974 revolution, the Torrebella estate was one of the last sanctuaries for the terrantez grape. Under land reform, the estate was broken up and much of it sold for real estate. Francisco Albuquerque, winemaker for the Madeira Wine Company, makers of Blandy’s and Cossart Gordon, recalls that the last commercial crop of terrantez was harvested as recently as 1988, shortly before the land was commandeered for a new shopping center on the outskirts of the island’s capital, Funchal.

For a decade or so, the variety lived on primarily in the experimental vineyards the government established in 1985, where it produced a scant 600 kilograms of grapes a year. But recently production has risen to 7,500 kilograms from a total of two hectares of new plantings split between plots on the south side of the island—at Calheta, at Henriques & Henriques’ vineyard in Ribeira de Caixa and at Quinta de Santa Luzia in Funchal—and in the north at São Jorge.

Blandy’s 20-Year-Old Terrantez may be the only wine from the variety in current production. Terrantez wines you might find in the market are usually medium dry in style and, while they share the streak of acidity characteristic of Madeira’s other classic white grapes, terrantez’s bittersweet undertone adds another dimension. Despite its considerable astringency, terrantez can produce wines with supreme elegance, delicacy and poise. It’s held in such high esteem that it even has a short poem written in its praise: “As uvas de Terrantez Não as coma nem as dês, Para vinho Deus as fez.” (Terrantez grapes, neither eat them nor give them away, for God made them to produce wine.) If the forthcoming subsidy has the desired result, there may be more terrantez to go around in future.

This story was featured in W&S February 2016.