By Megan Krigbaum
Updated August 22, 2019
Josue Castro

Erik Segelbaum has plenty to be proud of from his years of creating wine lists, but his Madeira selection at Washington, D.C.’s St. Anselm may well have been his pièce de résistance. [Since becoming one of our sommeliers of the year, he’s since left the Starr Restaurant Group and founded his own consulting company, Somlyay LLC.] When he was there, he pulled together an astonishing collection of 50 Madeiras, making them all available by the one-ounce pour for maximum experimentation. The list spans non-vintage selections as well as super old bottlings that date back into the late 1800s.

Madeira is a fortified wine, from the subtropical Portuguese island of Madeira, that has very deep historical past. “It’s a time machine,” says Segelbaum. “Everytime you pour a glass of vintage Madeira,” says Segelbaum, “you’re tasting a piece of history. I like to think about what was happening in the world when the grapes for that bottle were harvested.”

But Madeira can be an overwhelming and expensive subject to delve into, Segelbaum admits. For novices, he suggests getting a grounding in three main topics: what grapes are used for Madeira, how it’s aged, and what defines a vintage Madeira.

While there are a good number of grapes grown on the island, Segelbaum says, there are four main varieties that are important to have a grasp on when just starting out. These grapes create wines that range from lightest and driest to darkest, richest and sweetest. “That’s all you need to unlock Madeira,” he says. Sercial is the most briny and citrusy; Verdelho is brightly acidic and “the most grapey” of the bunch, with a little more texture than Sercial. Bual, Segelbaum says, is darker and nuttier, with more richness and sweetness, and Malmsey is rich and molasses-y with roasted nut flavors.

Once you have a good handle on the main grapes, Segelbaum suggests looking into aging. “Any time you see non-vintage or a general age statement (5-year, 10-year, etc.) those wines are almost certainly done in a process where the wine is cooked in steam-jacketed kettles, rather than baked over a long time in barrel. There is nothing wrong with that, but it creates a different end product; it’s technology versus time.”

Also, vintage Madeiras have to spend at least 30 years in barrel–minimum–before release. If you see the word “colheita” on the bottle, it’s less aged, with a minimum of 12 years in barrel. Most vintage madeiras also have a bottling date on the back label, too. It’s possible to find Madeiras from the late 1800s that were only just recently bottled, which means that they spent well over a century in barrel. What’s remarkable about Madeira is that, because it’s made in an intentionally oxidative, hot environment (“most winemaker’s nightmare,” says Segelbaum) it can last for hundreds of years.

“What I suggest when people want to get into vintage Madeira is to look for milestone vintages, anniversaries, birth years,” Segelbaum says. The wines are expensive, true, but because they’re already oxidized they can be consumed over a long period of time, even after being opened. “They’re basically indestructible,” says Segelbaum. As a birthday gift for his fiancee, Segelbaum purchased a bottle of Blandy’s Terrantez, the 1988 vintage—her birth year—a few years back. They drink one ounce every year on her birthday. He’s certain it will keep for the 20 or so years it will take them to get through the bottle.

Below are Segelbaum’s recommendations for navigating the wide world of Madeira:

“I think it’s important for new Madeira drinkers to taste the varieties side by side,” says Segelbaum. He recommends picking up four bottles of Madeira where the only difference is the varietal, like The Rare Wine Company’s Historic Series, made by Vinhos Barbeito, which has a distinctively nutty style. The bottles are named after the cities in the U.S. where that particular variety was most popular in the 1800’s: Charleston Sercial ($50), Savanah Verdelho ($50), Boston Bual ($50) and New York Malmsey ($50).

For mature vintage Madeiras at (relatively) reasonable prices, Segelbaum suggests Blandy’s, which he feels are more floral than other Madeiras. He’s especially fond of their 1957 Bual ($410), 1979 Verdelho ($233), and 1968 Sercial ($350).

Finally, for Madeiras with truly serious age, Segelbaum says, there is no better place to look than D'Oliveira. Their D’Oliveira 1977 Terrantez ($250) from a grape that’s now almost extinct, is one of his favorites: nectar and ambrosia-like notes fill the nose, while the palate ranges from apricot and yellow nectarine to fresh honeycomb and yellow flower. But older vintages, even much older, are available through The Rare Wine Company, such as the 1937 D’Oliveira Sercial ($495) or even an 1875 D’Oliveira Malmsey ($1,150).

See the full list of the 2019 Sommeliers of the Year.