Chris Blandy: big changes afoot in Madeira as premium wines gain traction
Chris Blandy, seventh generation owner of Blandy’s Madeira Wine Company, is experiencing the Madeira market shifting towards the premium end, noting increased interest in dated Colheita and Vintage wines in particular. To this end, the company is buying and planting more of their own vineyards with the noble varieties Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey to ensure supply. Blandy also sees huge untapped potential in high-end wine tourism on the sub-tropical island: while reluctant to go into detail, he reveals plans for a new winery that is also to become a tourist destination. He spoke to Anne Krebiehl MW about his company’s strategy.
You say you have observed a shift in the Madeira market – albeit from a small base?
Today with so much access to information on wine in general, I think a lot of people are looking for unique wines, moving away from the more widely distributed and well-known. Madeira historically has had an important place, but in the wine world it is small, with only 3 million litres produced annually. [According to the Madeira Wine Institute 3.19 million litres were commercialised in 2013]. People now are looking at Madeira slowly re-inventing itself. Not only at the typical three-year-old entry-level, but more importantly in the premium sector, meaning five-years plus. What surprises people is that it’s an ageless wine: wines going back to the 18th century are still good to drink. This has a huge amount of importance and its resurgence has a huge role to play in the fine wine category. This is very much led by the on-trade. Sommeliers have really picked up on Madeira wine because of its high level of acidity and the versatility within each of the four main styles. They are really spearheading the revival of the Madeira wine trade.
Is this something you see across all markets?
We see this in the mature markets: US, UK and Belgium, the others are getting hold of the idea. We are working with high-end wine shops to do consumer events: When consumers have heard about Madeira they are not entirely sure what it is: a cooking wine or something their grandmother used to drink. Doing this allows us to get face time to explain the differences in style and the evolution of the wine throughout the ageing process. It allows us to break down barriers for the consumer.
While you see an increased interest in the five-year-plus aged wines and dated wines, your old stocks are limited and quantities of vintage wines are ever decreasing. Does this pose a problem?
We see ourselves as guardians of wine. I am of the seventh generation and I still have 1920 left in barrel because my father and grandfather took the decision not to bottle it. So there is a responsibility for me to carry this on. When we are talking of bottling of dated wines, even a young vintage, say the 1988 Malmsey we launched in 2013 for example, we only managed to fill 1,590 bottles as a total global output – so that is what we are focussing on, really driving the super-premium side of Madeira. We are installing new packaging now and the quality of the wine is there. The prices have gone up quite substantially in the past 10-15 years. I have many collectors telling me how lucky they have been in the past to get old, dated wines at such reasonable prices, but they understand the increase. We support this by bottling younger, dated Colheita wines [the term ‘vintage’ can only be used for wines with minimum age of 20 years; Colheitas thus are up to 19-year aged wines of vintage quality]. Putting them into 50cl bottles allows people to get a dated Madeira at a lower price point and this helps us to snowball the interest in these fantastic wines.
Every step of your strategy appears deliberate and long-term?
It is quite a responsibility taking over a company that has over 200 years of history. One of the reasons why my family reinvested in 2011 to buy back the majority shareholding is that we are in this for the long term. Madeira wine is a long-term game. We are hesitant to make radical changes, but the changes we are making are as you say quite deliberate. They respect the foundation of the brand but they also mould the market for the coming generations.
How important is high-end wine tourism for Madeira? While you are not disclosing the location, you have mentioned that you have big plans for a new wine tourism centre?
We are fortunate to have one of Madeira’s most sought-after tourist destinations with our wine lodge in the centre of Funchal where we see 100,000 visitors annually. As a commercial outlet, and more importantly as a marketing tool, we are in a very good position. Madeira lives on tourism and has done ever since its discovery but there now is a shift in what a tourist is looking for. More and more people are looking for authentic, hand-made experiences. Madeira has that and via its wine there is such an opportunity for growth. Unfortunately we do not have enough wine tourism here on the island. I wish that more of my competitors would invest quite heavily in new wineries with real wine tourism components to them – they haven’t yet. But we have always seen ourselves as a leaders of the market and that is very much going to be the case with our new project over the next couple of years. We are moving the remaining 1.5 million litres of premium wine in wood plus our vinification line into a very well-thought out new-built winery that is really pushing the wine tourism side.