It is ironic that among major producers of Madeira, the youngest firm has the most impressive stock of very old wines not only on the island of Madeira, but in the world. Vinhos Barbeito was founded in 1946 by Mario Barbeito de Vasconcelos, a wealthy businessman. The firm’s incredible range of old vintages today is due to his foresight, since in the 1940’s and 1950’s Barbeito de Vasconcelos went around the island buying up large quantities of privately owned wine, some of it dating back to the 18th century. These old wines became the foundation for one of the world’s most unique wine libraries.
Barbeito de Vasconcelos bought his wines from small growers who had stocks of old, high quality wine set aside for a rainy day, as well as from old families who had put aside great vintages for future generations. Included among these purchases were some of Madeira’s greatest wines, from the island’s most important growing areas, including Cama do Lobos, Sao Martinho, Campanario, Canico and Ribera Brava. Included among Barbeito’s prizes was the fabulous, and famous, 1795 Terrantez that belonged to the Hinton-Welsh family.
“We are fortunate that the old shippers and growers reserved their best vintages as a ‘nest egg’ or an investment against emergencies. They just kept them in wood, locked away, rarely drinking them except for a wedding or an anniversary, selling them only when they were hard up. There was certainly a loss from evaporation, calculated at two per cent per annum but, on the other hand, this ullage was far surpassed by the gain in quality,” Noel Cossart, Madeira: The Island Vineyard.
At the time Barbeito acquired them, these wines were virtually all still in cask, a traditional practice in Madeira, where 50 to 100 years or more in wood is mandatory for the very greatest wines. The long, slow oxidative process in cask adds to the wine’s complexity. And though very costly to the owner, the evaporation in barrel concentrates the flavor and extract.
Since Mario Barbeito de Vasconcelos’ death in the 1980’s, Barbeito has continued to keep its old wine in 600-liter French barrels, only bottling enough to meet its needs for the next two years.
Along with D’Oliveira, Barbeito today represents the finest source for old Madeiras, not only on the island, but in the world.