Tinta negra mole: the workhorse of Madeira

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Tinta Negra Mole is a red grape variety which, according to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, is said to have originated from Andalusia and then spread to the Islas Canarias and Madeira. It could possibly be a cross between Garnacha and Pinot Noir, but DNA tests have not confirmed this hypothesis. “Negra Mole” means black soft, due to the berries being soft and fleshy. In South America it is known as Negramoll.

Thick skinned, mid budding and early-mid ripening (Barbeito picks it up at the end of August), it is the most planted variety in Madeira, representing around the 80-85% of the total plantings. It yields very well, it is very versatile and resistant to diseases, all elements that accounted for its success in the middle of 19th century, when the vineyards of the island were struck by phylloxera and replanting became necessary. Bunches are big and loose, with high sugar content.

The wine obtained from it is not considered delicate as the one coming from the four noble varieties and it is mainly employed in the production of the sea of sweet cheap madeiras that floods global markets. For this reason after fermentation and fortification it commonly undergoes the fast process of estufagem, where the must is put in huge vessels (between 20,000 and 50,000L) and artificially warmed by an internal coil or external pipes heated by hot water. Some producers (like Barbeito) are trying to dignify this variety by making colheita version and using the process of canteiro in the winemaking process, where 600L casks are stored in badly insulated rooms under warehouse roofs and left heating naturally in the warm Funchal climate. Barbeito Single Cask “Colheita” 1997 Cask 113 is one of these “experiments”. For better results the grapes are fetched from high altitude vineyards, giving higher acid fruits.

A madeira without any varietal indication on the label (“Fine rich”, “medium sweet” and so on) is very likely to contain Tinta Negra Mole, because at present the wines made from this grape cannot be varietally labelled, but according to a recent article by Drinks Business the Madeira Wine Institute is considering varietal labelling for this variety too.

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