The versatile Tinta Negra

It is the most common grape variety in Madeira Wine and it is more and more targeted by oenologists and producers.


A basic statistical analysis suffices for one to quickly conclude that most Madeira Wine is not made from Sercial, Verdelho, Malmsey, Bual nor even Terrantez or Muscatel. The largest volume comes out of the 5 million kilos of grapes produced yearly in Madeira from the Tinta Negra variety, in other words, around 85 per cent.
Nearly all blends have, or used to have, Tinta Negra as their basis. Its thicker skin is resistant and vigorous and higher earnings which allow for the creation of four different style of Madeira: sweet, medium sweet, medium dry and dry.
This grape variety is looked down on to the point that the law did not even allow it being mentioned on labels. It was only in the nineties that Tinta Negra started to be talked about with less shame. Juan Teixeira, oenologist for Justino’s Madeira Wine explains that ‘people thought it was a bad grape variety, meant for wines sold by the barrel and the lower tiered ones’ which in the case of Madeira are three and five years old. Furthermore, it was associated with cooking.
Oenologists and producers forewent tradition and took matters into their own hands and explore the potential of this variety producing wines of superior quality. Vinhos Barbeito, Madeira Wine Company and Justino’s Madeira Wine all have come to work to give Tinta Negra a new visibility.

Ricardo Diogo, Barbeito’s oenologist started to take a new angle on this grape in 1995: ‘I began ageing it through the traditional Canteiro method’. From 2000 onwards the situation began to change. Ricardo Diogo explains how that made it possible to ‘bottle the ‘Single Harvest’ category from that variety. Other producers and I began to release single harvest wines from 1995 followed by others from other years, though always without permission to identify it on the label’.

This would only change in 2015 when Tinta Negra went from authorized to recommended grape variety allowing for its commercialization as Vintage, the title for wines bearing the identification of the year of the harvest, recommended grape variety and is produced through the canteiro system ageing for a minimum of 20 years in wood and meets the requirements.

Francisco Albuquerque, oenologist at Madeira Wine, refers that starting from the moment that putting the name and date on the label became possible, ‘it became enthralling to age Tinta Negra and then sell it as a Harvest or Vintage’.

For many years it was called Tinta Negra Mole. But Juan Teixeira says ‘there was great confusion because the Algarve had a variety called Negra Mole and we Tinta Negra Mole’. Categorizations based on DNA studies which established that they are different grape varieties led to reclassifications in 2012.

Francisco Albuquerque contributed to the clarification, commissioning a study that concluded this grape variety derives from the Molar variety, from the region of Colares in Sintra. It was first introduced in Porto Santo in the 18th century because it ‘grew very well in rich soils such as ours, filled with organic matter, they began to realize that Tinta Negra produced many kilos per square meter’.

The amount of production and its resistance allowed it to survive and become vital for the production of Madeira Wine. In 1852, together with American hybrids which had a better resistance to diseases Tinta Negra became the solution to a plague that was devastating the vineyards. In 1872, a phylloxera plague surged and again it was solved through resource to the planting of the Tinta Negra and American hybrid grape varieties.

Francisco Albuquerque explains that ‘Tinta Negra, as is implied in the etymology of its Portuguese name, is a red grape. All other traditional Madeira grape varieties are white, with the exception of the Bastardo grape which is neither red nor white but rather rosé’. When compared to the other varieties, its primary fruity and floral aromas are different. Furthermore, it is good evolution and concentration wise in terms of ageing in casks.

Unlike other grape varieties, Tinta Negra grows well in trellis and at different altitudes. It is predominant in Estreito de Câmara de Lobos. In his book Madeira, The Island Vineyard, Noel Cossart describes it as producing small, soft, red grapes with a greenish pulp and growing in small or medium-sized bunches. The colour of the wine is clearly red when young, maturing its tawny with age.

The amount of production gives one plenty to choose from. Juan Teixeira adds that because this is a more versatile variety ‘there is a profusion of very large batches, in comparison to white varieties’. Ricardo Barbeito highlights how ‘the criterion for choosing a wine always implies we already have the batch we want or the category we intend to bottle.’

But if Tinta Negra is now a recommended variety how will oenologists make three and five year old wines? Francisco Albuquerque says the market will make the decision: ‘Assuming there is great demand for Tinta Negra then surely the price of the grapes will go up accordingly. As a result, the other varieties would then be used for three year old wines’. But Juan Teixeira does not consider that a near future: ‘Tinta Negra will always produce basic Madeira wines’. Ricardo Diogo agrees.

These three producers have come to release Single harvest and Vintage wines made from this grape. Madeira Wine Company’s 1995 Leacock’s Tinta Negra was awarded the bronze medal at the International Wine & Spirit Competition 2017. There is also the 1996 Miles Tinta Negra, the Miles 2006 Single Harvest and the Leacock’s Tinta Negra 2001. The latter conquered a gold medal at the 2018 International Wine & Spirits Competition having produced 2,232 bottles.

Justino’s released the 95, 96, 97, 98 and 99 Single harvest, all of the sweet style. The International Wine Challenge 2012 awarded the 95 and 99 Single harvests gold medals. More recently, the 98 Single Harvest took the bronze at the 2015 International Wine Challenge. The 96 Single Harvest took the gold medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2017.

Barbeitos put the Tinta Negra 1999 Single Cask 252 D+E – Medium Sweet out in the market and won a Gold medal at the International Wine and Spirits Competition 2016 and the silver medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2015. The Tinta Negra 1997 Single Cask 114 B+E – Medium Sweet was awarded silver medals at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2015 and at the International Wine Challenge 2015 while the Tinta Negra 20 years Ribeiro Real, bottled June 2016 in only 1,183 bottles, figures among the top ten Portuguese wines according to international critic Jancis Robinson.