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I'll Drink to That! #329: Ricardo Freitas
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Of the hundreds of families who’ve produced and shipped Madeira over the past two centuries, only four remain: Blandy, Borges, D’Oliveira and Barbeito. The first three of these are proud survivors from the nineteenth century—their legacy insured by having stockpiled old vintages during the Phylloxera epidemic of the the 1870s. The Barbeitos, on the other hand, entered the business much later, in 1946. Yet, their accomplishment is nearly as great, given not only the number of firms that have since vanished, but the fact that they entered the business during a particularly dark time for Madeira.During World War II, production and sales had ground to a virtual halt. The U.S. market disappeared because of a government ban on poorly made Portuguese glass bottles. And for six years, marauding U-boats made it nearly impossible to ship wine to Madeira’s most important market, the United Kingdom.
As a result, far more companies were leaving the business than were joining. But Mario Barbeito had faith in the future. He also believed-just as Charles Blandy, H.M. Borges and João d’Oliveira had done decades earlier—that the value of great Madeira could only go up as it became older and production of young vintages declined. And so, a former accountant for Borges, Mario Barbeito went around the island buying substantial stocks of priceless old vintages from important families. These purchases were from 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.
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 great wines. The long, slow oxidative process in cask adds to the wine's complexity. The evaporation in barrel concentrates the flavor and extract.
It was left to his daughter Manuela—when she gradually took over the business from him in the 1970s—to begin selling her father's priceless old vintages. Thanks to her efforts, now-famous Barbeito wines like 1795 Terrantez, 1834 and 1875 Malvasia, and 1863 Bual began to make regular appearances at auction in London. This built a lasting reputation for the Barbeito name among Madeira collectors.
In the early 1990s, Manuela Barbeito began to turn over the reins of the company to her son Ricardo Freitas. Armed with a history degree from the University of Lisbon, Ricardo not only brought a deep respect for Madeira's classical roots, he also brought new energy and new ideas to the company. One of these ideas was to restore the role that Madeira once had as a companion to food. Ricardo also joined with The Rare Wine Co. to create our pioneering Historic Series Madeiras, which have pumped enormous new vitality into the once-vibrant American market for Madeira.
Ricardo is continuing his grandfather's and mother’s legacy of sourcing great old wines, and preserving them for future generations. But he is also creating his own legacy: a series of Madeiras he calls his "Signature" wines. These handcrafted wines combine the best elements of Madeira’s classical tradition with Ricardo’s own quest for purity and vineyard and varietal expression. Made in tiny lots, their astonishingly graceful style has prompted British wine critic Jancis Robinson to call Barbeito the “Lafite of Madeira.”
Wine Advocate 2020
"Many consider Barbeito the preeminent contemporary exponent of Madeira, and that view will meet with no dissent from me. Whether it's harvesting comparatively early in pursuit of acidity, making wines in a less oxidative style, eschewing the addition of caramel or reviving the Bastardo grape, Ricardo Freitas's work at Barbeito ranks him as one of the island's most dynamic forces."
Wine Advocate 2012
"I have authored several in-depth articles on Madeira, and those familiar with them will be aware of my views on Vinhos Barbeito. I previously described winemaker Ricardo Freitas as a “game changer” and I still espouse that opinion. If Madeira can be accused of being hidebound by tradition with outmoded techniques, then Ricardo is the man with the passion, ideas, the talent and let us not forget, the finance, to shake up a once somnolent industry content to ply its trade to tourists. What he achieves is a level of precision and delineation that is second to none, a lucidity of aromas and flavors that can be intoxicating. One fundamental tenet is Ricardo’s refusal to add caramel that is habitually used in order to deepen color and make the wines sweeter. He firmly believes that this practice has no place in fine Madeira, and I am inclined to agree. Meeting Ricardo, you can tell that he is a man obsessed with his wines, obsessively figuring out how to blend and when to bottle..."