The island of Madeira was discovered in 1419 by the Portuguese mariner João Gonçalves Zarco who had been instructed by Prince Henry the Navigator to explore the West African Coast. Prince Henry appointed Zarco first Governor of the island and ordered him to plant sugar cane and vineyards.
The original impetus to the trade in Madeira was provided in the late 17th Century by the King of Portugal, Felipe I, who ordered that ships bound for the new Brazilian colony should call at the island to take on wine for the settlements that he was developing there.
By the reign of the English King, Charles II, demand for Madeira was firmly established along the North American seaboard. Indeed the wine played such an important part in the American way of life that it was used to toast the Declaration of Independence (July 4th 1776) and the Inauguration of George Washington (first President of the United States -1789) who, it was said, “drank a pint of Madeira at dinner daily.”
The origins of the Madeira Wine Company started in 1913 when two companies, Welsh & Cunha and Henriques & Camara, joined forces to form the Madeira Wine Association Lda. Through the lean years that followed more companies joined to ensure their survival by reducing costs and pooling production whilst maintaining commercial independence.
Blandy’s and Leacock’s amalgamated their interests and joined the association in 1925. The chairman of this newly enlarged enterprise was John Ernest Blandy, supported by Thomas L. Mullins as Managing Director who had previously looked after the Blandy’s wine company.
Other companies (listed below) all joined the association
in the years that followed. The spirit of the union, ably organised
by Tom Mullins, was to maintain the individuality of the different
companies together with their respective styles of wines while at the
same time reducing overheads.
During the 1980s the Blandy family, who by now controlled the Madeira Wine Company and whose family had lived continuously on the island since 1811, realised that the business needed to find a partner who could help them develop the company’s brands profile and world-wide distribution. They approached the Symington family, who they had known for many years. The Symingtons brought an extensive world-wide distribution network and a total quality approach as well as valuable winemaking experience gained through their many years as leading members of the Port Trade.
The Symingtons subsequently took on a partnership
with the Blandy's in 1989 and since then much time and effort has been
invested in improving the packaging and reinforcing the distribution
network of the Madeira Wine Company’s well known brands.
The company greatly increased its stocks of ageing wine and undertook a policy of maturing a significant proportion of its wines by the traditional "Canteiro" system of gently warming the wines in the lofts of the Funchal lodges rather than by the modern system of "estufagem" whereby the wines are artificially heated in large tanks.
The Old Blandy Wine Lodge in the centre of Funchal is visited by some 200,000 people per year and acts as an excellent show place for many the finest wines of Madeira. It also includes a special tasting room solely devoted to Frasqueira-Vintage Madeiras.
After a period of decline in sales (which had become somewhat overlooked in the present century, partly because the great number of ships which used to call at Madeira had dropped to just a few per month) Madeira Wine has now re-awoken global interest.
The Blandy's and the Symingtons are very optimistic about the future of Madeira and continue to invest in the production and marketing of their principal brands: Blandy's, Cossart Gordon, Leacock’s & Miles.
As the most important shipper of island-bottled Madeira the business is well placed to continue the revival of this most historic wine.