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Tragedy in Madeira

Renowned for its long-lived fortified wines, the Portuguese island is struggling to dig out from this weekend’s deadly flash floods and landslides

Robert Taylor
Posted: February 22, 2010

Tragedy struck the tiny resort island of Madeira this past weekend, home of the long-lived Madeira fortified wines. Heavy rains on Saturday resulted in flash flooding and landslides that have caused at least 42 confirmed deaths so far, though the total is expected to rise as the Portuguese archipelago’s authorities continue rescue efforts.

The worst damage occurred in and around the capital, Funchal, on the south side of Madeira island. Most of Madeira’s vineyards and wineries are located on the north side of the island.

“The consensus is that nothing like this has been seen in the past century. And you may have to go back to the historic flood of 1803 to find a flood so devastating on the island,” wrote Madeira importer Mannie Berk via e-mail after phone conversations with his contacts in Madeira yesterday and today. Berk, founder of the Rare Wine Co., which imports Madeira and other specialty wines into the United States, added that “the heavy rains over the weekend were exacerbated by persistent rainfall this winter, which left the ground saturated. And because so much rain fell in the mountains, it had to find a way to the sea below, which was along the rivers. The areas around Funchal's rivers saw the most concentrated damage. They simply were incapable of carrying all of the water and debris that was forced into them.”

While damage to vineyards and wineries appears to have been largely avoided, some producers who store old wines in the Funchal area have been unable to determine the status of their inventory.

Rupert Symington, managing director of Symington Family Estates, said via e-mail that the flooding was “not likely to significantly affect wine production, although there may be some costly shipping delays, and any fall-off in tourist numbers will inevitably lead to weaker wine sales through our local outlets [an important part of the local industry’s revenues].”

“There has not been significant damage to the vineyards,” reported Dominic Symington, Rupert’s cousin, who oversees the family’s Madeira holdings. “Thankfully the Madeira Wine Company’s Blandy’s, Leacock’s and Cossart Gordon installations were unaffected and escaped any damage … From what I understand the other wine companies in Madeira also escaped largely unscathed.”

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