John Cossart: Ambassador for Madeira wine

Click to follow
The Independent Online

John Cossart, the head of Henriques & Henriques, was the last Englishman still fully involved in the wine business in Madeira. Thanks to his unrivalled grasp of the Madeira wine trade, its tortuous relationships and the complexities of the Madeira-making process, he made an invaluable contribution to the revival of one of the world's most distinctive and indestructibly long-lived wines. That this is corroborated by long-standing arch-rivals such as the Madeira Wine Company – an amalgam of historic names of Cossart Gordon, Blandy, Leacock and Miles – is an acknowledgement of his gravitas as one of Madeira's greatest ambassadors.

Though he was born in Funchal, on Portugal's volcanic island outpost, Cossart's fluent Portuguese was always spoken with a self-consciously English accent, as if he'd just undergone a crash course in Portuguese using audio tapes. After an education at Downside, he worked in London for Shell, meeting his future wife, Harriet, in 1969.

However, he soon found himself travelling regularly to Madeira as he became increasingly involved in his father, Peter's, business, which had been established in 1850 by João Henriques at the Quinta do Serrado in Câmara de Lobos. After the traumas of the death of his son Charlie and divorce, he settled in Madeira permanently in 1997, where he remained, in blue blazer and old school tie, as English as steak-and-kidney pudding.

Historically, Madeira's first wines were the naturally acidic, young vintage wines made from drier sercial and verdelho, and sweeter bual and malvasia (malmsey) grapes and fortified with spirit. By completing a return sea journey across the tropics, they were found not only to have survived, but to have become richer and more concentrated thanks to the passage of time and the equatorial climate. This vinho da roda became much sought-after and Madeira producers traditionally used the canteiro method – oak-aging in warm, humid lodges – to recreate the process for their best wines.

Aware that time in a fast-moving world was at a premium, Cossart adapted the established hothouse production process known as estufagem to H&H's commercial requirements, steam-heating H&H's Madeiras slowly and gently to prevent the occurrence of the burned flavours found in other products and to allow the Madeira "to hang on a fine spine of acidity," as he described it. An "apologist" for a hothouse system that remains controversial because of its artificial nature, he held one hilarious Madeira-tasting for journalists in a London sauna. The company also produced great Madeiras using the canteiro system, including such gems as a complex, rich, cinnamon-spicy 1934 Verdelho, the legendary, intensely nutty Solera Century 1900 Malmsey, and a fabulous, otherworldly Reserve Sercial, bottled in 1965 from a demijohn dating from before 1850.

Cossart took over the reins of the business when his father died in 1991. He built a new vinification plant at Ribeira do Escrivão, and expanded the company's holdings by developing the vineyard first planted by his father in the steeply terraced, verdant hills at Quinta Grande above H&H's production facility. It was the first vineyard on the island to be mechanised, remains – at 25 acres – the biggest, and is owned by H&H, which is unusual as all other shippers are dependent for their grapes on the island's 1,300-odd growers. Contracts are scarce in this sub-tropical Portuguese outpost, but Cossart's relationships with growers, bottlers and staff were strong, even if he himself said: "You couldn't stick two islanders together with a ton of superglue."

A courteous, kind and deeply religious man, Cossart was immensely proud of his family's long connection with Madeira, which dated back to the 1800s. His main interests were his children, H&H, and his house, home to eight noisy dogs, along with the garden and orchard in which he spent much time tending plants and flowers and sowing his favourite vegetables. As he used to point out himself: "Everything grows on Madeira; it's a floating manure heap." He was modest about his own achievements. He once said wistfully: "If I was asked who I most envied in the wine world, I'd say it's producers who have a great demand for their product, which we don't." A gradual but a growing demand for Madeira is a legacy of which Cossart could be justifiably proud.

Anthony Rose

John Cossart, wine-maker: born Funchal, Madeira 25 February 1945; married 1969 Harriet Meades-Featherstonhaugh (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1997); died Funchal 27 February 2008.

Comments