A little bit of history…
Madeira, the Portuguese-owned archipelago that gave its name to the wine, was discovered in 1419 by Portuguese explorers who cleared the island’s dense forests to make way for vineyards. The wines made there had little to no recognition until the mid-17th century, when the Atlantic island became a key provisioning point on the trade routes. That’s when international demand for the wine skyrocketed, especially in the United States, where Madeira became a huge part of colonial America history, and a Founding Fathers’ favorite.
The early Madeira wines were still produced in the Portuguese tradition, but it was soon discovered that these wines were not structured and stable enough to survive the voyage at sea. To solve this issue, winemakers started adding high-proof spirit to the base wine during fermentation; and this fortification technique became the norm for the production of Madeira wine. They also found out that this style of fortified Madeira acquired much more complex flavors on these hot journeys; and this is why today’s Madeira undergoes a heating process to deepen its flavors.
Madeira: its grapes and its styles
Most Madeiras are made with a grape called Tinta Negra Mole, which is often blended with various other hybrids. But traditional single-varietal Madeiras are made primarily from the four classic preferred varieties: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey (initially known as Malvasia). Wines made from Sercial and Verdelho tend to be drier, crisper and lighter and are usually served as an apéritif at the beginning of the meal, while Bual and Malmsey wines are the classic rich dessert wines. These wines are often produced as varietals, and are labeled with their respective grape variety.
Madera wines come in various styles: those labeled as finest are, contrary to what you might think, a blended style, aged for the shortest amount of time (3 years). These wines are generally used as a “cooking Madeira”. A step up in quality are the mentions Reserve, Special Reserve and Extra Reserve, which designate 5, 10 and 15 years of ageing respectively. Rainwater Madera is, on the other hand, a lighter and fruity style typically made from the grape Tinta Negra Mole that is inexpensive and popular in the United States. Lastly, in terms of sweetness levels, Madeira wines range from seco (dry) and meio seco (medium dry) to meio doce (medium sweet) and doce (sweet).
How is Madeira made?
It’s the way that Madeira is made that makes it special. Before fermentation is complete, alcohol is added to the base wine in order to fortify it – as explained earlier. Then comes the maturation process involving the heating that gives Madeira its unique flavors. There are two methods to obtain that result:
- Estufagem: this is the cheapest and most efficient method, used for large-scale production. In this modern method, the wine is heated in steel tanks to up to 120°F for about three months. Estufagem is an accelerated way to imitate the effects of the tropical voyages on Madeira barrels, a few centuries ago. Although this method obviously reduces the production costs and therefore the prices of the bottles, it also has a disadvantage: the unnatural and intense heating gives the wine a slightly bitter, “burnt-sugar” flavor to the wines.
- Canteiro: some of the best and highest-quality Madeiras are matured thanks to this traditional method. The wines are stored in casks, in a naturally warm environment (usually heated by the sun only), in which they are aged for an extended period of time – anywhere from 20 years to a whole century.
How to pick your Madeira?
As mentioned earlier, Madeira comes in a great variety of styles. According to Mannie Berk, owner of the Rare Wine Co., “before 10 years old, the Madeiras are boring and lack the characteristic acidity. The acidity is key.” In other words, start with a Special or Extra Reserve, and “drink you way up”. Colheita is a mention that you should look for as well – it describes a wine from a single vintage, beautifully age-worthy. And last but not least, try a rare wine from the Frasqueira category, for a premium quality style that is aged a minimum of 20 years.
How to pair your Madeira?
Depending on the style of Madeira you are drinking, pair it with a light fish, soup, vegetable dishes, foie gras, rich and aromatic cheese, and any type of chocolate, caramel or fruit dessert. Drier Madeiras are known to be stunning with savory dishes, while their sweeter counterparts are the perfect dessert wines.
Broadbent NV Rainwater Madeira Blend
Blandy’s 10-Year-old Malmsey
1998 Blandy’s Colheita Single Harvest Sercial
2005 Cossart Gordon Colheita Bual
And if you are looking to splurge on an unforgettable and historic Madeira:
1850 Pereira d’Oliveira Verdelho Madeira (or the 1900 vintage – both hard to find but such an experience…)
And many more that are worth trying… Madeira truly is a forgotten and underpriced gem – are you convinced yet?