Madeira, takes the prize as a winemaking oddity yet it’s one of the most luscious wines among the fortified options. You wouldn’t know it by checking the shelves in your wine shop these days, but fine Madeira has a long, illustrious history here in the US. According to Bartholomew Broadbent, one of our foremost authorities on Port and Madeira, it was the wine of choice, in America, before Prohibition and he claims that an amazing 95% of all Madeira was sold in America up to that time. Most others seem to place the quantity at 25%. Apparently, five years before the Boston Tea Party, there was a similar Boston Wine Party, of sorts, when the Brits sought to increase the tariff and drinking Madeira became a symbol of defiance. This makes it very appropriate that the signing of the Declaration of Independence was toasted with a glass of Madeira. And, as Madeira producers like to remind us, it’s said that George Washington drank a pint of it a day with his dinner.
Among the winemaking eccentricities, it begins with location. This lush and beautiful island is located about 600 miles southwest of the mainland, Portugal, and about 400 miles west of Morocco. Much of the island isn’t suitable for planting because it rises abruptly, out of the sea, to about 6000 feet, and the vineyard land must be terraced. Also, subtropical climates aren’t generally recommended as prime places for viticulture. Our challenges with mildew here in warm, dry Napa Valley can’t begin to compare what they’re dealing with there.
Another anomaly is that there are some American hybrid varieties used for winemaking along with the European ones. When American varieties for grafting came over in the wake of the phylloxera epidemic in the late 1800s, some growers chose to save time by growing the hybrids rather than grafting their Portuguese varieties onto them. They’re no long used in classic Madeira wine but they’re still permitted for table wines.
And the greatest of all of its eccentricities, from a winemaker’s point of view, is that the wine is deliberately baked – normally a recipe for disaster.
As far as we know, wine has been made on the island since about 1600 and, like port, it didn’t begin as a fortified wine. When it came time for export, the thin, weak wines didn’t travel well, so the alcohol addition became a matter of practicality and was the standard by the mid 1700s.
In the mid-1600s ships en route to India, began stopping routinely at Madeira port town, Funchal, to load up with wine. To get home, the ships had to pass through the tropics and, evidently, the rocking and rolling in the rather hot ship somehow made the light, tart wine softer, rounder and delightfully caramelized. The time-honored theory that if a little is good, more is better, took over from there, and by the late 1700s Madeira wine was routinely sent on round trips when these voyages included crossing the equator. They called it vinho da roda or round-trip wine! It was considered to be much superior to the wine that matured at home. Eventually, as you might imagine, the trend was toward aging wine the easy way, in heated rooms, or tanks, called estufas.
By the late 1600s there were nearly 30 shippers out of Madeira but blow after blow, beginning in the mid-1800s, nearly killed the industry. Just before the phylloxera outbreak, there was a nearly equally destructive mildew problem that wiped out about 90% of the crop in 1852. As they recovered from these crises and things began to look good, again, in the early part of the 20th century, the French ports closed and two major customers dried up. Russia, because of the revolution of 1917, with America, close on its heels, due to prohibition. It’s only been in very recent decades that Madeira has made a solid comeback. As recently as the turn of this century, there were only six export companies.
For the uninitiated, the varieties aren’t familiar, but those who’ve shopped for Madeira, even casually, will recognize the names of the grapes that are used for the best-loved styles: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey, a corruption of the name Malvasia. These white varieties aren’t plentiful, but they’re the best ones for the style. You may run across the occasional bottle called Terrantez, another of the classics, but the plantings have become quite rare. The staple variety, which makes the most affordable Madeira, is actually red! It’s called Tinta Negra Mole – the locals call it Tinta. Complexa is another variety that’s used to make moderately-priced Madeira.
Most often the base wine is fermented in stainless steel, these days, but there are some who still use lined cement tanks or even casks. And, like port wine, the fermentation is stopped, before the wine is dry, by adding distilled wine, bringing the total alcohol up to around 17 or 18%. The timing of the fortification varies with the variety. The fine, varietal Madeiras increase in sweetness in this order: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey. If the wine is made of Tinta or Complexa it’s called “Dry”, “Medium Dry”, “Medium Sweet”, and “Sweet”. The varietal minimum is 85%.
Next, the wine is heated, slowly, in the estufa until it reaches up to 130 degrees over a minimum of three months which produces the caramelized, toffee-like character you expect. These days the estufas are usually stainless steel tanks with coils inside or bands through which hot water runs to heat the wine. These are similar to the tanks you see at modern wineries, which use the bands, instead, for cooling in most cases. Some of the finest Madeiras are heated in small quantities in warmed rooms, instead, and bake more slowly, up to a year and a half, at lower temperatures to avoid cooked, stewed prune character. The finest of the fine are baked in special rooms that are naturally heated by the sun in the hot town of Funchal. These very special wines are, most likely, destined to be vintage dated.
And now, the wine is aged anywhere from three to twenty years, or even longer. Fortunately, quite often the label will tell you how long. Low end wines may be aged in large concrete or stainless steel tanks but, as you move upscale, American oak is popular and chestnut and other woods may also be used. Like the production of sherry, the casks aren’t completely filled so that the wine oxidizes and becomes even more mellow and nutty. If you’ve ever looked through a basic winemaking textbook, then you know that this whole process is considered very ill advised, but you can’t argue with results, can you?
Categorizing by sweetness
Sercial is the driest. This wine is tangy, by nature, because of the grape’s naturally high acidity. Plus it comes from the higher elevations, which are relatively cool. The wine seems drier than the sugar indicates, which is typically anywhere from just under 1%, nearly dry, to about 2.5%, just slightly sweet. This is of amber in color and nutty in character. It can be used, like fino sherry, as a nice aperitif or with a light first course.
Verdelho isn’t quite as dry or tart. It’s also grown in cool regions, but ripens more easily than the Sercial, so it makes softer, more ample wine that’s also a bit sweeter than the Sercial. It’s usually around 2.5 to 4% sugar – the Portuguese call it medium dry – and it still has a nice tang and seems to take on a smoky character with age. This is another nice choice as an aperitif and will also seem less sweet than the sugar reading would lead you to believe. Sercial and Verdelho are usually served at cellar temperature, around 55 degrees.
With the Bual, we’re moving into relatively dark, rich wine. This is grown in warmer regions and ripens easily, while retaining a lively acidity. Expect a nutty, dried fruit and caramel character and sweetness ranging from around 4% to 6%. It’s delicious by itself, instead of dessert, and wonderful with creamy and custardy desserts.
Almost all of the Malvasia is grown close to sea level, on the south side of the island, so it produces very ripe grapes that are sweet and rich in character, as is the wine. This is the sweetest, by far, with sugars ranging from 6 to 11%, but it isn’t cloying because these very sweet grapes manage to retain a refreshing acidity. Normally, we suggest avoiding brown wine, but this is a magical exception. Sip it slowly, instead of dessert, or go over the top by pairing it with a rich, creamy or chocolate dessert. Bual and Malmsey are wonderful a bit warmer than the Verdelho and Sercial, at room temperature or around 65 degrees.
It’s important to mention Rainwater, even though it’s not very well defined, because you’ll see it in the wine shop. There’s no rainwater variety, so it’s reasonable to assume that it’s made of Tinta or Complexa. Some producers use Verdelho. This is usually a 3-year Madeira that’s light in body, by Madeira standards, and moderately sweet. It shouldn’t be too expensive. The story is that the original style was created by wine that was diluted by rain during shipment to America, which explains the lighter style. It has a nice, nutty character.
Categorizing by age
Apart from the varietal style, the wine is also categorized by age and the age is counted from the end of the baking. The vast majority of Madeira wines are vintage blends, so the designated age represents the youngest wine in the blend.
The blend called “Finest”, or three-year Madeira, is usually made of Tinta or Complexa and it receives the minimum of three months baking followed by three years of aging, most likely, in tank rather than wood.
Five Year, Reserve
When it’s called “Five Year” or “Reserve”, it’s probably made of Tinta or Complexa, but some examples are made of the classics. In this case the youngest component of the blend is five years old and it may have been partially wood aged.
Ten Year, Special Reserve
The Ten Year Madeira may also be called “Special Reserve”. This is usually made of noble varieties and labeled accordingly. The youngest wine in the blend is ten years old, and it should be cask aged. If it’s called “Extra Reserve” the aging is stretched out to fifteen years in cask.
Vintage Madeira or Frasqueira
This very special wine must come, of course, from a single vintage, unlike it’s blended brethren, and the minimum age is 20 years, although many shippers choose to age it even longer!
Good Madeiras benefit from getting some air, so decanting is a good idea – you’ll see sediment only rarely. A bonus is that it keeps nearly indefinitely, after the bottle is opened! It has been through so much abuse by way of being heated and exposed to air, during production, that it’s hard for anything to go wrong later on. Most importantly, Madeira rivals, even, sparkling wine as the ultimate wine of romance, so it’s something to keep in mind for a proposal, anniversary or Valentine’s Day. Cheers!