John B. Reyna
The Magic of Madeira
Updated: Oct 4, 2020
Before I began learning about wine, I always thought of fortified wines as sweet. However, beyond many other styles of fortified wine, like Sherry and Port, that come in a range of sweetness (more on those later), there lies in my mind, the ultimate fortified wine--Madeira.
As a province of Portugal, the tropical archipelago of Madeira is 400 miles off the coast of Morocco. Ships heading to America (and many other places starting in the 1500s) could stop on their way to pick up wine, which was already fortified with alcohol. The wine would get baked during the journey, allowing it to withstand the tests of time and heat. Many believed it tasted better after the long hot sea voyage.
Since the island is extremely steep, the vineyards are grown on tiny step-like terraces. It's a truly beautiful volcanic island in many ways.
My view during a leisurely drive around the island.
About 60% of the main volcanic island is planted with black the Tinta Nigra grape, which is used for the entry and younger wines, more commonly used for cooking around Europe. The finer and vintage Madeira is made from premium white grapes.
The labels are easy to understand so you know exactly what you are getting. The names are based on the type of grape used for each style:
1. Sercial – dry, tangy almond notes, best as an aperitif
2. Verdelho – semi-dry, full bodied, can get a smoky component, my favorite and most versatile
3. Bual – semi-sweet, raisiny
4. Malmsey – sweet, caramel notes, but still well balanced with high acid, the most resilient
There are also blended versions you might find, often referred to as Rainwater, which are less expensive and produced from the Tinta Negra grape. This is a great option for cooking, but we'd stick with at least a 10 year bottle for sipping straight.
My tasting at Blandy's.
Age and Vintage
Age is also likely on the bottle (5, 10, and 15 year tasting seen above) as many Madeiras are aged in oak casks (the vintages) and the bottle for many years before being sold.
If you see 5 years on the bottle, it's often a blend of Tinta Negra and the grape/style designation. These are great options for mixing into cocktails.
Finally, the most coveted Madeiras have Colheita on the label. This means it is a single vintage that was aged for at least 12 years in cask.
Off to the right are vineyards.
Not only can it sit on your shelf open for decades, allowing you to not feel too guilty about splurging on a good bottle, but it ranges from dry to sweet with options for all budgets. However, it is robust in flavor and has one of the world’s most unique and time-consuming wine-making processes.
Madeira is purposefully exposed to air, giving it a unique nutty flavor. After being fortified with clear grape brandy, Madeira is heated in tanks called estufas cooking the wine to mimic the maturation caused by a journey.
In recent years the concrete tanks have been replaced by stainless steel with hot water circulating through a coil in the middle of the tank, keeping the wine heated to 105-130 degrees for 3 to 6 months. The really good stuff is aged naturally over decades.
As a bonus, they are high in both alcohol (20%) and acidity (great for pairing with rich foods).
Boating outside of Funchal.
Yes, I may be a bit biased. I was lucky enough to take a trip to Madeira for my 30th birthday and now have a hard time seeing it on a menu and not ordering it. The beauty and the rich history of the island are truly special. Also, our forefathers drank this magical juice as they cheered the Declaration of Independence.
Grapes in a vineyard I visited.
The Madeira Wine Company now owns most of the top brands you will see here in the states: Blandy’s, Cossart Gordon, Leacock’s, and Miles.
We always keep a few Madeiras around the house.
But be sure to also keep an eye out for any of The Rare Wine Company's Historic Series Madeira. Rare Wine Co. created this line of Madeira's to showcase America’s deep historical connection to Madeira. Each wine in the series is named for a U.S. city where Madeira was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Charleston Sercial and Savannah Verdelho are drier Madeiras, while Boston Bual and New York Malmsey are of sweeter Madeiras. We love the Savannah Verdelho!
One of our faves!
Come on, give Madeira a try! The Founding Father's will be glad you did!