It ‘s impossible to talk about wine with so much history and fame as the Madeira without mentioning the unjust discredit it has suffered in recent years. In France, Germany and the United States, among other countries, Madeira is mistakenly considered by many as an ordinary wine to be used in the kitchen for making sauces. That is a common mistake! Just like there are excellent Marsala, port, or sherry wines, there are also some Madeira wines worthy of a royal banquet.
The Portuguese volcanic island of Madeira, located 500 miles west of the Moroccan coast, is a small, lush, tropical paradise. It was colonized by the Portuguese–in the 15th century–who planted vines in the fertile, mineral-rich soil.
Madeira wine production is similar to sherry. It is a fortified wine, which means alcohol is added during fermentation. But what makes it unique is the heating process—a technique implemented when traders realized that wines tasted better after spending months in the hot sun during their transport to India. However, the best Madeiras are produced without artificial heating; they are aged for twenty years or more in 600-liter barrels in dark cellars.
The fame of the wines from Madeira was thwarted by historical circumstances: the Spaniards occupied the island from 1580-1640 and restricted the production of wine fearing it would compete with their sherry exports. Later, in the 19th century, phylloxera disease devastated the vineyards of Europe, and Madeira wines were banned in the United States, which was—at the time—their primary market. But in the 20th century, Madeira wines resurfaced and started an unstoppable rise. Review our curated gastronomic proposals.
Most of the grapes used in the production of Madeira wine are indigenous to the island. They include Sercial, which produces very dry wines with almond notes, and Malvasia, which produces sweet and long lasting wines—some endure more than a century. Also Boal grapes, which come from Burgundy and offer an attractive sweetness and balanced acidity; and Verdelho, the most widespread grape in the island, which are used in semi-dry wines with sublime smoky notes.
There is a broad range of wines from Madeira. Some examples include the Finest, with three years of aging in casks, and the Reserve, five years of aging in barrels. The Special Reserve are made using selected grapes whose wine is mixed with other vintages that have matured for at least ten years in oak barrels. There is also the Solera, a blend of wines from different vintages with over ten years of aging; and the Vintage, a wine from a single harvest that is aged for at least 20 years, although the developing time may exceed one century. The latter are the most expensive, coveted and prestigious.
If you are a collector of incunabula wines, you should know that there are still some unique gems dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, such as the Borges Madeira Boal 1780 or the 1891 Sercial Araujo Barros, among others. ■