Madeira–The World’s Most Masculine Wine


Necessity, it is said, is the Mother of Invention.  What is not said, though, is that Accident is her Surrogate. And in the case of Madeira, one of the three great fortified wines of the world, it was Accident that gave birth—upon the high seas—to the luxurious wine.

In the 15th century, during the Age of Exploration as the Portuguese were pursuing a sea route to Asia by sailing down the west coast of the vast and seemingly bottomless African continent, then sailing up its opposite coast towards the fabled “East,” and the Spaniards, at the bidding of Columbus, were attempting to reach the same Eastern lands by sailing westward into the mighty Atlantic, the island of Madeira, situated in the north Atlantic Ocean off the northwest coast of Africa, served as a major port of call for the resupplying of Portuguese and Spanish ships prior to their long journeys of exploration. And where there are mariners, there is wine. So it became only fitting that the island of Madeira would engage itself in business of winemaking.

The island of Madeira was claimed by Portuguese sailors in 1419 for Prince Henry the Navigator and was settled sometime after 1420. The island, with its subtropical climate, is considered the first Portuguese territorial discovery during what would come to be known as the Portuguese Age of Discovery, 1415 to 1542.  The word “madeira” means “wood” in Portuguese. And it is said that when the Portuguese first encountered the African island, it was so heavily forested that the most fitting name for their new discovery was simply “Madeira.” In order to clear the lush, 309 square-mile island of its primordial vegetation so as to make way for the cultivation of sugarcane, the island was set ablaze. And burn it did—unquenchable for seven long years. In the process, the vegetation that had been robbing the soil of its rich nutrients from time immemorial released those precious nutrients back into the island’s soil, Madeira thereby becoming one of the world’s most fertile places.  And for as long as the enchanted isle has hosted human populations, wine has been produced there. So when mariners called on Madeira’s ports in order to supply their ships for extended journeys, wine was one of the items loaded onboard.

But wine is a delicate beverage, exceedingly susceptible to temperature fluctuations, heat, the ravages of exposure to oxygen, and excessive movement—all of which are part and parcel to extended seafaring voyages, especially to the warmest regions of the world. So to prevent spoilage, the wine producers of Madeira drew upon the knowledge—from the mainland Portugal Port producers, and from their neighboring Spanish Sherry producers—of fortifying wine with distilled spirit in order to extend the wine’s shelf life. While Port and Sherry are fortified with a neutral, wine-derived, brandy-like spirit, in the early days of Madeira winemaking, a spirit distilled from sugarcane juice was used because of the island’s history of sugarcane production and the availability of sugarcane-derived spirits. [Since the 18th century, Madeira has been fortified with a neutral, wine-derived spirit like its Port and Sherry counterparts].  And had Madeira wine ended there, it probably would have today evolved into a wine very similar to Port and/or Sherry, and the island of Madeira might have come to be regarded as just another island off the coast of West Africa—not as an island with a wine so famous that the wine is arguably even more famous than the island after which it is named.

But such, fortunately, was not to be the fate of the wines of Madeira.  Enter: Accident.  When a shipment of fortified Madeira wine did not find a buyer in some faraway destination and was therefore shipped back to the island, the disappointed merchant was met with both surprise and delight when he tasted his sea-aged wine and discovered that it had been deliciously transformed while traveling halfway around the world and back, exposed to extreme heat and excessive movement in the hold of the ship.  The ship-aged fortified wine had acquired a flavor distinct from and superior to that of when it was first produced! And other people agreed with the merchant’s assessment—so much so that thereafter, wines that had been shipped across the seas but came back unsold came to be known as “vinha da roda” (“roundtrip wine”) and were highly sought-after.  In fact, the vinha da roda wines were so prized that Madeira winemakers went about the expensive proposition of stocking seafaring vessels with casks of wine—not for sale in distant lands, but as ballast in the warm holds of ships such that the wine could return years later to the island of Madeira, unsold and ship-aged. But when it became evident that sea-aging wine was not only expensive, but also unpredictable—on account of storms, pirates, war, and thirsty sailors—Madeira winemakers began figuring out ways of imparting the same ship-aged characteristics to their wines, but on terra firma.


The Making of Madeira

Madeira begins its life like most other wines:  Grapes are harvested in the early fall; pressed; then allowed to ferment in concrete or stainless steel vats or in wooden casks. (The grape varieties that are typically used to produce the sweeter Madeiras—Bual, Malvasia, and Negra Mole—are oftentimes fermented on their skins so as to leach more phenols [chemical compounds, including tannins, that affect color, taste, and mouthfeel of the wine] from the grapes, those phenols serving as a natural balance to the sweetness of the wine).  The dry wines—typically made from Sercial, Verdelho, and Negra Mole varieties—are separated from their skins prior to the fermentation process). Depending of the desired level of sweetness of the final product, fermentation—the process whereby the natural sugars in the grape juice are consumed by yeasts that then emit alcohol (and carbon dioxide) as the waste product—may be halted by the addition of a neutral, grape-derived spirit that kills the yeasts before they are able to consume all the sugars in the grape juice, thus producing a sweet wine. The added-alcohol also fortifies the wine, extending its shelf life and making it more durable. (The less expensive Madeiras tend to be fully fermented—thereby becoming fully dry—before the grape-derived spirit is added).


The Estufagem Aging Process

Where Madeira makes a major departure from the other fortified wines is in its “estufagem” aging process—a process meant to replicate the abuse to which a wine is subjected when barrel-aged onboard ships on the high seas destined for tropical climates then back home again. In essence, the wine is put through the proverbial gauntlet. But when the precious liquid emerges on the other end, it is filled with character, flavor, color, texture, and longevity—so much so that properly stored Madeira has been known to remain in perfect drinking condition for hundreds of years.

The estufagem process involves deliberately heating the wine (or exposing it to the elements such that it will become naturally heated). The heating of the wine hastens its mellowing and tends to discourage any secondary fermentation during the aging process. In addition, the heating-process serves as a mild pasteurizer. And as the wine in the casks naturally evaporates, the evaporated portions are not replenished, thereby allowing oxygen to occupy the vacant space within each cask.  And that exposure to oxygen causes the wine to oxidize, obtaining its characteristic amber color, similar to Tawny Port.


There are three primary methods for heating the wine:

Cuba de Calor:  Typically used for inexpensive Madeiras, this popular method of heating the wine entails heating large quantities of wine in either concrete or stainless steel tanks that have been surrounded by heat-coils or piping that allows for hot water to circulate the container, heating the wine contained therein in the process. Per Madeira Wine Institute regulations, the wine is heated to temperatures as high as 130 ºF (55 ºC) for a minimum of 90 days.

Armazém de Calor:  The “sauna approach” to heating the wine, this method, used only by the Madeira Wine Company, entails storing the wine in large wooden casks in a specially designed room equipped with steam-producing tanks or pipes that heat the room. Regarded as a gentler method of heating than the Cuba de Calor method, the wine in the Armazém de Calor system is steam-heated for at least six months and usually for more than one year.

Canteiro:  In the canteiro method, the wines are aged without the use of any artificial heat; the wine is stored in casks in the winery’s warmest rooms, or outdoors, warmed only by the heat of the sun, from as few as 20 to as many as 100 years. This method is used to produce the highest-quality Madeiras.

Wine that has been “cooked” in the estufagem method is sometimes described “madeirized” wine.


Grape Varieties

Most of the grapes used in the production of Madeira are white grapes, the four most famous ones, from sweetest to driest, being:  Malvasia (also known as Malmsey or Malvazia); Bual; Verdelho; and Sercial. Madeiras made exclusively from those varieties are referred to by the name of the grape. (See “Styles of Madeira” below).  But these four varieties account for only about 10% of all the Madeira produced.  And only occasionally—on account of their relative scarcity—are the other white grapes, namely Terrantez (very rare), Bastardo, and Moscatel, used.

But the go-to, “work horse” grape variety found in many blends and vintage Madeiras is the red grape Negra Mole (formerly called “Tinta Negra Mole”). It alone accounts for approximately 85% of all production of Madeira. It is the consummate “blendable,” “mixable,” “adaptable” grape, hence its ubiquity.  Triunfo and Complexa, both red grapes, are less known. Efforts are underway, on the part of Madeira producers and the Madeira authorities, to have Negra Mole take its rightful place, along with the “famous four,” in the pantheon of Madeira grapes.  And efforts are also underway to create regulations such that the Negra Mole name can appear on labels as a bona-fide style of Madeira.

European Union regulations specify that a Madeira that identifies itself as a specific grape (for example, “Bual” or “Verdelho”) must be comprised of at least 85% of the stated grape.  (Old Madeiras—those dating from before the late 19th century—used a similar rule. And since enactment of the rule in the late 20th century, grape varieties are specified. Wines dating from the beginning of the 1900s up to the early 1990s are also varietally labeled, but not always accurately or verifiably so.  And most modern Madeiras that are not varietally labeled are generally made of Negra Mole). The “problem” is that traditionally, the names of the four most famous, highly regarded Madeira grapes—Malvasia, Bual, Verdelho, and Sercial—are also used to broadly to describe the style of wines derived from those grapes:  sweet, medium-sweet, medium-dry, and dry.  So when a gentleman orders a glass of “Malvasia,” he may be getting a sweet Madeira, but not necessarily a Madeira made from at least 85% of the Malvasia grape.


Grape Cultivation

Because of the island of Madeira’s mountainous, volcanic terrain, it is difficult to cultivate. But with ingenuity and a characteristic tenacity, the native people have traditionally constructed terraces, called “poios” (similar to the terraces in Portugal’s Douro Valley where Port is produced), in the island’s red and basaltic bedrock. Mechanical harvesting is therefore near impossible, thus making wine-grape growing a costly endeavor on the island. Then, to complicate matters, the island is of an oceanic climate with tropical influences. And because of its abundant rainfall and average mean temperature of around 66 ºF (19 ºC), fungal grape diseases and botrytis are constant threats. So to combat those threats, the island’s vineyards are often planted on trellises known as “latada” that raise the canopy of the vine off the ground, thereby sparing the vines of such earthborn vinicultural hazards.


The History of Madeira

The wine mentioned in the vivid descriptions of the lavish, fabulously wealthy, 18th-century sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean is almost always Madeira.  Besides being a luxurious, delicious wine, before the era of artificial refrigeration, Madeira was one of the few wines that could survive the long sea journeys to the tropics then remain in perfect condition for years in the equatorial heat.

By the 1500s, a bona-fide wine industry had been established on the island of Madeira, the Dutch East India Company being a major purchaser of wine when en route to India. But it was in the 1700s that the wine that came to be called “Madeira” was met with international demand:  in Russia, North Africa, Great Britain, Brazil, the American colonies, and the Caribbean islands.

Because no wine-quality grapes could be grown in the first 13 colonies of North America, wines had to be imported, Madeira being the most popular.  And when the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776, Madeira was used for the celebratory toast.

The Phylloxera Epidemic that decimated Europe’s wine industry in the middle of the 19th century also visited upon Madeira’s vineyards.  And by the end of the 19th century, most of the island’s vineyards had been uprooted and converted to sugarcane production. Things started to look up for the island’s wine industry in the early 20th century, but then came the Russian Revolution in 1917, followed by Prohibition in the United States (1920 – 1933), thereby drying up two of Madeira’s premier wine markets. The result was that for much of the 20th century, the wines of Madeira were most associated with “cooking wine.”

But the end of the 20th century saw a resurgence in the prominence of Madeira:  The five classic Madeira grapes (including Negra Mole) were replanted, and hybrid grapes were banned in 1979. And in the 21st century, Madeira wine is again becoming popular in the Benelux countries (Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg), France, and Germany, with rapidly emerging markets in Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.


Styles of Madeira

Unblended Madeiras Made from (at least 85% of) the Four Classic Grape Varieties

Some of the most esteemed Madeiras are made not from blends, but primarily from one grape variety.  And the four “noble” varieties are used for such wines, the name of the grape variety also being the name of the Madeira:

Sercial is fermented to almost completely dry. The wine is characterized by high acidity, hints of almonds, and high-toned colors. Sercials are categorized as “seco” (“dry”).

Verdelho has its fermentation halted a little earlier than Sercial. Thus, Verdelho is a little sweeter. Verdelho is characterized as somewhat smoky, with high acidity. Verdelhos are categorized as “meio-seco” (“medium-dry).

Bual (also called “Boal”) is a medium-sweet Madeira, the result of fermentation that was halted early, thus preserving much of the natural sugars from being converted to alcohol.  Bual is characterized by its dark color, medium-rich texture and raisin-like flavor. Bual is categorized as “meio-doce” (“medium-sweet”).

Malvasia (also known as “Malmsey” or “Malvazia”) has its fermentation halted early, thus preserving much of the natural sweetness of the grape must. The result is a sweet wine characterized by its dark color, rich texture, and coffee-caramel flavors. Malvasia is categorized as “doce” (“sweet”). The four classic Madeira grapes are endowed with naturally high levels of acidity, partly derived from the volcanic soil in which they grow, and the lack of ripening in the case of grapes grown at high altitudes. As such, in the case of the sweet Madeiras, the natural acidity serves as a balance to the natural sweetness of the wine, thereby producing a wine with a distinctly understated, rather than imposing, sweetness.



 Madeiras Made of Blends

When a Madeira is made of a blend of wines, the grapes that account for at least 85% of blend must be specified on the label.

Other Labeling

-Reserve:  Wines aged for at least five (5) years.  [Wines labeled as “Sercial,” “Verdelho,” “Bual,” and “Malvasia” must be aged at least five years and thus are always at least of “Reserve” classification].

-Special Reserve:  Wines aged for at least ten (10) years.  Most wines labeled as “Special Reserve” will have undergone canteiro aging—without any artificial heating system.

-Extra Reserve:  Wines aged for more than fifteen (15) years. Richer in style than Special Reserve, Extra Reserve is rarely produced today, most producers opting instead to wait an additional five years in order to qualify as “Vintage Madeira” or even “Colheita Madeira.”

-Colheita (or “Harvest”):  Made of wines from a single harvest (vintage), but aged for a period of at least five (5) years, but shorter than a true vintage Madeira, which must be aged for a period not less than 20 years.  Colheita may be labeled with its vintage date, but it must include the word “Colheita.”

-Vintage (or “Frasqueira”): The wine must derive from grapes from the same year’s harvest.  Vintage wine must be aged for at least 20 years, and the vintage year is declared on the bottle. But because in Portugal the designation “Vintage” is a trademarked term reserved for the producers of Port, vintage Madeira is never labeled as “Vintage Madeira.” Its vintage status is instead indicated by a specified vintage year that calculates to the wine being at least 20 years old.  And whenever the term “vintage” is used to describe Madeira, a common “v” rather than its capital counterpart is used—unless at the beginning of a sentence.

-[Wine labeled “Finest” may prove misleading for the novice.  In actuality, “Finest” Madeira is a modest-grade Madeira, aged for at least three (3) years, and typically used for cooking.

The terms “pale,” “dark,” and “rich” may be used to describe a Madeira’s color. Since 1993, Madeira made purely of the Negra Mole grape is restricted to using only the “dry,” “semi-dry,” “semi-sweet,” and “sweet” classifications.

Wines labeled with the term “Solera” were made in the solera method traditionally used for the production of Sherry]. But the solera system of Madeira allows for a maximum of 5% of a cask’s overall contents to be added to/extracted from for a maximum of 10 cycles. As such, by the time a solera-aged Madeira is bottled, the bottle contains a minimum of 50% of the stated vintage. [Whereas, for example, with the solera system of Sherry, because there is no maximum allowable number of additions and extractions per cask, the actual percentage of 1880 wine in a cask established in 1880 may be negligible in 1990]. (See “Sherry” below).

-The style of Madeira called “Rainwater” is popular in the United States, China, and Canada. Many of the major Madeira producers bottle a “Rainwater” style wine. How the style came to be called “Rainwater” remains a mystery.  One account claims that the style derives its name from wine made of grapes grown on the steep hillsides, where irrigation is difficult, thereby requiring the grapes to rely solely on rainfall for their survival. Another popular theory is that wine shipped to Savannah, Georgia in the then-American colonies was accidentally diluted by rainwater while awaiting collection on the city’s docks. And rather than discarding the adulterated wine, the merchants passed it off to the unsuspecting colonists as “a new style of wine.” When the colonists found it to their delight, “Rainwater Madeira” was born.

“Rainwater Madeira” is a comparatively mild Madeira, somewhat similar to Verdelho and typically made from the Negra Mole variety. It must be aged at least three (3) years before release.  It is usually served chilled as an apéritif.

Traditionally, Madeira is labeled by stenciling white paint directly onto the dark glass bottles, not with paper labels as is the case with most other wines.  The stenciling tradition emerged out of necessity:  In the olden days, Madeira would be stored in attics where the humidity would compromise paper labels.  Stenciling was seen as the most practical solution. And thus it has remained, so much so that the boldly stenciled bottle is part and parcel to the wine.  Today, though, so as to be able to legibly fit more information onto the bottle, paper labels are being increasingly used. But truth be told, on a bar’s back-shelf stacked chock-full with bottles from all over the world, a white-stenciled bottle of Madeira immediately sets itself apart from other bottles.


Shelf Life and Storage

Madeira is arguably the world’s most durable wine. Because during its production it is deliberately subjected to the conditions that normally destroy wines—exposure to heat and oxygen—the wine emerges practically immune to such conditions by the time it is bottled.

When a young gentleman romantically thinks of expensive wines, he thinks of cool, dark cellars with stacks of dust-encrusted bottles containing wines from some distant past. But the fact is that most white and red wines—even those of the finest quality—are created to be drunk within a handful of years after bottling. But for Madeira, as one of the world’s great fortified wines, longevity is its hallmark. To date, the oldest Madeira that has come to market is a 300-year-old Terrantez dated from 1715.  And Madeiras are routinely known to survive over 150 years in excellent condition. Before the invention of artificial refrigeration, Madeira was the wine-of-choice for shipments to distant lands and for consumption in the world’s warm regions such as the Caribbean, the East Indies, tropical South America, and the warm, southern regions of the United States.

Traditionally, Madeira is corked with driven-corks.  But increasingly, since a bottle of the precious wine is oftentimes not finished in one sitting, the wine is stoppered with “T-top corks” so that a bottle can be easily recorked between uses.  And as such, so as to prevent the leakage that can sometimes occur when bottles are stoppered, Madeira is best stored upright as opposed to lying on its side. But in actuality, Madeira is so durable a wine that once opened, it need not be recorked in order to maintain its palatability.  Except for dust and fruit flies, an opened bottle of Madeira can sit uncorked indefinitely without compromising the precious wine.

Wine cellars are also not necessary for storing Madeira. To the contrary, the wine has historically been popular in locales where wine cellars do not exist. Madeira can be stored anywhere at room temperature—with all its fluctuations—and survive unscathed for centuries.  Frankly, no harm will come to a bottle of Madeira even if kept in the trunk of a car all summer long!

Madeiras may be drunk once released onto the market.  Once bottled, young Madeiras undergo no measurable improvement; however, vintage Madeira, over the course of a hundred years or so in the bottle, will intensify in richness and flavor. And for the few people who live long enough to certify the improvement, it is worth the wait!


Uses of Madeira

Very low-grade Madeiras are oftentimes flavored with pepper and/or salt and used for cooking.

Dry Madeira is typically served chilled and used as an apéritif.  Medium-dry Madeira is a classic complement to foie gras. The sweeter Madeiras are served at room temperature and drunk as dessert wines or after-dinner drinks.



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