The real Madeira

Photo: Andrew Jefford

Authentic Madeira from Portugal is one of the great fortified sweet wines in the world.  Madeira’s unique character has its origins as a wine made to travel, given the island’s location in the path of trans-Atlantic trade between the Americas, Europe and the Indies beginning in the 15th century.  It was the long sea voyage that necessitated the fortification of the still wines with brandy or rum to keep the wines in good condition.  During the 17th century when the Indies was Madeira’s major market, Portuguese producers discovered the exquisite evolution of wines stored in the hot holds of the ship during this long trip and by the 18th century, had duplicated the process of ageing under heated conditions for local commercial production.  

Madeira achieves its sweetness by arresting fermentation with high alcohol spirits which kill the yeast, leaving the desired amount of residual sugar.  Alternatively, producers can ferment to dryness, then sweeten the wine later with intensely sweet, fortified grape juice.  Long ageing under heat is a feature of Madeira, with youngest wines being released in the third year after harvest, but with fine wine categories ranging from five to over 40 years of ageing.  Ageing in barrel results in evaporation of water and concentration of fruit, acids and alcohol that add richness and depth to the wine.  Ageing under heat results in a distinctive evolution of aromatic compounds that can add characteristic nuttiness and sweet caramel flavors to the wine but also, with long age, distinctive spices such as cinnomon, cloves, saffron and curry.  While no Madeira is ever truly dry – even those with a ‘dry’ indication have at least 20 grams of residual sugar – the characteristic high acidity balances the sweetness so that it is never overt.  

Basic Madeiras are usually the younger Madeiras, typically made with the red Tinta Negra Mole and sold simply as Madeira with a sweetness indication of dry, medium dry, medium rich and rich (sweetest).  Tinta Negra represents 80-85% of Madeira production and is typically heated in an accelerated fashion by estufagem, heating the wine in stainless steel or concrete vats with a coil that raises the average temperature to 45-50 degrees celsius (up to 122 F)  for a minimum of 90 days.  These wines are not released until October 31 of the 2nd year after harvest. 

Fine Madeira is made from one of four white varieties of at least 85% content and labelled as such (with increasing sweetness):  Sercial, Verdelho, Boal (Bual) and Malvasia (Malmsey).  Sercial must be “dry”, Verdelho must be “medium dry”, Boal must be “medium rich” and Malvasia must be “rich” or sweet with minimum of 96 grams/liter residual sugar.  These wines can be made via estufagem or by canteiro, but the finest wines are aged according to the latter.  Canteiro refers to ageing in wood casks in naturally heated lofts for a minimum of two years and released no less that three years after the January 1st after harvest.  Ageing under canteiro results in gentler evolution and greater concentration of the wine.    

Madeira is a steeply rising volcanic island of 283 square miles about 600 miles from the coast of Portugal.  There are over 900 acres of quality vineyards that range widely in microclimates based on coastal location, elevations that can rise above 3,000 feet and slopes of typically 15-20 degrees.  The annual rainfall ranges from 20″ in the south coast to well over 100″ at elevation. It is hot and humid during the summers so mildew resistant grapes such as Sercial, Verdelho and Tinta Negra are grown and vines are typically trellised on pergolas to promote aeration and lift grapes away from the humid ground.  Modern espallier-trellised vines are grown on the lower, flatter vineyards.  The soils are predominantly volcanic which Ricardo Freitas of Vinho Barbeito says contributes to the characteristic acidity of the grapes. 

A quality Madeira is a wine with seamless balance of sweetness, acidity and alcohol, where none of the components dominate.  Madeira should, however, be served about 55-60 degrees F as warmer temperatures raise the sensation of alcohol.  Due to the grapes and production process, Madeira exhibits characteristic high acidity and flavors of dried fruits, caramel, nuts and spices.  Madeira is not just an aperitif or dessert wine, but also suitable with savory foods and even cocktails

The IVBAM is the official regulatory body of Madeira.  To learn more about Madeira, visit their website.