Madeiras is one of the few wines to have changed little since it first became popular over two hundred years ago. This complex family of fortified wines hails from the tiny island of Madeira, Portugal, and is known for its notes of burnt caramel and nuttiness. Born at sea, Madeiras are a rich and exotic wine worthy to be explored. Here’s what you need to know to set sails on your own Madeiras adventure.
What is Madeira Wine?
A versatile fortified wine ranging from dry to sweet. Lower quality Madeiras are usually used for cooking while higher quality or vintage wines are enjoyed as an aperitif or for sipping with deserts.
Madeiras drinkers will enjoy notes of caramel, burnt sugar, walnut, peach, orange peel, and hazelnut.
Madeira wine ranges 18-20 percent alcohol by volume (ABV).
The History of Madeira Wine
Madeira wine was born on the little island of Madeira, a member of a small archipelago clustered 400 miles off the coast of Morocco. The ancients knew this little archipelago as the Enchanted Isles, particularly Madeira. The beautiful island is lush with vegetation thanks to generous rainfall and a semi-tropical climate. Which begs the question: how on earth did this unlikely place become one of the most esteemed and sought after producers of fine and vintage wines?
It was basically by accident. An accident born at sea.
The Portuguese settled the isles in 1419. Initially, the sandy soil of Porto Santo held much greater potential for sweet wines than the lushness of nearby Madeira. But the opening of the New World brought unprecedented traffic to the long neglected isle of Madeira. The larger island became a popular port-of-call for ships heading to the New World. Before embarking, sailors stocked their larders with the island’s wines. If not enjoyed immediately, though, the young and unripe wines of Madeira spoiled at sea. Accordingly, wine stocked aboard ships was fortified with sugar spirits, thus bolstering the alcohol content and increasing longevity. Unlike traditional wines, sailors were delighted to find that fortified Madeiras actually got better with the long, balmy journey to and from the tropical waters of the New World. By accident, the world had discovered the perfect recipe for creating an enchantingly complex wine.
Born at sea, Madeiras were christened Vinho da Roda, or, wines that made the round trip.
Madeira wines saw their golden age in the 18th century. Their popularity spread from the American colonies and Brazil to Northern Africa, Great Britain, and Russia. The American colonies had an outstanding taste for Madeira wines, consuming up to 95 percent of the island’s exports each year.
The end of an era
With months long voyages from Europe to distant lands a thing of the past, the traditional process of aging Madeira wine is long extinct. Instead, the long hot sea voyages are replicated by warming the fortified wine to a toasty 120 degrees F (45 C) for at least three months. Finer Madeiras are aged longer at lower temperatures. The final product is imbued with the caramely tang characteristic of all Madeiras.
Today, most exported Madeiras are blended wines. Finer Madeiras are finished by barrel aging alone, sometimes aging for a century or more before bottling. Many commercial Colheita Madeiras are the product of a single year and barrel aged five years.
A workhorse and the “noble grapes”
The Tinta Negra variety of grape accounts for roughly 90 percent of all grapes grown on Madeira. Today, most Madeira wines are labeled according to age (3,5, 10, and 15 years) and style (dry, medium, and rich, among others). If it is not labeled as being made with traditional grape variety (the “noble grapes”) it is to be understood they are of the Tinta Negra variety. Madeiras created with traditional grape varieties are labeled as such. And of course, they’re more expensive.