I always encourage wine drinkers to look beyond what they regularly drink and try something different. With such a wide variety of wines available, sticking to a couple of favorite brands or types of wine means you’re depriving yourself the pleasure of discovering and enjoying a whole world of unique and delicious bottles.
This time around, I am featuring a wine that is often overlooked (or is even unknown) to many American wine drinkers. Even if you have heard of it, you may think of it only as a culinary ingredient. That wine is Madeira, a wine that is unlike any other in the world.
You may be surprised to learn that Madeira was a favorite of American colonists. In fact, it was used during Thomas Jefferson’s toast at the signing of the Declaration of Independence and was also served at the inauguration of George Washington.
Madeira is a fortified wine from the Portuguese island of Madeira, in the north Atlantic. It is produced in dry, medium dry, medium sweet and sweet styles, using mainly five different grape varieties. The dry styles can be enjoyed on their own as an aperitif, where the sweet styles are perfect as is or with dessert.
What we know now as Madeira wine came to be due to the primitive shipping conditions of the 17th century. The island of Madeira was a natural stop for ships traveling to India, China and Japan; ships anchored in the harbor of Funchal, the regional capital of Madeira, where they loaded up with wine for the voyage.
On the way, the ships sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, where the wines baked in the hot sun and were damaged by heat and oxygen. The wine traders discovered that by adding alcohol to above 15% protected the wines from micro-organisms like yeast, mold, bacteria and viruses. The wine traders also discovered that this trip below the equator transformed the light and acidic wine into a wine with a smooth texture and a complex range of new flavors. No one knows why this wine, exposed to rocking on rough seas and baked by extreme heat, was not ruined.
With the Marriage of Portuguese Princess Catherine of Bragança to Charles II of England, Madeira was granted exclusive trading rights with the British Colonies.
Madeira is a totally unique wine. The processes for producing it, heat and oxidation, would destroy almost every other type of wine. Madeira is a fresh wine loaded with sweet and complex aromas, with the potential to taste even better after decades of aging.
Types of Madeira
There are two main types of Madeira: blended, which are inexpensive wines of average quality; and Single-Varietal, which are the highest quality Madeira wines produced primarily from four different grape varieties.
Blended Madeira is usually lower in quality and less expensive; and there are some higher-end blended Madeiras that carry a designation of age. Blended styles include the following.
• Finest Madeira is a 3-year-old blended style, made with the Tinta Negra grape.
• Rainwater Madeira is a blend that must be aged for at least three years before it can be released. Good on its own, this inexpensive style also can be used for cooking and for mixing in cocktails. Tinta Negra is used in the production of Rainwater.
• Reserve has different meanings for Madeira wines. Reserve wines are 5-to-10 years old, Special Reserve is 10-to-15 years old and Extra Reserve is 15-to-20 years old.
• 20-Year-Old is a blend of multiple vintages using wines from different years. A special panel decides that the wines taste at least 20 years old. Thirty-Year-Old and 40-Year-Old Madeira follow this same procedure.
• Single-Varietal Madeira is the highest quality Madeira and is made as both non-vintage blends and as a single vintage wine. These wines are very age-worthy and capable of aging for decades.
Single-Varietal styles include the following.
• Sercial (Dry) is a fresh and crisp style of Madeira. Mainly served as an aperitif, it also pairs well with light fish and vegetable dishes. It displays lemony citrus notes with hints of spice and herbs, and a stony minerality on the finish. The slight sweetness is balanced by the bright acidity.
• Verdelho (Medium Dry) is a richer, more concentrated wine than the Sercial. Verdelho is one of the most flexible Madeira styles for pairing with foods of varying richness. It has notes of spice, smoke and caramel.
• Bual (Medium Sweet) is incredibly aromatic and complex. It is great with any dessert made with nuts, dried or stewed fruit, chocolate or caramel. Bual is loaded with aromas and flavors of roasted coffee, salted caramel, dark chocolate, dates and raisins.
• Malmsey (Sweet) is the richest and sweetest style of Madeira. It pairs will with rich desserts, like cake and ice cream, and is a dessert by itself. It is complex and loaded with aromas and flavors of cooked fruit, roasted nut and chocolate. Malmsey is capable of aging for decades.
During fermentation of the pressed juice, it is fortified with grape spirits. Since the addition of grape spirits stops fermentation, the timing of fortification depends on the variety being produced. The timing dictates whether the wine will be sweet or dry. Malmsey, the sweetest style, is fortified when fermentation begins. Verdelho and Bual are fortified on the fourth day of fermentation. The Sercial gets fortified about 30 days after fermentation began.
Next, the wine is heated using one of two methods — estufagem or canteiro. With the estufagem method, a large, stainless-steel container lined with pipes called an estufa is filled with wine. Hot water is circulated through the pipes, heating the wine to about 120 degrees, ans is kept at this temperature for about three months. This quick method of heating yields wines that display burnt caramel flavors.
With the higher-end canteiro method, the wine is put in wooden casks and stored in an attic, where the wine is heated by the sun beating down on the roof. The casks of wine spend years, sometimes 20 to 100 years, in storage. This slow heating method yields wine with aromas and flavors of fresh fruit.
Some of the aged, single-varietal Madeiras can be pricey. If you are trying Madeira for the first time, a good place to start might be a single-varietal Reserve; you choose if you want dry or sweet. Just remember that even the dry Sercial Madeira has a touch of sweetness. Blandy’s and Broadbent are two producers that you might find easily. Expect to pay in the mid-$20s for the reserve.
Madeira is very food-friendly and, with the different types, you can pair one with each course of an entire meal. Cheers.
Sam Audia is a former advertising and marketing professional with more than 20 years of experience in the wine and spirits industry. He is a wine specialist at Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits, in Annapolis, holds a Certification Diploma from the Sommelier Society of America, and Intermediate and Advanced Certificates from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.