Madeira is world famous for its amber nectar of fortified wines. It’s also a semi-tropical paradise of diverse vegetation. Its warm climate and position as an island in the Atlantic (it’s four hours flying time from London) have allowed diverse varietals of grapes to grow at far lower altitudes than would normally allow them to flourish; it’s also protected them from disease. Thus has the wine industry in Madeira been able to grow.
For Madeira is a tropical El Dorado of vegetation. Beautiful plants grow as weeds on the side of road owing to very fertile volcanic soil. Mountains tower over lush valleys with a labyrinth of tunnels to get from one side of the island to the other. The south and east of the island face the European coastline and enjoy a softer, milder climate. The landscape is sculpted by terraces from the coast to virtually the towering peaks of the mountains with all available space given to agriculture from banana groves to vineyards. The west coast faces out to the Atlantic and is wind swept, wild and very mountainous, with a cooler and mistier climate.. In the past 25 years, Madeira has transformed into a prosperous island with mass tourism, far from the impoverished place that I remember from my first visit over 40 years ago. Hoards of cruise ships arrive on a daily basis. Yet apart from the celebrated Madeira wine, the island’s other most famous export is the footballer, Christiano Ronaldo.
The secrets to this mysterious wine
Over the centuries Madeira became a stop off point between Europe, the Americas and the rest of the world. Wine would be supplied to ships, but journeys were long and excessive heat would spoil the wine. By adding a touch of grape spirit, it was found that the wines could better endure these treacherous journeys. Indeed, it was found that the heating and cooling of the wines during the journey, together with their constant movement, actually improved them. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Madeira was as popular as Claret/Bordeaux wines – they could travel much better.
The main grape varieties are: Boal (Bual), Sercial, Verdelho, Malvasia (Malmsey), Terrantez and Tinta Negra. Tinta Negra accounts for 90% of production and grows mostly on the south and east side of the Island down to the coast. All the other varietals are grown on the upper, cooler slopes. The best and most prized vineyards are in the centre of the island in surrounding a village called Rosario. The island has an astonishing number of tiny terraces of vineyards, perched high up in the mountains.
Harvesting usually starts mid August to October. The grapes are then graded in accordance to the style of wine required and, once pressed, the must (grape juice) is fermented partially or totally, with the process then stopped by the addition of grape spirit, which is the fortification part. This process is carried out in accordance to the style that is required: dry, medium dry, medium sweet and sweet. The wines are then divided into two according to quality: Estufagem and Canteiro. The wines placed in Estufagem are heated and left for 90 days and then bottled and released two years afterwards. With the Canteiro technique, wines selected for ageing are placed in oak casks for a minimum of two years, high up in the cellars to evolve. After a further three years of bottling the wines are released.
The style of sweetness depends on when the fermentation was stopped but also the type of grape variety. Boal (Bual) – medium sweet, Sercial – dry, Verdelho – Medium dry, Malvasia (Malmsey) – sweet, Terrantez – Medium dry and medium sweet. Tinta Negra varies in style, depending on how it is made. The styles of Madeira are very complex and varied. However, aged Madeiras mainly from Tinta Negra grapes start from 3, 5,10, 20 and 30 years old, which refers to the average age of grapes that are included in the blend. 40 and 50 year old Madeiras are very rare. By contrast, Colheita is made from the single varietal grapes. They have a minimum of 5 years in the same oak cask producing young and fresh young vintage wines. Finally, true Vintage Madeira (Frasqueira/Garrafeira) is made from a single varietal of the grapes noted above. They have a minimum of 20 years in the same oak cask and are aged in bottle over a number of years depending on the vintage grape variety and style.
Both Port and Madeira are fortified but the experience could not be more different. Madeira’s characteristics reveal themselves in a more gentle way compared to Port, we find. And of course, Port does not so much have the different styles in terms of sweetness/dryness or grape varieties (being largely touriga nacional). Madeira tends to be fresher and fruitier; dry or sweet with notes of sweet spices, chocolate, caramel, and coffee; herbaceous, tropical fruits from Angelica to apricots, sweet apple and quince. A veritable treat in a glass!
With new technology, the tenacity of the Islanders and changing tastes, Madeira is having a revival alongside other fortified wines such as Sherry. The varietals are very rare and are only found in small quantities elsewhere such as Crimea, Australia and Constantia in South Africa. We think it is one of the wonders of the wine world. As a wine, it is superbly versatile. Served chilled, once opened, it can literally last for months, as the way that it is made makes it virtually indestructible.. Almost uniquely, 150 year old Madeira wine is still very drinkable. It’s quite usual to find 100 year old bottles being served at still extraordinary reasonable prices.
The main Madeira producers are:
Henriques & Henriques
J. Faria & Filhos
Madeira Wine Company (Blandy’s)
CAF – Cooperativa Agricolado do Funchal
The producer that we would recommend with the most interesting and accessible selection and range of vintage wines is : Pereira d’Oliveira and to view our range with tasting notes :Madeira wine selection
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