The volcanic island of Madeira is located in the Atlantic some 400 miles off the coast of Morocco and has been part of Portugal since 1420. Renowned as a tourist destination, Madeira has found even greater fame as a producer of a unique style of wine - also known as Madeira.
The island is 35 miles long from west to east and 14 miles wide at its widest point. The centre of the island is dominated by a long mountain ridge that reaches over 6,000 ft at its highest point. From this central spine the rugged terrain tumbles down to the sea, often ending with dramatic cliffs falling into the Atlantic. The central region is generally inaccessible and most of the centres of population are on the coasts and in the valleys leading to the sea. With such difficult geography finding suitable sites for vineyards is difficult and the majority of the island’s vineyards are on terraced steps cut into the hillsides. Difficult and labour intensive both to work and maintain.
Madeira’s location meant that it was an important stopping off point for early explorers and later on settlements in both the Americas and the East Indies meant increased traffic with the port of Funchal, on the southern coast, becoming a major victualling place for ships heading both east and west.
The early wines of Madeira were never of great quality being rather harsh and acidic but heavy barrels full of wine made good ballast for sailing ships. It became the habit to add a bucket or two of brandy to fortify the wine for its long journey and to load a few barrels into the ships holds to take out to the distant colonies. These long sea voyages were to be the secret of Madeira’s success. One crossing of the equator by sea would ruin most ordinary wine but it was found to mellow Madeira wonderfully and a double equator crossing made for an even better result. The gentle warming and rocking of the wine as it was carried halfway across the globe transformed the hard and austere tasting wine into a lovely, gentle elixir. In the early days the wines arriving at their destination were often bottled and labelled with the name of the ship that had made the voyage.
Today this process is reproduced without the wine having to leave the island. The wine is stored in heated warehouses known as estufagems were it is gently heated to about 45¡C for at least 3 months and then allowed to cool. This gives the distinctive “cooked” flavour of Madeira.
An alternative, and arguably better, process is the canteiro method usually reserved for the finest wines. Here, rather than heating the wine artificially, it is allowed to age in rooms heated only by the warmth of the sun. This slow and gentle ageing can in some cases take years and decades before the wine is considered ready for bottling.
Madeira ranges from very dry, aperitif, to rich, sweet, dessert styles. The simplest wines tend to be labelled as per their style eg “Special Dry”, “Medium Rich” etc and these are generally made from a single, “workhorse” grape variety, the Tinta Negra Mole. The finest wines on the other hand are named after the grape variety from which they are made usually with an indication of age (10 years, 15 years etc) and occasionally by their vintage date. There are 4 “noble” grape varieties used in Madeira; Sercial produces the driest Madeira and is grown on the island’s highest vineyard sites. The Verdelho grape gives softer, slightly richer styles with fresh, balancing acidity. Bual is light and sweeter with a hint of smoky flavour that balances the sweetness. Finally there is the most famous of them all, the Malmsey or Malvasia that produces dark brown wines with a wonderful honeyed fragrance and a sweet and rounded flavour.
Whatever the occasion, whatever the dish, there is a Madeira to match.