The Basics of Madeira Wine
The legendary wine called Madeira comes from the island of the same name, which sits in the Atlantic Ocean, nearer to Africa than Europe. Madeira is a subtropical island whose precarious hillside vineyards rise straight up from the ocean. The island is a province of Portugal, but the British have always run its wine trade. Historically, Madeira could even be considered something of an American wine, for this is the wine that American colonists drank.
Madeira can lay claim to being the world’s longest-lived wine. A 1799 Vintage Madeira is still available and, stored correctly, can still be perfectly fine. Only Hungary’s Tokaji Azsu can rival Vintage Madeira in longevity, and that’s true only of Tokaji Azsu’s rarest examples, such as its Essencia.
Although Madeira’s fortified wines were quite the rage 240 years ago, the island’s vineyards were devastated at the end of the 19th century, first by mildew and then by the phylloxera louse. Most vineyards were replanted with lesser grapes. Madeira has spent a long time recovering from these setbacks.
In the 19th century, more than 70 companies were shipping Madeira all over the world; now, only four companies of any size exist: Barbeito, H. M Borges, the Madeira Wine Company (the largest by far, a consolidation of four old companies — Blandy’s, Cossart Gordon, Leacock’s, and Miles — and only the Blandy family is still involved), and Pereira d’Oliveira.
The very best Madeira wines are still those from the old days, vintage-dated wines from 1920 back to 1795. Surprisingly, you can still find a few Madeiras from the 19th century. The prices aren’t outrageous, either ($300 to $400 a bottle), considering what other wines that old, such as Bordeaux, cost.
Timeless, indestructible, tasty, and baked
The best Madeira comes in four styles, two fairly dry and two sweet. The sweeter Madeiras generally have their fermentation halted somewhat early by the addition of alcohol. Drier Madeiras have alcohol added after fermentation.
A curiosity of Madeira production is a baking process called the estufagem (es-too-fah-jem), which follows fermentation. The fact that Madeira improves with heat was discovered back in the 17th century. When trading ships crossed the equator with casks of Madeira as ballast in their holds, the wine actually improved! Today’s practice of baking the wine at home on the island is a bit more practical than sending it around the world in a slow boat.
In the estufagem process, Madeira spends a minimum of three months, often longer, in heated tanks, in estufas (heating rooms). Any sugars in the wine become caramelized, and the wine becomes thoroughly maderized (oxidized through heating) without developing any unpleasant aroma or taste.
A more laborious and considerably more expensive way of heating Madeira is the canteiro method, in which barrels are left in warm lofts or exposed to the sun (the weather in Madeira stays warm year-round) for as long as three years. The same magical metamorphosis takes place in the wines. The canteiro method is best for Madeira because the wines retain their high acidity, color, and extract much better in the slow, natural three-year process; the finer Madeiras use this method of aging.
Technically, almost all the best Madeira starts as white wine, but the heating process and years of maturation give it an amber color. It has a tangy aroma and flavor that’s unique and as long a finish on the palate as you’ll find on the planet. When Madeira is made from any of the island’s five noble grapes, the grape name indicates the style. When Madeira doesn’t carry a grape name — and most younger Madeiras don’t — the words dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet, and sweet indicate the style.
Vintage Madeira must spend at least 20 years in a cask, but in the old days, the aging was even longer. Their aroma alone is divine, and you continue tasting the wine long after you’ve swallowed it. (Spitting is out of the question.) Words truly are inadequate to describe this wine.
If you can afford to buy an old bottle of vintage-dated Madeira (the producer’s name is relatively unimportant), you’ll understand the enthusiasm. And maybe some day when Madeira production gets back on its feet, every wine lover will be able to experience Vintage Madeira. In the meantime, for a less expensive Madeira experience, look for wines labeled 15 years old, 10 years old, or 5 years old. Don’t bother with any other type, because it will be unremarkable.