What is MADEIRA?

Did you know that Madeira was poured during Thomas Jefferson's toast at the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, or that it was savored at the inauguration of George Washington shortly thereafter? At one time, Madeira was so ubiquitous that it perfumed ladies’ handkerchieves; was given to military personnel for service of their country; and was frequently recommended for sick and overworked people – nicknamed the “milk of the old.” 

What is Madeira Wine?
Madeira is a fortified wine available in a range of dry to sweet styles. It gets its name from the island of Madeira, a small, beautiful rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Madeira’s unique taste comes from repeatedly heating the wine. The heating creates a wine with fascinating flavors of roasted nuts, stewed fruit, caramel, and toffee.

The Taste of Madeira: There are several tastes profiles but most will have flavors of Caramel, Walnut Oil, Peach, Hazelnut, Orange Peel, and Burnt Sugar.

When to Drink Madeira: Dry styles of Madeira (such as Sercial and Verdelho) are served chilled with starter courses and sweeter styles are served as after-dinner-sippers like a fine Cognac.

Styles of Madeira Wine
The four major styles of Madeira [Sercial meaning dry, Verdelho meaning medium dry, Bual meaning medium sweet and Malmsey meaning sweet] are synonymous with the names of the four best known white grapes which produce Madeiras according to those same levels of sweetness. Ranging from the driest style to the sweetest style, the Madeira types are:

  • Sercial is nearly fermented completely dry, with very little residual sugar (0.5 to 1.5° on the Baumé scale, or 9-27 g/l). This style of wine is characterised with high-toned colours, almond flavours, and high acidity.
  • Verdelho has its fermentation halted a little earlier than Sercial, when its sugars are between 1.5 and 2.5° Baumé (27-45 g/l). This style of wine is characterized by smokey notes and high acidity.
  • Bual (also called Boal) has its fermentation halted when its sugars are between 2.5 and 3.5° Baumé (45-63 g/l). This style of wine is characterized by its dark colour, medium-rich texture, and raisin flavours.
  • Malmsey (also known as Malvasia or Malvazia) has its fermentation halted when its sugars are between 3.5 and 6.5° Baumé (63-117 g/l). This style of wine is characterised by its dark colour, rich texture, and coffee-caramel flavours. Like other Madeiras made from the noble grape varieties, the Malvasia grape used in Malmsey production has naturally high levels of acidity in the wine, which balances with the high sugar levels so the wines do not taste cloyingly sweet.

Wines made from at least 85% of the noble varieties of Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey are usually labeled based on the amount of time they were aged:
  • Reserve (five years) – This is the minimum amount of aging a wine labeled with one of the noble varieties is permitted to have.
  • Special Reserve (10 years) – At this point, the wines are often aged naturally without any artificial heat source.
  • Extra Reserve (over 15 years) – This style is rare to produce, with many producers extending the aging to 20 years for a vintage or producing a colheita. It is richer in style than a Special Reserve Madeira.
  • Colheita or Harvest – This style includes wines from a single vintage, but aged for a shorter period than true Vintage Madeira. The wine can be labeled with a vintage date, but includes the word colheita on it. Colheita must be a minimum of five years of age before being bottled and may be bottled any time after that. Effectively, most wineries would drop the word Colheita once bottling a wine at over 19 years of age because it is entitled to be referred to as vintage once it is 20 years of age. At that point, the wine can command a higher price than if it were still to be bottled as Colheita. This differs to Colheita Port which is a minimum of seven years of age before bottling.
  • Vintage or Frasqueira – This style must be aged at least 19 years in cask and one year in bottle, therefore cannot be sold until it is at least 20 years of age. It must be noted that the word vintage does not appear on bottles of vintage Madeira because, in Portugal, the word "Vintage" is a trademark belonging to the Port traders.

And Finally, How is Madeira made?

To make Madeira wine, the pressed juice is fermented then quickly fortified with alcohol from grape origin alcohol. The timing of fortification is relative to the grape. The must from the Malvasia grape is fortified at the beginning of fermentation, while Boal and Verdelho get spiked on the fourth day and Sercial about a month after the fermentation started. The timing allows the resulting wine to be sweet or dry, depending on when the fermentation of the grape’s sugar was stopped, but all the wines will have high alcohol content.

The fortified young wine is then heated in one of two methods: estufagem or canteiro. An estufa is a large container – usually stainless steel – lined with pipes. The pipes circulate hot water around the container until the wine reaches a max of 50 degrees Celsius or 120 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s then kept at this temperature for approximately 3 months before bottling. These wines may never be bottled or sold prior to the 31st October of the second year following the harvesting. As the heating process is rather quick in the estufagem method, the resulting wine tends to show burnt caramel flavors.

In the Canteiro method, young fortified wines are transferred into wooden casks and placed onto a rooftop attic where they’re exposed to the heat of the sun as it beats down on the tile roofs. As the time needed to heat the wine is considerably more lengthy (we’re talking 20 to 100 years of storing!), the end result is less of a caramel profile and more fresh fruit aromas and flavors.

The process of heat, oxygen and time leaves you with a wine that is so beautifully abused that absolutely nothing can destroy it. Think of it as toughening up the wine.
Hopefully, this little bit of info will entice you to explore this oft-maligned wine more thoroughly.