Madeira is an archipelago owned by the Portuguese, 450 miles or 725km, due west of the African north coast and 650 miles or 970km southwest of Lisbon.
It’s the namesake of one of the world’s well-known fortified wines. Fortified wine means the winemakers add brandy to the wine, making the alcohol content stronger with richer flavors.
Besides the island holding a rich history, the wines of Madeira Portugal have unique places in history as well. All fortified wine is under the Madeira DOC, and the unfortified wines are under the Vinho Regional (VR) Terra Madeirenses.
History of Madeira
Portuguese mariners discovered Madeira in 1419 while exploring the African west coast. They encountered a dense forest named Ilha da Madeira — “the island of wood.” However, settlers cleared much of the forest for sugar plantations and vineyards. Today, the remaining forest is part of the World Heritage protection and preservation.
For nearly two centuries, the wines made in this area remain relatively obscure with hardly an economic consequence.
In the mid-17th century, the economic climate of the wine changed as the island became a supply chain for sailing ships on the journey to India and the Portuguese colonies in Brazil. At this time, Madeira’s wine became well known, and the area boomed.
The early wines of Madeira lacked the composition and durability needed to sustain long sea voyages. These wines would pitch and roll in the subtropical heat, called “vinho do roda” — the wine of the round trip.
Eventually, the winemakers formulated an additional ingredient — a high-proof spirit. The fortification solved this dilemma, and in the mid-18th century fortifying the wine became the standard.
The new addition created a complex and desirable flavor for long and hot voyages, with the high acidity adding to its charm in tropical climates.
These days, winemakers use a more efficient and less costly method called estufagem, particularly for large productions. Estu can mean “hothouse,” ‘kiln,” or “incubator,” yet the common aspect is easy to understand, deliberate heat.
Here is the stainless-steel tank embedded with heated pipes. The wine heats to 120° Fahrenheit or 50° Celsius for about three months, accelerating what happened to the Madeira barrels during their long tropical voyages in the olden days.
In the past, the wine aged to the point that required five years or more, using a more traditional method called canteiro. Such a method places more value on the wine because the estufagem process reduces production costs dramatically and makes the Madeira more available at affordable prices.
However, the downside is that intensive heating causes an amount of the sugar to caramelize, producing a slightly burnt-sugar flavor and bitter flavor in the wine.
Yet, winemakers still make high-quality Madeira by aging it in large barrels positioned on canteiros (Portuguese for trestles). Here they remain for 20 to 100 years with the rooms heated by the sun only. Some wineries have installed large windows, letting the sunshine in as much as possible.
Consequently, there is a compromise between these two methods, which is to age the barrels for six to 12 months in an artificially heated warehouse called armazem de calor in Portuguese.
Another winemaking method associated with the production of Madeira wine is deliberate oxidation, which is pivotal to many wine styles worldwide. It has a strong connection with Madeira called “maderization”. Yet, when applied to lower-quality wines, it has a negative connotation.
Terroir and Climate
Madeira seems like an unlikely home for historically famous wine, thanks to the less than 35 miles or 55km across the broadest point. Plus, the island is highly humid, mountainous, and remote.
The Mediterranean/subtropical climate presents viticultural difficulties, like fungal diseases that thrive in the tropical heat and heavy rainfall.
But Madeira’s success as a wine region does not lie in its terroir. It lies in the naval history pages.
The grapevines used to make the famous Madeira have transformed over the years, most markedly after the damage brought to the vineyards from the Americas, Phylloxera and powdery mildew.
Phylloxera is a sap-sucking insect that destroys the roots of the vines. On the other hand, the famous and remote location has made the reason vine diseases and pests turn up so quickly from the colonies.
Nowadays, Tinta Negra Mole is the dominant grape used in Madeira wine production. The name means “black soft” and comes from the idea that the variety is a hybrid of “black” Grenache and “soft” Pinot Noir.
The initial and preferred varieties were Sercial, Verdelho, Terrantez (now called Folgasao), Malvasia and Bual. These winemakers produced them as varietals and labeled the bottles with the name of the corresponding grape variety. The word “Malvasia” changed in English, becoming “Malmsey,” a coined word for Madeira wines.
Interestingly, Terrantez was almost extinct on the island, although it made a comeback with other more prestigious grapes.
The blending with Tinta Negra Mole and various hybrids created the remedy for the infestation of Phylloxera. In contrast, single-variety wines attract the most interest and higher prices.
Wines of Madeira
The island wines come in different sweetness levels, starting with seco, a dry wine, and meio seco, a medium-dry wine, to meio doce, a medium sweet wine, and doce, a sweet wine.
The labels on these wines are contradictory, with the “finest” for the shortest time (three years minimum) of fermentation — those who buy the finest wine use it for cooking. “Reserve,” “Special Reserve,” and “Extra Reserve” mean five, 10 and 15 years of aging correspondingly.
The Tawny Port called Colheita represents the most expensive Madeira wine that comes from a single vintage, aged over 20 years before its release.
Rainwater Madeira is a lighter, trendy wine style in the U.S. and made from Tinta Negra Mole.
Making Madeira wine is costly because of the island’s remoteness and rugged terrain, along with the small production that requires an extended aging process.
With that, the producers of Madeira are at a disadvantage based on the world’s progressively competitive wine markets. Add changes in wine styles and consumer bias, unfortunately, have led to a notable decline in the popularity of wine over the last century.
Fortified wines are not as trendy as they once were. Though Sherry and Port have received support from their distributors and government, Madeira no longer gets the attention it has enjoyed in the past.
Hopefully, the classic and historical wine will prevail with a new generation of enthusiastic and skilled winemakers, working to increase efficiency and quality while maintaining the island’s long-standing winemaking traditions.
The Top Wines of Madeira
- Blandy’s Vintage Bual
- D’Oliveiras Bual Vintage Madeira
- Barbeito Malvasia
- D’Oliveiras Verdelho Vintage Madeira
- D’Oliveiras Malvasia Reserva Vintage Madeira
- Barbeito Boal
1. Blandy’s Vintage Bual
From the Madeira Wine Company, the wine has aged 100 years in American oak casks and glass demi-johns, with only 1,199 numbered bottles released.
This wine has a clear, bright, and dark mahogany color with a gold nuance and reflections of green. The nose is complex and characteristic of a pleasing, intense aroma, revealing a dry fruit bouquet, vanilla, exotic spices and smoked notes with balsams and cedar oil.
The flavor is strong and concentrated on the palate, yet medium sweet, balanced and soft, leaving a long aftertaste with notes of tobacco, cedar oil, exotic wood, and wax. Some say it’s a pure finish that’s lovely and long.
Many consider Blandy’s Vintage Baul the region’s top wine with many awards, such as International Wine & Spirit Competition awarded the 1957 Gold Outstanding, and the Decanter World Wine Awards honored the 2003 vintage with the Gold.
2. D’Oliveiras Bual Vintage Madeira
A dessert wine that is balanced and lush, pairing well with cream and cakes. It holds the top ten positions for its many regional awards.
Such awards include the International Wine & Spirit Competition honored with the 1992 Gold, the Berlin Wine Trophy awarded 1993 vintage the Grand Gold, and International Wine Challenge awarded 2011 Gold for its 1978 vintage.
D’Oliveiras bottles the wine by order from the caskets. According to the International Wine Challenge, this Bual vintage on the palate offers spices, walnuts, chilies, caramel, baked almonds, and coffee. The finish is deep and long, marked with reoccurring spices.
3. Barbeito Malvasia
Family-owned Vinho Barbeito Madeira house brings you the Barbeito Malvasia rated as one of the top five wines of the region. It comes with a high price of $969.00 as a dessert wine with sticky and caramelized flavors, pairing nicely with fruit desserts or hard cheese.
Most Barbeito Malvasia bottles have sold out, depending on the fermentation years and particular lots. The winery recommends decanting and being ready to drink but can last and maintain its viable condition for several months.
You’ll see a dark amber color, with an antic wood and subtle, fresh bouquet nose, hinting of cinnamon, white pepper, clove, nuts, butterscotch, and prunes. The palate is complex, with a lifted citric acid. The end lingers with fresh mint.
4. D’Oliveiras Verdelho Vintage Madeira
One of the top-rated wines of the Verdelho wines, D’Oliveiras produces another highly awarded vintage, starting with a Trophy, Gold, and Silver from the International Wine & Spirit Competition for 2010, 2018, and 2019 to Gold and Commended from International Wine Challenge for 2011 and 2017.
According to the International Wine Challenge, the wine is personable and polished with outrageous depths of flavor. Hits of cigar smoke, Simnel cake, zingy freshness, and dates — Glorious.
Before bottling, the wine benefited from a long aging process in old oak barrels. Thus, it developed the traditional Madeira characteristic that wine lovers have always loved, a quality structure, and full-bodied taste.
5. D’Oliveiras Malvasia Reserva Vintage Madeira
Another award winner from D’Oliveiras is the Malvasia Reserva Vintage Madeira, a dessert wine. It has received honors from International Wine & Spirit Competition to Concours Mondial de Bruxelles and Berlin Wine Trophy.
It’s one of the most sought-after wines from this island. It’s a very rare and old Madeira wine made from the Malvasia grape variety from a harvest that had produced high-quality grapes.
D’Oliveiras ferments the wine in old oak barrels before bottling. It’s a sweet wine that pairs well with fruit desserts thanks to its caramelized and sticky structure.
6. Barbeito Boal
Vinhos Barbeito produced this highly rated Bual wine, receiving many awards from International Wine Challenge, International Wine & Spirit Competition, and Citadelles du Vin. You’ll savory the lush and balance of this dessert wine, paired with cream and cakes.
The International Wine Challenge says the Boal is a complex, rich wine with aromas of demerara sugar, toffee, citrus zest, spice coffee, and caramel varnish. It holds the sugar well with clean, fresh acidity.
It’s aged in casks and bottled with the purest intention. After opening, the wine keeps for several months.
The color is bright amber with fresh aromas of caramel balsamic, polished wood, iodine, and prunes. The multilayer flavors remain perfectly balanced with excellent depth and spiced acidity. It finishes with a familiar dryness that lingers.