Its name means wood, but not because of barriques. While the rest of the world is careful to store their wines somewhere cool, they deliberately heat their aging wine. Despite the long history and fame of their wines, the grapes grown on this Portuguese island are rarely found elsewhere. They are practically indestructible: they are Madeira.
They were, once, the most popular wines in America, owing – at first at least – to British restrictions on trade in the colonies. In 1665 Parliament decided that European wines could only come to the colonies via British ports or British ships; Madeira, made on the island of the same name (a Portuguese possession), and located 400 miles west of Morocco in the North Atlantic, was the sole exception – it was just too convenient a stop for ships engaged in the trade of slaves and other goods across the Atlantic.
And this shipping helped give the wine its signature style. Fortifying the wine with a neutral spirit raised the alcoholic content and acted as a preservative so the wine wouldn’t go bad during the journey. But the trip itself heated the wine as it sat in the hull during the passage through the Tropics and gave the wine an unusual, oxidized character. The techniques have changed, but the style remains classic.
Wine-tasting parties may seem like a modern invention, but they actually date to the Madeira days, and were common practice in the 19th century. Traditionally, the host served six to eight wines representing several styles and vintages, accompanied by biscuits, nuts, and olives.
The island of Madeira was hit hard by oidium and phylloxera in the second half of the 1800s, and the wines dwindled in popularity – many today think Madeira is only suitable for cooking. In fact, one of its great virtues is that, being accustomed to heat, its flavor doesn’t change during cooking; the alcohol cooks off, but the rich, nutty character of the wine remains. Political changes in Portugal gave new life to the island, which now rely on their wines, tourism, and bananas as mainstays for their economy (Bananas and winegrapes are unlikely bedfellows, but the high elevations of the island’s volcanic hills create an environment cool enough for good winegrowing).
Most quality Madeira is made from four grapes, each making wines of a different weight and sweetness. From driest to sweetest, they are: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey. A lot of lesser Madeira is made from Tinta Negro Mole; these wine rarely have the aging ability of the other four. Today’s Madeira makes don’t rely on the vagaries of shipping to heat and oxidize their wines; instead they age the wines in lodges called “estufa,” with, in most cases, the wine heated by steam-filled pipes running through the room. For some of the best wines, producers place the wine in 600 liter casks and store them in estufa heated by the sun. The wines are fortified at varying degrees of sweetness.
Sercial is the driest and lightest; the grape itself is known as Esgana Cão (“dog strangler”) in mainland Portugal because of its aggressive acidity. Once fortified and aged, it typically shows notes of almond, citrus, and spice. Verdelho is generally a touch fuller and sweeter, with a hint of smoke on the nose; it retains a clean acidic crispness on the finish.
With Bual, sweetness begins to move into the dessert wine level. The smokiness remains, but raisiny fruits are also more prominent. Malmsey Madeira, is rich and sweet, and resembles tawny Port in many ways, showing lots of caramel, nut, and coffee aromas.
All four styles age extremely well; some Madeiras can be enjoyed over more than a century of aging. In fact, vintage Madeira, by law, is aged for 22 years – 20 in cask, two in bottle – before it can even be sold. This power and indestructibility makes it a great wine for sipping at home. If you want to only have one glass each day – maybe as a dessert wine after dinner, for example – there’s no danger of opening a bottle of Madeira and slowly drinking it over the course of a few weeks. Like Port or Champagne, not all Madeiras are vintage wines; others are blends of several years, defined by the minimum age of the blending components:
Finest: 3 years (mostly Tinta Negro Mole, and best used only for cooking)
Reserve: 5 years (the youngest age with which one of the four varietals above can be stated on the label)
Special Reserve: 10 years (reliably good quality)
Extra Reserve: 15 years (rare, but rich and complex)
Serve Sercial and Verdelho slightly chilled, and Bual and Malmsey at room temperature. As suggested by the old parties, Madeira goes very well with nuts and olives; the drier styles go very well with bisques and similarly rich soups. Crème brulee or dark chocolate make great foils for Bual and Malmsey, though the latter especially can be a dessert in and of itself.
My father often shows his age by quoting a line from an old Flanders and Swann song with a sinister “Have some Madeira, m’dear…;” in the context of the song, it has a lecherous intent, but good Madeira’s not a wine to be refused.