What is Madeira Wine?

What is Madeira Wine?

Madeira wine isn’t something that we really hear too much about nowadays, and when it is mentioned, we think that it sounds rather quaint; we can almost imagine a scene straight out of Edgar Allan Poe. While Madeira wine may not be on everyone’s Top Ten Wines list, it is a wine that has been around for centuries and is definitely worth trying. Here’s a look at another one of Portugal’s fine alcoholic beverages.

Madeira is produced on the Portuguese islands of Madeira, which are located about 400 km north of the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa. Madeira wine is a classic fortified wine, meaning that it has a distilled spirit added to it to boost its alcohol content. Madeira can range from dry wine taken as an aperitif to sweet wine that works well as a digestif to be taken along with a dessert. Cooking versions of the wine are very inexpensive and can be flavored with salt and pepper.

A little bit of history

The islands of Madeira have a long wine-making history; the islands were used as a port of call from the late 1400s, and in order for the wine produced in the area to survive long trips at sea, grape spirit was added to act as a kind of preserving agent. During the voyage at sea, the wine with the added spirit would be subject to violent movement and to extremes of temperature; the winemakers of Madeira learned that this changed the flavor and characteristics of the wine. They found that unsold stores of their wines which had gone around the world actually tasted better after exposure to heat and oxidization. Therefore, present-day Madeira, in order to get the optimum flavor and characteristics, is heated to 600 C (1400 F) for a prolonged period of time and exposed to oxidization. Because of this, Madeira wine is very robust and will remain good to drink even if it has been opened for a long while.

Most Madeira or Madère wines, in accordance with EU regulations, are only made in the Madeira Islands. However, some small producers in the United States and Crimea produce fortified wines that they label as Madeira or Madera.

The golden age of Madeira wine was the 18th century, and the largest consumer of the wine was the United States. Madeira wine was used to toast the country’s Declaration of Independence, and was said to be a favorite of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

Due to plant diseases in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Madeira production slowed almost to a halt and the only Madeira wines being produced were those of poor quality and were used more for cooking than for drinking. However, in the past 50 years, the noble grape varieties Sercial, Verdelho and Bual and Malvasia were replanted and good Madeira wines are again being produced. Benelux countries are the main consumers now, but markets for Japan and the U.S. are becoming stronger.

The process

Grape growing on the islands is a costly endeavor; it is labor intensive due to steep slopes and the need to keep the vines elevated to prevent different types of plant diseases. Picking cannot be mechanized due to the extensive terracing that is needed to grow wine grapes; everything needs to be done by hand.

Malvasia and Bual grapes make the sweetest wines, with Verdelho and Sercial grapes making the driest. Other varieties used are the robust Tinta Negra Mole and Complexa. The grapes are then picked, crushed, pressed, and finally fermented in stainless steel vats or casks made of oak. Bual and Malvasia grapes are almost always fermented with their skins in order to balance out the sweetness of the wine. The grapes used for dry wines have their skins removed before fermentation. According to the amount of sweetness desired, neutral grape distilled spirit will be added to halt the fermentation process; the earlier the spirit goes in, the sweeter the wine will be. Producers of cheap Madeira destined to be sold as cooking wine will let the wine ferment until it is totally dry and will only add spirit later to prevent alcohol loss due to evaporation.

The aging process: Estufagem

The aging process which is totally unique in the winemaking world is called estufagem, and it entails heating the wine up to 1400 F. There are three different methods; cuba de calor or heated tanks in which the wine is held for 90 days for the cheapest Madeira wine; armazem de calor which is like a heated room in which the tanks are held for six months up to a year, and the most expensive of the Madeira wines are heated and aged in a canteiro, or rooms where casks are left to age in rooms warmed by the sun with no artificial source of heat. The aging in a canteiro can last between 20 to 100 years.

But what do Madeira wines taste like?

All Madeira wines are characterized by a very mellow flavor, and have the same color as a tawny port. The four major styles or types of Madeira are named after the grape variety used.

Malvasia is the sweetest of the Madeira wines. Also known as Malmsey, fermentation is stopped early in the process and the wine is dark, rich in texture with a taste similar to coffee and caramel. Malvasia has high acidity levels, so while the wine is sweet, it is not cloyingly so. It is usually taken as a dessert wine.

Bual is not quite as sweet as Malvasia, but it is also dark in color, has a medium rich texture, and presents raisin flavors.

Verdelho is less sweet and is drier than Bual, has high acidity, and has smoky notes that connoisseurs enjoy.

Sercial is fermented until it is nearly dry, and is the driest of the Madeira wines. High-toned colors are combined with almond flavors and high acidity. Sercial is usually taken as an aperitif as it is very dry.

Reserve Madeira wines have been aged for five years, Special Reserve ten years, Extra Reserve 15 years, Colheita or Harvest are wines from a single vintage but aged for less time than a true Vintage, and Vintage or Frasqueira wines have been aged for at least twenty years.

There are other specialist types of Madeira wines available on the market, but for now, any one of the varieties we have described above will be an absolute delight to try.

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