The Madeira Wine

Vinhos Madeira

Madeira Wine is the best wine in the world! A few years ago, I never thought to say this sentence. But the coexistence with Mr. João Quintela (“Garrafeira Néctar das Avenidas”) ended up giving in this. And, indeed, I am very grateful to him!

But this entry is not an opinion piece. So, the aim is very briefly so as not to be boring, to say: everything you need to know about “Madeira” Wine!

Madeira Wine is a liqueur and fortified wine (with vinous alcohol) that is produced and bottled on Madeira Island. This island has a subtropical climate and soils of volcanic origin. But there are several terroirs, depending on the location of the vineyards. For example, grapes from vines closer to the sea may give rise to a wine with a saltier and iodine character. Irrespective of the terroir, the acidity is the characteristic feature of these wines, which gives them a great longevity in the bottle.

Being usually a single variety, it is important to know the most frequent and noble grape varieties, and this also has a great influence on the categorization of “Madeira” Wine in:

. Seco
. Meio-seco
. Meio-doce
. Doce

In fact, this relationship between caste and type of wine has essentially to do with three factors: tradition, certain characteristics of the caste, and, essentially, the moment when the fermentation is interrupted.

Here are the most typical grape varieties of Madeira Wine:

. Sercial
. Verdelho
. Terrantez
. Boal
. Malvasia
. Tinta Negra

“Sercial”, probably from the “Bucelas” region, originates the driest, most acidic wines on the island, so it ferments almost to the end and usually requires more stage.

The “Verdelho”, probably brought from the North of the continent, originates semi-dry wines. It is one of the grape varieties with the largest plantation area on the island, especially on the North coast.

“Terrantez” is a caste that was “abandoned” after the plague of phylloxera, because it is very unproductive and very susceptible to rot. Recently it has been re-planted (especially at lower altitudes), as it can produce wines with remarkable characteristics. The wines of “Terrantez” are usually between the half-dry of the “Verdelho” and the half-sweet of the “Boal” (although this always depends on several factors, and therefore, is somewhat variable).

The “Boal” (or “Bual”) is the “Malvasia fina” of the continent. It lies essentially on the south coast of the island, is very productive and matures early. It produces wines with notes of nuts and spices, in half-sweet style.

“Malvasia” is the caste that produces the most sweet “Madeira” wines. It likes sun and heat and not altitude.

“Tinta Negra” is, as the name implies, an ink caste. It is very productive and represents about 80% of all wine produced on the island. It has been (and is) long used to make low-end Madeira wines. But, given its versatility and unique characteristics, high-quality “Tinta Negra” wines are increasingly appearing on the market. Depending on various factors (altitude, region, sun exposure, …, and of course the duration of fermentation), we can have drier or sweeter wines.

But then, how do you make the “Madeira” Wine ??

To begin with, mention that due to the geography and relief of the island, the harvest is very laborious and prolonged, like the grapes to be all harvested by hand.

After the grapes have been brought to the winery, they are selected, and the usual winemaking procedures are started, and the stalks are usually wasted. Then, according to the caste, the desired wine style, and the techniques and secrets of each winemaker, different vinification processes are used. The maceration is usually used in the white grape varieties, while in the “Tinta Negra”, only when it is desired to produce a sweet or half sweet wine. Tanning can be used in “Tinta Negra”, “Boal” and “Malvasia”, but usually not in “Sercial” and “Verdelho” …

During the fermentation, when the desired degree of sweetness is reached, the fortification is carried out, adding vinous alcohol to the must, which has the consequence of stopping the fermentative process. Sweeter wine can be fortified just after 24h; In the same way, a dry wine can ferment for up to 1 week. The final alcoholic strength varies between 17 and 22% vol.

Then, aging is done through 2 alternative processes:

. Estufagem
. Canteiro

The warming of wine (the sole process of “Madeira” wine) during aging, originated at the time of Portuguese discoveries: The ships brought barrels of wine to India, and sometimes returned with some barrel intact, and it was found that the wine was very best. This was attributed to the tropical temperatures to which the ship was subject during the voyage. Subsequently, and since embarking wine was a costly practice, the process of “canteiro” began. Even later, with the increase in demand and the need to supply the markets more quickly, the “estufagem” process arises.

“Estufagem” is a process mainly used for the elaboration of low range wines, usually of grapes of the Tinta Negra caste. Once fortified, the wines are placed in deposits (“greenhouses”), then heated to temperatures reaching 45 degrees Cº for a period of 4 months, after which they are stabilized in wooden vats for 2 years.

All vintage or top-of-the-range Madeira wines are aged by the “canteiro” process, a name that derives from the set of wooden beams that support the kites (usually American oak) where the wine ages for several years. The warehouses have several floors, and upstairs are the younger wines, which will benefit more from the heat, and in the lower the wines older and ready to bottle. The barrels are not 100% full, which allows the wine to be in contact with the air, resulting in a slow and gradual oxidation. Evaporation makes up to 3% less wine volume per year, but it is the oenologist who decides when to transfer the hull to a cooler location in order to control the loss of volume. The beds, traditionally, are in the lower reaches of the island (in “Funchal” p.e.) where the heat is most felt. But not all. For example, in “Barbeito” wines, there is a “canteiro” that was built at a height of 600m … This is because this company prefers cooler temperatures, so that the wines evolve more slowly.

And so the typical bouquet of “Madeira” wines comes: notes of nuts, crystallized fruits, spices, freshness and salinity, and iodized notes. And in the mouth, that living acidity …

It remains to mention the various types of “Madeira” Wine existing:

. Wines without reference to age
. Wines with an indication of age (Blend wines)
. Wines dated: Harvests and Vintages (or “Frasqueiras”)

The first are the current, low-range wines, mostly based on “Tinta Negra”.

Wines with an indication of age are blend wines, such as Tawny Port Wines with an indication of age. They depend on the mastery and secrets of the winemakers, in order to combine several wines, some younger, some older. The indications of age in “Madeira” wines are: 3 years, 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, 30 years, 40 years and also 50 years.

In the wines dated (year of the harvest), there are 2 sub-categories: “Colheitas” and Vintages.

Harvests or Single Harvest or Vintage Baby, are a relatively recent category, having appeared already in the 21st century. They are wines of an exceptional harvest, which age between 5 and 18 years in hull, before being bottled. It is a group of wines more in account than the “frasqueiras”, and in which there are great surprises in terms of value for money.

Vintages or “Frasqueiras” age in hull for a minimum of 20 years. They are the “crême de la crême” of the “Madeira” Wines. Like the initial wine selection, and its periodic analysis over the years, the bottling date is a winemaker’s decision. There is no maximum aging period.

Finally: how to save and how to drink a “Madeira” ???

The Madeira Wines should be kept upright, without exposure to sunlight, and at a cooler temperature than the environment. They are wines that are bottled when they are ready to drink, so they rarely improve over the years.

Older bottles should be decanted, and opened some time before being drunk: they should preferably be allowed to breathe one day for every 10 years in a bottle. Once opened, “Madeira” Wine also has the characteristic of lasting many months with the characteristics more or less unchanged, as long as the bottle is conveniently stored.

Suggested temperatures for wine tasting vary by type: 12 degrees for the dry and medium dry and 16 degrees for the sweet and medium sweet.

And when to drink a Madeira ??? Always !!! … Goes well with everything !!! … As an appetizer (more dry and semi-dry), as a companion to desserts, and even as dinner companions !!! In the latter case, especially the dry and semi-dry. Be it sushi (it’s better a “sercial”), cheese (a “verdelho” for example), salads (a “sercial” maybe), fish or meat (“sercial”, “verdelho” or “terrantez”), fruit (a “boal”), dark chocolate (“malvasia”), sweet egg (“boal” or “malvasia”) …

Finally, to mention the current brands / companies producing Madeira Wine:

. Barbeito
. Blandy’s
. H.M. Borges
. Henriques & Henriques
. D ‘Oliveiras

The first two are perhaps the most reputable brands, and this is reflected in the price of wines. In other brands is perhaps where we find the best relations quality / price.

Do not forget: “Madeira” Wine … Always !!!!

P.F. (NOV 2017)