Romantics call it the "Island of Eternal Spring" or the Pearl of the Atlantic:
Madeira is a Portuguese volcanic island measuring only 796 square kilometers and located about 950 kilometers southwest of the mother country - and less romantically, its name can be derived from the Portuguese word for "wood." The capital of the island is Funchal. The autonomous region includes the small island of Porto Santo as well as the uninhabited islets of Ilhas Selvagens and Ilhas Deserta.
The archipelago was discovered in 1419 by Tristão Vaz Teixeira, Bartolomeu Perestrelo and João Gonçalves Zarco, who subsequently became the first three governors of the Portuguese king D. João I.. The island has always been famous for its mild climate, lush vegetation, artful embroidery - and for its wines. The aromatic Madeira wines enjoy a worldwide reputation. The liqueur wine owes its extraordinary taste and special aroma variety to an ancient tradition: seafaring.
Madeira - a wine legend
The island has about 400 hectares of vineyards, most of which are located in the southern region of Cãmara de Lobos (about 200 hectares) and near São Vincente (about 140 hectares). Overall, the island is mountainous with a highest point about 1800 meters above sea level. The wine-growing area is divided into smaller plots on terraces, some with sometimes adventurous-looking steep slopes that lead far down to the immediate vicinity of the sea. Not least for this reason, the winegrowers use small stone walls for fortification. Visitors to the island are struck by the idyllic location of the small wine villages.
The soil is of volcanic origin, in the quite fertile earth are predominantly basalt and clay. The special microclimate is also decisive: in the very warm summers the vines thrive splendidly, and in the mild winters there is no frost damage. Rain falls mainly at higher altitudes. The rainwater is collected by the winegrowers and is then piped to the terraces via a very old canal system that is over 2,000 kilometers long. Although the irrigation system has been known on the island since the beginning of colonization, Madeira was not initially known for Fortified Wines. Rather, the beginning of the development was made by the cultivation of sugar cane, but viticulture was soon added. Historical records of the navigator Luís de Cadamosto from the middle of the year 1450, for example, report that Malvasia Candida was cultivated on the volcanic island - an old grape variety that was probably introduced with colonization.
Old myths, albeit somewhat strange ones, also date back to that time and have grown up around Madeira: for example, George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, who was convicted of high treason in England in 1478, is said to have been drowned in a large barrel of Madeira at his own request - a punishment that is said to have pleased the lover of the fortified wine.
Regardless of these legends, Portugal today has a total of 40 quality wine regions, among which Madeira Liqueur Wine has achieved particular fame. Not least because of the steep slopes of the wine regions, the grape harvest is done by hand at the end of August until the month of September.
Madeira, rich in aromas and varieties
It is considered the most fruity and overall aromatic fortified wine, although the sweetest and darkest-brown Madeira is also joined by several dry levels, which are basic types named after the various grape varieties, all of which are white:
- Sercial, made from the Riesling grape, is the driest, with an elegant, racy appearance and a piquant bouquet. However, they should be aged for more than two decades, otherwise they are almost undrinkable.
- Guoveio and Verdelho from the grape varieties of the same name make for semi-dry and distinctly spicy wines. Incidentally, the now quite rare Rainwater is blended from the Sercial and Verdelho varieties. The grape varieties are comparatively light and spoil Madeira lovers with aromas of chocolate and coffee as well as honey and dried fruit.
- Boal or Bual from the grape variety of the same name is well balanced and rather sweet on the one hand, but heavy, fruity and fiery on the other. Beautiful aromas of caramel, coffee and citrus provide special taste experiences - which is also why this Madeira goes with cheese like no other.
- Almost considered a legend, Malvasia, also composed from grapes of the same name, is so particularly seductive, deliciously sweet and full-bodied, almost viscous yet with a pretentious hint of fine acidity in its smoky caramel flavor. There is also a hint of delightful spiciness and chocolate aromas. Thus, Malvasia wine is considered a classic dessert wine.
There is also a blend specifically for the U.S. market called Southside. This is because a good Madeira is particularly popular in North America, and the U.S. has always been considered a good consumer. The first U.S. president, George Washington, toasted the great celebration of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, with a small glass of fine Madeira. The United States is also considered the cradle of cocktail culture, and Madeira appears from time to time in the most aged cocktail recipes.
A Terrandez also became legendary because the grape variety of the same name was almost wiped out by a phylloxera plague. Tastings from ancient bottles of a Barbeito Madeira Terrantez that had been bottled in 1795 prove that the wines from it are of incomparable finesse, lively elegance and durability.
Finally, the red grape Tinta Negra Mole must be mentioned. It is considered somewhat less elegant in direct comparison to the aforementioned grape varieties, and thus it is not directly assigned to any Madeira style. Wines from this grape variety meet simpler requirements, in the past they were considered primarily as cooking wines. In the meantime, high-quality wines are also produced from it, especially since the robust variety proves to be particularly versatile. Tinta Negra Mole grapes make up a high percentage of the grape production and are blended with various other varieties.
The secret of production
The entire production process is meticulously controlled by the "Instituto Do Vinho Da Madeira" (IVM) - not least to ensure the legal production regulations as well as the unrestricted authenticity of the wine. After all, from time to time counterfeits appear on the wine market. Last but not least, the Institute also determines which of the grape varieties are to be classified as noble.
The special secret of all Madeira wines is their production from mash sometimes still stamped with the feet or also produced by comparatively primitive endless presses. Then follows the fermentation and clarification process. The usual topping with a brandy made from cane sugar, which has been used since 1753, is said to go back to the old storm-tested sailors, as is the case with many things in history. On their voyages through tropical seas, their wine thus achieved greater complexity.
There is also a legend of a captain who was supposed to bring wine to Macao, but simply could not deliver his cargo at its destination. It is believed that the person who ordered the goods ultimately lacked the money to pay for it. Consequently, the wine remained on board. However, because the cargo hold had to be kept free for the transport of precious woods, silk, tea and spices, the wine casks were lashed to the deck. There, they had been strongly heated by the burning sun of the tropics and violently shaken by the intense swell. The captain wanted to throw the wine overboard, which had supposedly spoiled in the meantime. However, during a tasting, a sailor noticed an immensely improved taste of the wine, which had fermented in the meantime. Subsequently, the Madeira winegrowers had their wines shipped back and forth across the equator as deck cargo - and always with the same good result. Enthusiasm for this method soon waned, however: Because this method of optimizing wine was as time-consuming as it was expensive, various other unsuccessful attempts were now launched to artificially refine Madeira. Only later, however, were they all replaced by more economical local heat treatments.
The must of the wine contains about 9 to 12.5 percent alcohol. The addition of brandies results in an alcohol content of 17.5 to 22 percent. Fermentation is thus interrupted, and two different methods are used, maceration and alcoholic fermentation. While alcoholic fermentation is mainly used to produce semi-dry and dry wines, maceration is used to produce sweet wines. In this process, must and skins are fermented together.
Estufagem or Canteiro are the names of the heat treatment methods:
In the Estufagem process, the wine is first placed in stainless steel tanks, which are heated through a system of pipes by means of hot water for at least 12 weeks at temperatures between 45 °C and 75 °C. In the more traditional canteiro way, wines age in oak barrels for periods of at least three years on the upper floors of wine cellars - often directly under tin roofs, where temperatures are usually elevated. There are also special warming houses called estufas. However, traditional methods are becoming increasingly rare for economic reasons.
Madeira lovers are still firm believers in heat treatment, which provides the wonderful taste, unique color play and harmonious aromas. As a result, the wine matures more quickly and the sugar components caramelize to some extent, which is not the case with port wine, for example.
The Solera System
Madeira, like Marsala or Sherry, is also sold as a vintage blend. In this case, the solera system is used - subsequently, the Madeira wine has a particularly good shelf life due to its alcohol content, which is now between 18 and 20% by volume. Apart from the aforementioned historic bottle from 1795, it may well be traded at an age of 5, 10, 15, 20 or even 50 to 100 years.
The solera process is considered a traditional system by means of a group of wine barrels, each with a different age. They are, for example, the basis of sherry production, in Spain also of brandy production, and precisely also of the production of high quality Madeira wines. According to the process (from the Spanish solera = base), the wines are not blended at the end, but permanently. The prerequisite for the continuous blending of Madeira is therefore the literal stacking of the barrels in three or sometimes more layers at the cellar masters. They fill wine from the youngest, highest-lying barrels into increasingly older barrels below, and then always bottle only from the very lowest barrels. The oldest Madeira wine, depending on the solera location, thus always has a lasting effect on the character of the wine that follows.
The established companies maintain several, often also very old and perfected Solera systems side by side, in order to produce by the gentle blending a comparatively rarely freely sold typical and quite dry house Madeira. This Madeira wine is then blended in special bottling plants to produce other sweetness or color. That process then lies separately before the bottling and corking of the respective Madeira Wine.
In a vintage blend or solero, the tiny portion of each oldest barrel defines the listed vintage. This special interpretation of the vintage allows age statements on the labels that lead to century bottles and special rarities, although real century Madeiras have become quite rare when buying Madeira Wine.
The production of Madeira Wine is predominantly in the hands of traditional and family-run businesses. The Madeira producers bring their offers to buy Madeira Wine in the Madeira Wine Shop, their stocks come from large wine warehouses with considerable Madeira Wine stocks. Leading and one of the oldest Madeira producers is Justino`s Madeira Wines S.A., which are represented with quality offers in the Madeira Wine Shop.
Madeira - the older, the better
While it is generally said that everything that lasts becomes good in the end, in the case of Madeira it should be said that "what lasts even longer becomes better". This is because not only the grape varieties used, but also the length of the aging process is crucial.
Long storage times do not necessarily lead to top wines, but the tendency is clear. Because younger Madeira wines are increasingly rarely made using the traditional Canteira method for the reasons mentioned above, the outspoken Madeira lover should focus on products with high age ratings. This is because the aromas are all the more pronounced as the age rating increases. Particularly exquisite offerings include wines with the Single Cask, Colheita or Harvest designation. Absolute top Madeiras are vintages with the designation Solera or Frasqueira. These wines consist of one hundred percent of only one quality grape variety and are characterized by a rather long aging period. They have a very special, unexpected complexity.
What the labels show
Not everyone who wants to buy good Madeira Wine in the Madeira Shop is immediately familiar with the designations on the labels of the good drops. The following information should therefore provide some support when buying Madeira Wine in the Madeira Wine Shop. Thus, the geographical origin is designated by the following seals:
- DOP Madeirense or Madeira (Denominação de Origem Protegida) are quality wines with strict regulations regarding their grape variety, origin and production.
- IGP Terras Madeirense (Indicação Geográfica Protegida) designates a local wine with detailed guidelines on the grape variety and the production process. Overall, there are extended freedoms under this designation compared to DOP wines.
In addition, various age specifications are common:
Frasquiera/Vintage denotes at least 20 years of aging, Extra Reserve, on the other hand, at least 15 years, and Special Reserve at least 10 years of aging. Madeira wines with the age indication Reserve stored at least 5 years and with the indication Fine Rich or Finest at least 3 years.
Residual sugar or the residual sugar are designated with extra seco for extra dry (up to 49 g/l), with seco for dry (up to 65 g/l) and meio seco stands for the sweetness level semi-dry (up to 80 g/l). Madeira wines with the residual sugar indication meio dolce are sweet (up to 96 g/l) and dolce / rich (over 96 g/l) stands for the particularly sweet wines.
The fortified wine is a kitchen favorite
A good Madeira is a delight as a solo or dessert wine, a delightful aperitif when chilled, and becomes a generous hostess gesture with dessert or cheese.
But it is also considered the noblest cooking wine and the best refiner of jellies in general - connoisseurs mention here especially an old Verdelho. This is helped by the fact that bottles that have been opened and, for some incomprehensible reason, not completely drunk, have an extremely long shelf life thanks to the high alcohol content.
Depending on the grape variety and the degree of sweetness, Madeira wine goes well with a wide variety of dishes: While a sweet Malvasia goes well with fruits and stronger cheeses such as Stilton and Roquefort, and a semi-sweet Boal harmonizes with pralines, petit fours and soft cheeses, the aforementioned Verdelho is the best choice for spicy, cold appetizers such as pâtés or ham. A light, dry sercial is the best choice with fish - and of course it tastes great in long drinks.
Madeira wine plays a major role as an ingredient in delicious sauce compositions, especially since eggs, cream and wine replaced the age-old binders and roux in the repertoire of chefs, and the quality of the sauces is considered crucial to the complete food creation. Consequently, top international chefs refer to the saucier as the concert master, whose instruments include spices, herbs and, indeed, a good wine. According to the French master chef Auguste Escoffier (1846 to 1935): What doesn't go into a sauce doesn't come out in the end ("Le Guide Culinaire - Aide-mémoire de cuisine pratique").
So Madeira wine has long been one of the flavor-giving ingredients - and in the great French cuisine, the sauce madère was created, which leads to a great taste experience with poultry and meat with relatively little effort: Depending on the recipe chosen, the base is on the one hand golden brown roasted onions as well as various herbs such as thyme, parsley, bay leaf, rosemary and a little wine, or on the other hand a gravy deglazed with a veal stock, which is passed through a kitchen sieve before Madeira is added as the crowning touch.
Viva la vida! Toast with Madeira wines
In earlier times, dessert wines were particularly sweet wines; now the corresponding official designation is for sugar-sweet fortified wines. Because sugar can curb the appetite, dessert wines are usually served at the end of a good meal or with coffee afterwards. In the meantime, the noble Madeira wines occupy a top position on the popularity scale. More and more Madeira lovers are therefore cheerfully saying "Cheers and Saúde"!