Madeira Wine: A Drink To Independence

Date November 8, 2008

Learn About Madeira Wine

Benjamin Franklin once said, “If your head is wax, don’t walk in the sun.” He was probably drinking his favorite wine, Madeira, when he said it. And then he got all of his friends to drink Madeira to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence. That was a good trick.

Madeira wine is another fortified wine that comes from a little island southwest of Portugal called, well, Madeira. The ilha da madeira or island of the woods is closer to the Moroccan coast than it is to Portugal but is property of Portugal nonetheless.

Like Port wine, Madeira is blended with Brandy to fortify it and got its tradition much the same way as Port. But add the fact that as the Madeira cooked in the heat of the equator on its voyages to Africa, India and South America it took on a deliciously baked toffee-caramel flavor, which made it an instant success and remains the main characteristic of Madeira today, some four hundred years later.

When Phylloxera (a grapevine-root eating pest that looks like a giant aphid) killed off most of the “noble” grapevines in the 19th century, Tinta Negra Mole, a versatile red grape variety was used for nearly all Madeira production. But over time the “noble” grapes were brought back into production by standards laid out by the European Union and today Tinta Negra Mole accounts for only the basic Madeira made and are labeled “dry”, “medium dry”, “medium sweet”, “rich” or “sweet”. The “noble” grapes are saved for making the very best Madeira.

Clear Brandy is added to Madeira to fortify it before it finishes fermenting. The yeasts are neutralized and fermentation is eventually stopped depending on what style of Madeira is being made, which also determines the level of sweetness. On its initial success the Madeira was stored in the pipes of a ship’s ballasts and kept there for its journey to whatever destination through the equator. But it made even bigger strides on round trip voyages. This slow-cooked method imparted its burnt caramel quality and eventually Madeira became known as the vinhos da roda or wine of the round-trip voyage.

Madeira is still baked today in a process called estufagem where the Madeira is placed in casks, large vats or cement tanks called estufas and “cooked” for three to six months depending on the style of Madeira being made. Still other producers store their Madeira casks in armazens de calor or “hot rooms” that are heated with steam-filled pipes. But the finest of Madeiras go through estufagem naturally in casks placed in the attics of its producers for around twenty years.

Estufagem along with natural oxidation, two factors that would destroy your typical wine, are unique to Madeira and impart colors ranging from pale blonde to deep tawny depending on the length of time spent aging. The aging process will last a remarkable 3 months to 20 years before it is fortified and bottled and its possible to find a Madeira more than forty years old.

Traditionally, Madeira comes in four distinct styles, each one made from one of four “noble” white grapes. The styles are named after the type of grape used and is subsequently marked on each bottle of Madeira. These grapes and styles are:

  • Sercial: a very dry Madeira; makes tangy, supple wine with an almond edge
  • Verdelho: is medium-dry with more body than Sercial; has a smoky flavor
  • Baul: has a natural sweetness and a raisin-like, medium richness; lighter than Malmsey
  • Malvasia: the sweetest Madeira, also called Malmsey; has a nutty grapiness

Apart from styles, Madeira is broken down to classification levels. The levels are Granel or bulk Madeira, Finest (three-year old, rainwater), Reserve(five-year old), Special Reserve (ten-year old), Extra Reserve (fifteen-year old), and Vintage Madeira.

  • Granel: basic bulk wines produced from the tinta negra mole grape. Aged for 18 months in tank estufas and achieve its color through coloring agents
  • Finest: sometimes called “Choice”. Also made from the tinta negra mole grape. Aged three years in tank estufas. “Rainwater” is a special type of Choice Madeira originally named for rainwater seeping into barrels and watering down the Madeira
  • Reserve: another tinta negra mole variety aged five years in tank estufas. If made with a “noble” variety the Madeira must contain at least 85% of the grape
  • Special Reserve: first of the “noble” white grape blends. Aged ten years in cask estufas
  • Extra Reserve: made from blended “noble” white grapes. Aged 15 years in casks
  • Vintage: made from a single vintage of “noble” white grape. Aged at least 20 years in casks after estufagem then two additional years in bottle

If you decide to embark on a Madeira journey, you may need to decant the Madeira before drinking. Make sure to use a wine glass big enough to be able to swirl the Madeira. A white wine glass is fine for this. Serve sercial and verdelho chilled and the sweeter bual and malmsey at room temperature. All Madeira has a bite of acidity regardless of style but the dryer Madeiras are best with light fare. The sweeter Madeiras do wonders for chocolate and creamy desserts. The best part of Madeira is once opened it will last forever.

Yet another long ass post on my part, my apologies. I should probably break these up into sub-series, but I just like to get it over with. I will continue on fortified wines with Sherry in the next post. If you missed the earlier post on Port you can find it here:

Port Wine

Find info on fortified wines here:
Fortified Wines

They are both lengthy but then you can’t write a short post on these subjects. That would defeat the whole point of this blog, which is to help you learn about wine, of course.

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4 Responses to “Madeira Wine: A Drink To Independence”

  1. carel said:

    Great Info…Thanks! I have more of a clue about and more interest in buying some. But are there brand names to look for?

  2. Phil said:

    Glad you enjoyed the post.

    Sandeman makes a yummy Rainwater Madeira that runs about $15- $18. Blandy’s has a 5yr old Malmsey for $20 and I think I’ve seen Blandy’s Sercial running around $23.

  3. Corrine said:

    I have a bottle of Blandy’s 10 year old Malmsey Madeira Wince bottled in 1985. My parents had it stored unopened and upright in their bar. Is it still good?

  4. Phil said:

    Hi Corrine. Thanks for your question. As long as the Madeira was stored properly, it should be fine. It has enough spirits with a high enough alcohol content to keep it preserved for a very long time.

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