Fortified Wine: Madeira

Madeira is another of the fortified wines. But it is the way that it is produced that is quite unique.

Madeira first became popular in the mid-seventeenth century when the Madeira Islands, part of Portugal, were heavily used as key supply stations for ships heading to the New World or India.  To preserve the wine, additional alcohol (typically Brandy) was added to keep it from spoiling on the long ocean voyages. But these long voyages, in the subtropical heat, and via a rocking ship caused the wines to be kept quite warm, and often get exposed to air.

It was only after these wines reached their destinations that their unique flavors were 'discovered' and became appreciated.  The heating and oxidation causes the natural sugars in Madeira wines to caramelize, resulting in flavors that included burnt sugar and hazelnut, along with fruit flavors of peach and orange peal.

Today, Madeira wines continue to be produced by deliberately heating the wine. The most basic Madeira wines are heated in large tanks to 120-140 degree F for at least 3 months. Other production techniques involve storing the wine in large wooden casks in heated rooms for 6 months to a year, or just storing the casks in a warm sun-lite room for 20 years or more.

There are many styles of Madeira wine. The most commonly available Madeira is typically used in cooking, but there are many others that are meant to be enjoyed as an aperitif or dessert wine:

  • Fine - The lowest quality. Made from the Tinta Negra grape. Aged for 3 years. Used for cooking.
  • Rainwater - A fruity blend from the Tinta Negra grape. Aged at least 3 years. Used for cooking or mixing in cocktails.
  • Reserve - Also made from the Tinta Negra grape, but aged 5 years.
  • Special Reserve - Typically made from one of the 'Noble' grapes (see below) and aged 10 years.
  • Extra Reserve - Also made from one of the "Noble' grapes and aged 15 years (quite rare).
  • Colheita or Harvest – A single vintage wine, but aged for a shorter period than a true Vintage Madeira.
  • Vintage or Frasqueira – A single vintage but aged at least 20 years.

While the majority of Madeira wines are produced from the Tinta Negra grape, the most authentic Madeira is made from the following "Noble' grape varietals:

  • Sercial (Ser-seal) - Nearly dry (very little residual sugar), high acidity (bright and crisp), with flavors of toasted almonds
  • Verdelho - Fermentation is halted earlier than Sercial, resulting in higher residual sugar, with smoky and rich flavors
  • Bual - Just a bit more residual sugar, dark in color, with flavors of caramel, cacao, dates and raisins
  • Malmsey - Having the highest residual sugar, its sweetness comes along with fruity flavors, roasted nuts and chocolate

So, if you are really interested in enjoying a glass of Madeira wine, skip the grocery store cooking variety and seek out a nicer bottle. You will certainly enjoy!  Cheers!