Madeira Wine: Port’s Lesser-Known Wine Cousin

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Last updated on June 4, 2024 | Est. Reading Time: 7 minutes

Port Wine may hold the title as Portugal’s most renowned export, yet its lesser-known relative, Madeira wine, harbours its own rich tapestry of history and unique production methods.

If you’re visiting Madeira, be sure to at least try a glass and take a tour of a vineyard. There are several on GetYourGuide.com.

Made on the Portuguese island of Madeira, situated off the coast of Africa, Madeira is a fortified wine celebrated for its remarkable longevity and quality. Interestingly, the inception of Madeira wine, as legend has it, was completely accidental.

madeira and port bottles
Madeira and Port bottles side-by-side – © Portugalist

The Accidental Discovery of Madeira Wine

In 1640, John, Duke of Bragança, ascended to the Portuguese throne and ordered that ships en route to Brazil stop at Madeira to transport wine to his colonies.

The journey to discovering Madeira wine began with the addition of a small amount of distilled cane sugar alcohol to the wine. This process was initially intended to preserve the wine, ensuring its stability and longevity during long sea voyages.The wine, stored in the ships’ holds, was inadvertently subjected to extreme conditions, including significant heat and constant movement, during these voyages.

madeira hills
Vineyards in Madeira – © Portugalist

It was a happy accident when a consignment of this wine, having made the round trip without being unloaded, returned to Madeira. Upon its return, wine producers discovered that the wine, altered by its journey, was actually preferred by consumers for its enhanced maturity and flavor, in addition to its increased longevity.

Innovating Madeira Wine Production

In the 18th century, winemakers began to innovate ways to mimic the accidental discovery of Madeira wine’s unique aging process. Initially, they utilised the sun’s warmth to heat the wine barrels, a method now known as the Canteiro process.

This technique is still employed today, where, following fortification with 96% grape spirit, the wines are stored in casks ranging from 300 to 650 litres within lodges. Here, temperatures can soar above 30°C, with humidity levels reaching up to 90%. During this ageing phase, approximately 4 to 5% of the volume is lost due to evaporation.

As winemaking techniques advanced, special “ovens” or estufas were introduced to more precisely control the heating of the wine barrels. This estufa method has seen refinements over the years, with wines now being stored in mainly stainless steel containers.

These containers are wrapped in “jackets” filled with hot water to consistently maintain the wine at a controlled temperature of 45°C to 50°C for three months. Modern estufas have significantly increased in capacity, ranging from 20,000 to 100,000 liters. Following the heating phase, wines are allowed to cool gradually.

Post the application of either the canteiro or estufa method, the wines undergo rigorous testing to assess their quality and aging potential. The duration for which a wine is aged is carefully determined, influenced by both its quality and the desired wine style.

Aging takes place in old wooden barrels, culminating in the classification of the wine as either a 3, 5, 10, or 15-year-old Madeira. Only the finest selections are designated as vintage Madeira, requiring a minimum of 20 years of cask ageing to achieve this prestigious status.

This innovative approach to ageing not only preserved the unique characteristics of Madeira wine but also propelled the industry forward, establishing Madeira as a distinguished and sought-after wine.

Madeira wine tasting at Blandy's in Funchal
Madeira wine tasting at Blandy’s in Funchal – © Portugalist

Madeira’s Popularity

Madeira wine, though not as prominent these dats, once enjoyed widespread acclaim, particularly in the early history of the United States of America.

During a period when the thirteen colonies lacked the capability to produce wine-quality grapes, Madeira emerged as a crucial import, capturing the American market’s attention.

A significant episode leading up to the American Revolution involved Madeira in the incident where John Hancock’s sloop, Liberty, was seized by the British on May 9, 1768. This event followed Hancock’s unloading of 25 pipes of Madeira, leading to a heated dispute over import duties and subsequently sparking riots in Boston.

Esteemed figures of American history, including Thomas Jefferson, celebrated Madeira, even using it to toast the Declaration of Independence. Other notable figures such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams also recognised and enjoyed the distinctive qualities of Madeira. Franklin went as far as to mention the wine in his autobiography, and Adams shared with his wife, Abigail, the extensive amounts he consumed during his time as a delegate to the Continental Congress.

Madeira Wine Types

If you’re thinking about buying a bottle of Madeira wine, there are a few common bottle types that you’ll come across.

  • 3, 5, 10, and 15-year-old
    • These wines represent the most commonly available Madeira types, with the label indicating the age of the youngest wine in the blend.
    • Typically produced using the estufa system.
    • Labels specify if made from one of the classic grape varieties (Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, Malmsey). If not specified, the wine is likely made from Tinta Negra and labeled by sweetness level.
  • Single Harvest
    • Introduced by The Madeira Wine Company, “single harvest” refers to wine from a single year that has aged in casks for five to ten years using the Canteiro system.
    • Not classified as “vintage” due to insufficient cask aging time.
  • Colheita
    • Single-vintage wines aged in cask for approximately 12-18 years using the Canteiro system.
    • Bottled as a single vintage, often because further aging is not expected to significantly enhance quality to reach top-quality vintage status.
  • Vintage
    • The highest quality Madeira wines, from a single vintage with a minimum of 20 years’ cask aging, often extending up to 40 years or more, via the Canteiro system.
    • These rare wines exhibit a nutty profile with caramel, toffee, marmalade, and raisin nuances, all balanced by crisp acidity to maintain freshness and prevent cloying, ensuring a refreshing finish.

Typical Grapes Used

The following are the most commonly used grapes when making Madeira wine.

  • Sercial
    • A white grape grown up to 1,000 meters on the north side of Madeira Island.
    • Known as ‘esgana cao’ on the Portuguese mainland, translating to ‘dog strangler’.
    • Difficult ripening process leads to a dry, acidic wine.
    • Fortification and cask aging produce a pale, dry, tangy, and austere wine.
    • Best served cellar cool as an aperitif with olives, smoked salmon, or roasted almonds.
  • Verdelho
    • Predominantly planted on the cooler north side of the island.
    • Yields a medium-dry to medium-sweet wine, sometimes with a slight caramel note.
    • Mellow yet retains acidity.
    • Ideal cellar cool with ham or pâtés.
  • Bual (Boal)
    • Thrives in the warmer south coast, achieving higher sugar levels than sercial and verdelho.
    • Known for its dark, medium-rich flavor profile with notes of raisin and caramel, while maintaining acidity.
    • Best enjoyed at room temperature with hard cheese, dried fruit, cakes, or fruit tart.
  • Malmsey (Malvasia)
    • Cultivated in warmer areas around Camara de Lobos, west of Funchal.
    • Produces a richly sweet wine, balanced by high acidity to prevent a cloying taste.
    • Perfect at room temperature with rich fruit cake, chocolate, or coffee desserts.
  • Tinta Negra
    • The most widely planted red grape on Madeira.
    • Capable of producing decent Madeira wine, though not as long-lasting or stylistically distinct as the first four grapes.
  • Terrantez
    • A scarce white grape, with some re-planting efforts ongoing due to low yields.
    • Mostly found in old vintages or soleras, varying in style from dry to rich.
  • Bastardo
    • A sweet red grape with very limited production nowadays.
    • Present in some exceptional old vintages, may exhibit a hint of bitterness.
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James Cave is the founder of Portugalist and the author of the bestselling book, Moving to Portugal Made Simple. He has visited just about every part of Portugal, including Madeira and all nine islands of the Azores, and lived in several parts of Portugal including Lisbon, the Algarve, and Northern Portugal.

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