As we swoon over the famous and bold cabernets of Napa and the legendary pinots of Burgundy (rightfully so), we can sometimes overlook the other treasures the world of wine has to offer us. I have the pleasure of introducing to you Madeira. Madeira is place, and it is also a type of wine. This place and this wine are worth learning about and swooning over as well.
What is Madeira wine?
Madeira wine is a fortified wine. What is fortified wine? It is simply wine with spirits added to it during the fermentation process in order to give it a higher alcohol content and longer ageability, like sherry or port. The most common spirits used are a neutral distilled grape spirit or a clear brandy. Often times, fortified wine is associated with syrupy, overly sweet dessert wine. Although there are sweet styles of Madeira that are actually very complex and interesting, there are also dry styles that will shock your nose and give you that “wow” moment on your palate.
Madeira is created with one or more of these grapes, ranging from dry to sweet:
- Sercial : Scents of smoky peach, walnuts and citrus will fill your nose and satisfy your palate when you take a sip. This varietal is dry with a contradictory sweet nutty scent. Sercial is often served chilled.
- Verdelho : This is a medium-dry varietal that has notes of smoky caramel and spice. Verdelho’s intense flavors and dry body make it a very flexible pairing with foods.
- Boal : This a sweet Madeira with a very aromatic scent. It boasts notes of freshly roasted coffee, sweet dates, and melted caramel. Fun fact: Boal has such an incredible scent that women used to perfume themselves with it back in the day.
- Malmsy : This is the sweetest and richest style of Madeira. It is very nutty and rich with scents of melted chocolate and roasted chestnuts.
The highest quality Madeira’s are single-varietals, however, more affordable and common Madeira’s are a blend of these grapes.
How did Madeira wine come to be?
Long ago, Madeira wine was originally a light, acidic wine made on the secluded island of Madeira in-between the coasts of Africa and Portugal. Eventually, it was shipped from the island to various New World countries. In order to get to these places, the ships (and therefore the wine) travelled through blazing tropical climates for long periods of time. Under the heat of the sun, this wine would accidently bake and caramelize, giving it rich notes of burnt marshmallow, roasted chestnut and baked vanilla bean. The extreme hot and cold temperatures and the rocking of the boat also played a part in the transformation of this wine. When the ships arrived at their destinations, the wine was no longer a light acidic liquid but a complex, unique nectar.
It was admired so much that orders were given to place freshly made Madeira wine in the holds of ships and send them on around-the-world voyages. If a fully baked Madeira wine came back to the island with the ‘Sydney’ stamped on it, it gave an idea as to how long it was on the road for and therefore how long it had aged. Once back on the island, the wine was taken off the ships, bottled and sold locally. The longer it aged, the more charismatic, captivating and flavorful the wine became.
How is Madeira wine made today?
Although we’d like to think that these wines still take trips around the world in ships as part of its’ creation process, more practical and effective methods have been adopted that imitate this rather romantic history.
What needs to be determined first is when the wine will be fortified. This means deciding when to add the neutral, high-alcoholic spirit to the base wine. If it’s added during the fermentation process, it kills the yeast, therefore keeping the residual sugar alive. If it’s added after the fermentation process, it boosts alcohol levels and produces a drier style of wine.
After the fortification process, the heating process takes place. The purpose of this step is to imitate how the ships heated and baked the wine years ago. There are two options:
- Estufagem: An estufa is a stainless steel vast that warms large amounts of wine by circulating warm water through coils inside the tank for up to 3 months. This caramelizes and matures the wine.
- Canteiro: This method is reserved for the top shelf wines. They are aged in a cask for at least two years up in the winemaker’s attic - imagine a large window or sunroof pouring sunlight into this space. The exposure to the natural light and warmth allows for a very delicate maturation process.
Once bottled, the label will typically indicate how long it was aged – 5, 10 even 20 years. Once bottled, this wine will age even longer – decades and maybe even centuries. Madeira, with its’ rich history and even richer flavors, is a wine worth swooning over.
Expert tip: If you have never tried Madeira before, I recommend trying a dry, sercial style first. The rich, sweet scent followed by the dry, nutty taste is swoon-worthy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah Thompson is a story-teller, a Michelin star seeker and a city-dweller thriving in San Francisco and beyond. Born and raised in the Bay Area, she ventured to San Luis Obispo to study hospitality and event management at Cal Poly. After college she returned to San Francisco to contribute to the real world, seek out some Michelin stars, and discover what fuels her soul.
Over time, she found herself skimming through wine blogs in her free time, buying wine books to read at home and teaching herself how to blind taste. The artistry, the history and the story-telling that wine provides the world is what fuels her soul, so much so that she studied for and received her Introductory Sommelier Certification with the Court of Master Sommeliers in March of 2017.
By day she’s a Digital Project Manager at Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants mastering digital content, website creation and strong brand presences. By night she’s a GSM drinker and writes about food, booze (particularly wine), and travelling on her blog, Where We Wandered. Wander and wine with her @wherewewandered.