I fell in love with Madeira over 15 years ago. First the wine, then the island. It began with a bottle of Rainwater Madeira, selected for me by a local wine shop owner. Rainwater is a lighter style of Madeira and he suggested it would be a good wine to introduce me to the flavors of Madeira. He was right. The wine piqued my interest in Madeira and I have enjoyed a bottle now and then ever since.
Same goes for the island of Madeira. We visited Madeira in 2002. Our visit seemed too brief, only 4 days, but provided us with an intriguing introduction to the beautifully rugged island. The volcanic island heads steeply uphill from the ocean. Cities, homes and farms are perched on terraced land. Roads are carved into the rocks with little shoulder and often a precipitous drop to the ocean below. If you have a fear of heights, driving on the island would be challenging.
We visited during the month of August. The temperature was in the mid-70s, with high humidity and constant wind. We did lots of walking, always uphill it seemed, which made the temperature feel even warmer and the humidity higher. I still remember the smell of the damp earth and the ocean, and the feel of the humid wind on my face. I long to return.
My exploration of Madeira wine has been unfocused and intermittent since that original bottle of Rainwater. Mostly limited to an occasional purchase for a special occasion. I have read a bit about how Madeira is made and know that some Madeira wine is sweeter than others. We tasted Madeira when we visited the island, at Blandy’s in Funchal. It was delicious.
We recently had the opportunity to attend a Madeira wine tasting and Master Class sponsored by the Madeira Wine Institute – Madeira Wine Embroidery and Handicraft Institute (IVBAM), the organization that regulates the production of Madeira wine. When I read about the tasting, memories of our trip to Madeira came flooding back. We quickly registered for the tasting.
In addition to a walk around tasting of the Madeiras made by six producers, we attended a Master Class conducted by wine expert and educator Rui Falcão. It was the highlight of the evening. Mr. Falcão explained the challenges of making wine on Madeira island, explained how Madeira is made and how to read a Madeira wine label (so that you know what you are buying!) Then he guided us through a tasting of 5 Madeira wines. It was very educational.
Madeira the Island
The Portuguese island lies 400 miles off the coast of Morocco. The tiny volcanic island is rugged and mountainous. Only a small portion of the land is suitable for growing crops, and then the land must be terraced to do so. The volcanic soil is acidic, a good thing for growing wine grapes according to Mr. Falcão, accentuating the natural acidity of the grapes.
The weather is temperate, pretty close to 70º F summer and winter, but with lots of wind, rain, fog and humidity. With such damp conditions, growing wine grapes is a challenge. Powdery mildew is a problem and producing grapes that are physiologically ripe is practically impossible. Any wine made from underripe grapes will have little flavor, be very acidic and produce very low alcohol.
So, what is a winemaker on the island of Madeira to do? Accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative! Great acidity is the one thing winemakers on Madeira have going for them. Beyond that, in order to produce Madeira, winemakers must do the opposite of what almost every other winemaker in the world does. First they fortify the base wine with grape spirits and then harness the enemies of wine, heat and oxidation, to develop complex flavors.
The techniques of fortification and heat-induced oxidation were discovered accidentally in the early 1400s by Madeira winemakers. The Madeira islands were a stopping point for Portuguese explorers as they sailed to and from the Indies. Winemakers discovered that fortifying their wine helped preserve it for the long voyages. They also noticed that after making the round trip between Maderia and the Indies, rocking in the hull of a sailing ship, the wine often tasted better than it did when it started the voyage.
Over time winemakers began regularly fortifying and aging Madeira with the aid of heat in the wine cellar.
How Madeira Wine is Made
Only about 900 acres are planted to wine grapes on Madeira and an even more surprising fact is that there are 1150 growers on the island. Many have only a few vines, most less than an acre. Even the wineries themselves have very little acreage, one owns 10 acres the other only 4. So the wineries must purchase essentially all of their grapes, mostly from individuals they have been purchasing from for generations. Maintaining tradition is very important on Madeira.
The grapes are sorted, crushed and fermentation begins. Depending upon the style of Madeira being produced (the level of sweetness) fermentation is interrupted or proceeds to dry before being fortified with grape spirits.
Aging is a very important part of the winemaking process and generally takes place in large wooden, though not necessarily oak, barrels of varying sizes. Chestnut and exotic wood from Brazil is also used. Absolutely no new wood, and no barrel toast, is allowed.
One winery purchases new barrels, then “loans” them out to whiskey distilleries in the US. Then, after a number of years the barrels are sent to Madeira where they are used to age Madeira wine. Barrels are used for 100 years or more.
Aging takes place through two methods, one faster than the other.
Canteiro is the more lengthy process whereby aging begins in barrels placed high in the wine cellar where the daily temperature variation is the greatest. After a number of years the barrels are moved to middle levels of the wine cellar with less temperature variation, and finally to the lowest level where temperatures are the most constant. This aging process may last for 5, 10, 20 years or more.
Madeiras aged by this method develop concentrated and complex flavors over the many years they spend in barrel. The wine may not be released until January 1st, three years after harvest. Keep in mind this is a minimum aging time, many spend much more time aging than three years.
Estufagem aging begins in stainless steel tanks containing coils of circulating warm water. The heating coils warm the wine to 122-130º F, where it is held for several months before being moved to barrel to finish aging. This method speeds the warming and aging process and is not used for the highest quality Madeira wines.
Wines made using this aging method may not be released prior to October 31, two years after harvest. This method of aging is used mostly for 3 and 5 year old blended Madeiras.
How to Read a Madeira Wine Label
The wine label on a bottle of Madeira wine will give you all the information you need to tell you what kind of Madeira is in the bottle. Here’s what to look for.
D’Oliveiras Maderia 1912 to 1989 vintages.
All bottled in 2012 or 2013.
The style of Madeira produced is determined by the grape variety. This we were told is “written in stone.” Madeira wine production follows well-established traditions and rules are not often changed. Though, oddly enough on the very day we tasted these Madeira wines (October 10), new Madeira wine regulations came into effect.
Previously four grape varieties had been designated as “noble varieties” and determined the major styles of Madeira wine. Their designation as noble varieties has been eliminated, but the same grape varieties still determine the style of wine. The grape variety will appear on the label and tell you what style of wine the bottle contains.
- Sercial = dry
- Verdelho = medium dry
- Boal (Bual) = medium sweet
- Malvasia (Malmsey) = sweet
With the change in regulations, you may now see the name of a fifth and very important variety on the label, Tinta Negra. The name of the grape means “black ink”, and is a dark-skinned grape that is used to produce a white wine. It comprises the majority of plantings on the island, 82%, and may be made into any style of Madeira wine. So, when you see Tinta Negra on the label, you will need to look for the style as well (dry to sweet), because the grape variety will not help you in determining the style.
Mr. Falcão introduced us to two additional varieties used in the production of Madeira wine: Terrantez and Bastardo. The production from both of these varieties is very low and the wines are not widely distributed. Production of Terrantez on Madeira can be as low as one bunch per vine per year (can you imagine?) and Bastardo is very susceptible to mildew. Both, according to Mr. Falcão, produce stunning wines that generally fall between Verdelho and Boal in terms of sweetness.
Frasqueira — at least 85% of the grapes must be from the same vintage. Aging in barrel is required for a minimum of 20 years before bottling. Barrel aging is often longer.
The bottle will indicate the vintage date as well as the bottling date. These two dates are important, because it will tell you how long the Madeira was aged in the barrel. Additional barrel aging increases the complexity of flavors and aromas and this process essentially stops with bottling.
Blends — will have 3, 5, 10, 15, 20, 30, 40+ years on the label. This is not the age, or even the average age, of the wine in the bottle. Rather, it designates a standardized flavor profile to which the Madeira is blended by the master blender. Prior to release, each wine must be tasted and certified by a tasting panel from the IVBAM.
If the wine does not pass both taste and chemical analysis testing, it may not be bottled. (This tasting and analytical testing is applied to every Madeira wine before it may be bottled.) Becoming a master blender is a lengthy and difficult process requiring great skill.
Colheita — 85% of the grapes must come from a single vintage, but barrel aging is required for a minimum of only 5 years. The word Colheita (Single Harvest) will appear on the bottle along with the vintage date and bottling date.
Colheita Madeira falls between fresqueira, which are the best quality and are the longest-lived Madeiras, and the Blended Madeiras. Colheita Madeira “gives you a glimpse of the vintage,” according to Mr. Falcão, and is less expensive than fresqueira Madeiras.
Speaking of long-lived Madeira wine, Mr. Falcão recounted his recent tasting of a Madeira dating back to 1780. It was magnificent. The oldest Madeira he has tasted is 1718. He asked us did we think it was good, then responded to his own question by saying, “No, it was damn good!”
Only 6 wineries currently produce Madeira for export. One additional winery is moving toward production for export and yet another produces just a small amount of Madeira for local consumption. That’s it, the total production for the entire world is produced by essentially 6 wineries from grapes planted over 900 acres on the island of Madeira. That’s not much total volume.
Some Madeira wineries do produce Madeira for multiple brands or labels, so it may appear by what’s on the shelf in a wine shop that there are more than 6 wineries in total. The current Madeira wineries producing for export are: Blandy’s Madeira Wine Company, Henriques & Henriques, H. M. Borges, Justino’s – Madeira Wines, Pereira D’Oliveira and Vinhos Barbeito.
How to Arrange a Madeira Tasting
By sweetness. Begin with driest wine and end with the sweetest wine. You don’t need to consider whether the wine is a blend or vintage dated. That’s simple enough. Now, on to the Madeira wine tasting.
Broadbent Verdelho 10 Anos — Verdelho on the label tells us this is a medium-dry style of Madeira. 10 Anos tells us it is a blended wine. The color in the glass is light yellow-amber. The aromas and flavors are nutty, think almonds and hazelnuts. The finish is long with just a bit of sweetness, nice acidity and slight bitterness. Pleasing flavors that are not overwhelmingly sweet.
This Maderia is made by Justino’s and blended for the Broadbent label specifically for the US and UK market.
Barbeito Single Harvest 2003 — because there is no grape variety on the label we know this colheita is made from Tinta Negra. The label tell us it is a medium-dry style (as Tinta Negra may be made into a Madeira of any degree of sweetness). The color in the glass is amber. Aromas and flavors are not as nutty but has more vegetal flavors, like green tea, but in a subtle way. The acidity is very evident, almost tongue-tingling. The finish is clean with just a hint of bitterness. Though this wine is sweeter than the prior wine, it does not taste sweeter due to the increased acidity.
Barbeito is known for the marked acidity achieved in their Madeira wines and makes “some of the most extreme wines on Madeira.” according to Mr. Falcão.
H & H Single Harvest Boal 2000 — this colheita is produced in a medium sweet style (we know this from the variety, Boal, on the label). The color is a bit darker amber than the prior two wines. Nutty flavors, with more weight in the mouth and bright acidity. I tasted a bit more sweetness, but the wine still had a clean finish.
Mr. Falcão described aromas and flavors of curry, which are a characteristic of Boal Madieras, but I was unable to detect them.
D’Oliveiras Boal 1983 — this is a fresqueira made in the medium-sweet style (Boal). The color in the glass was the darkest of the group, medium-dark amber. I detected very little aroma, just a bit of iron. Flavors of dried figs and raisins combine with bright acidity and a bit more weight in the mouth. The flavors are very long lasting. Delicious.
This winery, which began production in 1850, has the smallest production on the island.
According to Mr. Falcão. “This winery does not speak by aromas, but by when you drink them. This is like bottled electricity.” So true.
Blandy’s Colheita Malmsey 1996 — we know from the label this is a colheita and is produced in the sweet style (Malmsey or Malvasia). The color is a bit lighter than the previous wine, light-medium amber. Generous aromas of spice, honey and mint are followed by flavors of figs, nuts and iron. Very complex flavors. The wine is perceivably sweet but has great acidity as well for a long, clean finish.
Mr. Falcão told us 1996 was one of the best vintages for colheita, for Malmsey and for Blandy’s as a producer. It certainly was a delicious wine. One you want to just want to continue to sip and savor.
Now what remains to be done is to continue to sample Madeira in order to build my vocabulary of flavors and aromas. I felt very limited in my ability to describe these wines, except in the most superficial way. I know from my experience with other wines, what is required is more tasting.
We have one bottle of Blandy’s Bual 1964 remaining of the two we purchased during our trip to Madeira in 2002. We plan to open it soon and intend to savor the flavors and the memories.
Thanks to the Madeira Wine Institute – Madeira Wine Embroidery and Handicraft Institute (IVBAM) for sponsoring the tasting and Master Class. Thanks also to Rui Falcão for sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm for Maderia wine with us. It was a great wine tasting experience.
This final thought from the IVBAM Madeira Wine Tasting booklet:
“Madeira is uniquely a wine of history: not only because of its historic production process and its association with famous historic events, but also, and more importantly, because it is the longest-lived wine in the world, that can remain vibrant, complex and exciting after a century or more. Which explains why, when you drink Madeira, you are drinking history.”