Continuing on with the theme of fortified wines, I’d like to share with you what I learned about Madeira over the past few months.
Madeira is an island that technically belongs to Portugal, however the people there govern themselves for the most part, not least because the mainland is 1000km away. It’s a place of picture-postcard views, and from the image above you can almost imagine the sub-tropical heat, persistent humidity and regular rainfall that such a place might experience.
There is a story that when the island was first discovered in the early 15th Century, the settlers started a fire to clear the existing rainforest for agriculture and grazing. That fire got out of control and continued to burn for seven years. The resulting ash in the soil is credited with giving Madeira wine the unique character that it has.
So let’s have a look at the wine and what makes it so special…
What is Madeira wine?
Madeira wine is a fortified wine, meaning that extra alcohol is added during the winemaking process (remember that fortify = make stronger = more alcohol added). It stands out from other styles due to the maturation process. Centuries ago it was not uncommon for barrels of this wine to travel in ships across the world and back again. It was found that wines that had gone for this round-trip tasted better, and this was attributed to the barrels travelling across the equator, exposing it to more heat and accelerating its maturation. For a while, shippers deliberately sent wines on round trips to mature the wine, but this process of gentle heating has since been replicated with modern methods, given the costs and risks of long sea voyages. This is now known as the Estufagem process.
The resulting wines can range from medium brown, to gold, to tawny and brown, with such “cooked” aromas of caramel and toffee, in addition to dried figs and prunes and nuts. Madeira is also usually sweet, but it’s racing acidity keeps the wine from seeming too sticky or cloying. What we end up with is perhaps one of the longest-lived wines in the world. Examples over a hundred years old still being perfectly drinkable are not unheard of.
There is a special term, Rancio, that is sometimes used when describing the character of Madeira wine, and is usually associated with nuts and melted (sometimes rancid) butter.
Madeira wine is further divided into many different styles. To make it easier to wrap your head around them, it is useful to split them into two general categories: Varietal and Quality styles
Varietal styles simply distinguish the different kinds of Madeira produced by the type of grape used.
There are many varieties of grapes grown on the island, but production of Madeira wine is centred on five in particular. While one of them is considered a workhorse, jack-of-all-trades variety, the other four are considered “noble” varieties, and their cultivation is encouraged on the island.
The noble varieties are as follows:
Sercial is a white grape, wines made from this variety are usually the lightest and driest of the varietal-labelled Madeira wines. The wines are usually off-dry with high acidity.
Verdelho is also a white grape, usually higher in sugar than Sercial, and the wines produced are off-dry to medium-dry.
Bual (also referred to as Boal) is also a white grape, higher sugar levels than Verdelho, wines are fuller-bodied and medium-sweet.
Malmsey (also referred to as Malvasia) is also a white grape, the fullest bodied and sweetest of the four noble varieties. High acidity and sweet.
Notice how the above is written in order of driest to sweetness. This will help you to distinguish them when you are browsing through the aisles of your local wine shop.
To make it easier for recall, I have developed a (rather childish, I admit) mnemonic, which is as follows:
Some. Very. Big. Mother******.
There you go. Easy, right? Now let me quickly cover the final variety:
Tinta Negra Mole is a black-skinned grape that is not considered a “noble” variety, but accounts for 85% of Madeira’s plantings and production. It is a prolific and versatile grape, whereas the noble varieties are very picky of where they are planted and how they are handled.
The variety cannot be stated on the label by law, so the wine is usually blended to make a basic style. However, due to better and modernised winemaking the quality has become quite high, so that is has begun to show characteristics of the noble varieties as well. What was once considered a lowly workhorse grape is now a chameleon, infinitely versatile and commercially important, and increasingly great value for money for the interested wine enthusiast.
Quality styles are linked to the maturation process rather than the varietal, although they can be used in conjunction. For example, you might find a bottle that states “10 Year Old Verdelho”, and another with “10 Year Old Sercial”. The varietal and qualitative components of the label together should give you a rough idea of what to expect of the wine in the bottle.
In Madeira, words have replaced numbers in indicating the general age of the wines. A simple breakdown is as follows:
Finest indicates a wine that has been aged at least three years. This is also usually a blended wine, primarily made of Tinta Negra Mole, rather than the four noble varieties.
Reserve denotes a wine that has been aged for at least five years.
For Special Reserve, the youngest component in the wine is no less than ten years old. At this stage the four noble varieties are used and labelled accordingly, as long as one comprises at least 85% of the wine.
Extra Reserve is aged at least fifteen years. This is usually rare, because given another few years it could qualify to be labelled as Frasqueira (see below).
Colheita translates to “harvest”, and denotes a wine made from grapes harvested in a single year. In effect, this is a vintage wine, in contrast to the above categories which are usually a blend of different years. In addition to showing vintage character, these wines must be aged at least five years before release (for Sercial, this must be at least seven years), although most producers wait much longer.
Frasqueira is the most premium of Madeira wines, being both from a single year and having to age at least 20 years before release.
There is also 20 Year Old, 30 Year Old and Over 40 Year Old, but these are rarely used as they would qualify for the Frasqueira label.
It is interesting to note that the word “vintage” does not appear on Madeira wine bottles because, in Portugal, the term is a trademark belonging to the Port traders.
Like Sherry, Madeira was something else that opened up my eyes to a whole new world that I was only dimly aware existed before. At the restaurant, I am now more able and confident to recommend these rather exotic styles of wine to guests who would otherwise not have given it a second glance.
But I can only do so much on the restaurant floor. Which is why I continue to write, in the hopes of encouraging you, the reader, to experience something new.
Next week, I will introduce you to Port, the third of the major fortified wines I had to study for the WSET Diploma.
Read more: If Wine Is Bullshit, So Is Everything Else