If ever there was a wine for an unseasonably chilly spring day, madeira must be it.
Wine has been principal product of the island of Madeira for over 400 years. Once upon a time it was highly fashionable and sought after (that was before it became the slightly jokey secret tipple of maiden aunts). It was reputed to be George Washington’s favourite wine and was served at his presidential inauguration. During the 19th-century madeira parties were all the rage, especially in the southern states of America. Nowadays its popularity has slipped a bit. This is a pity, for it remains one of the world’s most intriguingly complex fortified wines which is definitely ripe for rediscovery.
So how is madeira made, what’s special about it and why try it?
The wine starts out life in the usual way when the grapes are picked from the steep terraces that rise up on the island’s coastal fringe in late summer. So far, so familiar. Then comes the fortification bit. After the grapes are crushed and fermented, grape spirit is added, which arrests fermentation, gives them added stability and ensures longevity. (Port, that other celebrated Portuguese fortified wine, gets a shot of grape spirit too, but there the similarity ends, because the grape varieties involved and – above all – the process employed in making madeira differ in significant ways from those used in port production.)
From now on, things diverge from the usual fortified norm and madeira sets out on its own distinctive journey to maturity. In the course of this journey it is exposed to both heat and air – normally these two do no good to wine, as you will know to your cost if you’ve left a bottle of uncorked wine out in full sunshine for a day or two. As Richard Mayson puts it, in his recently published book Madeira, the Islands and their Wines: “Heat and air, both the sworn enemies of most wines and wine makers, conspire to turn madeira into one of the most enthralling of the world’s wines, as well as one of its most resilient.”
How did this curious, counter-intuitive idea of heating the wine come about? As with many good things in life, it was the result of a happy accident.
The island of Madeira, perched out in the Atlantic some 400 miles off the coast of Morocco, has always been strategically important for transatlantic shipping. Over the centuries, countless vessels paused here to restock with provisions before the long sea journey from Europe across the Atlantic to the Americas and beyond. Provisions always included casks of wine, which by the nature of things were exposed on board to great heat. When the ships berthed and the wine was found to be perfectly good – indeed even better than when it departed – the shippers set about reproducing the same conditions in their cellars back home, placing the huge wooden wine casks on the upper floors of their wineries to bask in the summer heat.
Nowadays a faster (and cheaper) way to reproduce this step is to heat the wine artificially in large containers called estufas. The finest madeiras, however, are still aged in wooden casks, heated only by the island’s year-round sunshine. This process, known as the canteiro method, is lengthier and more gentle and gives the wines their characteristic, slightly caramelized, faintly smoky aromas with exotic hints of honey and dried fruits.
Madeira comes in countless styles and quality levels – look out for mention of the grape varieties Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, Malmsey, and classifications such as Finest, Reserve, Special Reserve, Solera and Vintage. A premium, aged bottle is always pricey because of the time and skill needed to nurse it to perfection. One consolation – and a considerable selling point – is that once the wines have survived the rigours of heating and oxidation, they are good to go for up to 100 years. At Blandys, one of the top Madeira producers based in the capital, Funchal, whose Wine Lodge is well worth a visit, there’s a barrel of 1920 madeira wine stored in its cellar, awaiting its moment.
And if you’re worried about investing biggish bucks in that bottle (Blandys’ Vintage Malmsey, for example, can set you back around £70) and not being able to finish it in one go, never fear: one of the many advantages of madeira is that you can open it, sample it, put the cork back and store it upright in a dark place for weeks or months and the contents will come to no harm. “If ever there was a wine to take away with you to a desert island”, concludes Mayson, “this is it.”
Desert islands are a bit hard to visualise right now in northern Europe (snow on the tops this morning here in Alsace), but madeira makes a wonderful, warming drop to enjoy on a cool spring day. And you can always enjoy the rest of the bottle later.
[A version of this article was first published January 2016 on Zester Daily as “Portugal’s famed Madeira likes it hot”]