The sublime wines of the Madeira island

Novice wine drinkers like slightly sweet wines, while wine connoisseurs favor wines with acidity. Madeira wines have the best of both worlds, a pleasant sweetness and a refined acidity. 

These wines are named after their terroir—a volcanic archipelago of captivating beauty. When Portuguese navigators discovered it in 1419, it had lush woods, so they called it Madeira, the Portuguese word for wood.

Like Ports, Madeiras are fortified wines. The process by which yeast turns fructose into alcohol is interrupted by adding neutral, vinic alcohol. As a result, some fructose remains, giving the wine its sweetness.

Producers begin the aging process by gently heating the wine. Winemakers developed this technique after discovering that wines improved significantly when subject to tropical temperatures during sea voyages. 

Entry-level wines are heated in large tanks for at least three months, a process called “estufagem.” More noble wines are stored in hot, humid attics for at least two years, a process known as “canteiro.” Heat ruins most wines. But not Madeiras—their acidity gives them the fortitude to survive the heat and age beautifully.

There are five main grape varietals used in Madeira production. Sercial makes dry wines, Verdelho medium-dry, Bual semi-sweet, and Malmsey sweet. Tinta Negra is perhaps the most versatile of all the Madeira varietals, capable of producing a range of styles, from nutty dry to luscious rich.

The drier wines are generally served as aperitifs and the sweeter wines as dessert wines. But Madeiras are very versatile. For example, Sercial is an excellent pairing for oysters and sashimi. 

We had the privilege of tasting Madeiras with Chris Blandy, the CEO of Blandy’s, a company that has produced Madeira wine since 1811. We compared wines made from Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey with “raw” versions of these wines. The raw wines have just been fortified but have not been heated or aged. This tasting showed us the enormous impact of heating and aging on wine quality. Water evaporates, concentrating and refining flavors. In some 20-year-old Madeiras, only 8 percent of the original wine remains, but what is left is sublime. 

Chris refilled our tasting glasses. “These wines are moreish,” he says, using a quaint British expression that refers to food or drink that make us ask for more. No wonder that in Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Sir John Falstaff sells his soul to the devil for a glass of Madeira. We’re so lucky to drink these extraordinary wines without losing our souls!

Click here for the Blandy’s website.

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