Madeira rediscovered

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In 1418, on All Saints’ Day, Portuguese navigators discovered the island of Porto Santo off the coast of Africa. After more exploration, they realized that Porto Santo is part of a lush subtropical archipelago. The largest island in the archipelago was covered by dense forests so the sailors named it “ilha da Madeira,” the wooded island.

Madeira was planted early in the 15th century with vines from many varietals, including verdelho, sercial, and malvasia. The style of wine making evolved until producers learned to make fortified wines that could survive long sea voyages. The fermentation process is interrupted by adding alcohol so that the yeast does not consume all the grape sugar. The wines are then aged for at least a decade in bottles or wood barrels. Madeira producers discovered that the wine stored in barrels that returned from sea voyages in hot climates had improved in quality. So, they started refining some of their wines by exposing them to heat.

In the 17th and 18th century, Madeira wine became a major export. From East to  West, aristocrats demanded this wine full of complexity and allure.

Six centuries after Madeira was discovered, we can taste a remarkable vinegar made with Madeira wine by a great olive-oil producer called Gallo. The acidity and sweetness are perfectly balanced to create a seductive vinegar like no other. Try it while you can, for soon gourmets from East to West will demand their salads dressed with this star vinegar.

Madeira wine

MadeiraMadeira is a fortified wine produced in the island of Madeira. Brandy is added during fermentation to kill the yeast and prevent it from converting all the sugar into alcohol. The result is a sweet wine that can endure the changes in temperature that used to occur during shipping.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson kept their cellars well stocked with Madeira. So did John Adams, who said that a few glasses of Madeira made anyone feel capable of being president. Perhaps for this reason, both the signing of the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were celebrated with Madeira.

There are several different types of Madeira, depending on the varietals used in their production. The most popular varietal, Malvasia or Malmsey, produces a sweet, smooth wine. Sercial makes an excellent dry aperitif. Verdelho makes an elegant semi-dry wine. Bual produces a dark amber semi-sweet wine.

They’re all irresistible, which is why, in Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Falstaff is accused of selling his soul to the devil for a glass of Madeira.