If you’re looking for a fun holiday activity for your grown-up friends, we have just the thing: a Madeira wine tasting. We suggest starting with the four classic styles, each named after the white grape varietal used in its production: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey.
These wines have a combination of sweetness and acidity that enchants the palate. But each style is distinct. Sommeliers often serve the dry Sercial and medium-dry Verdelho as aperitifs and the medium-sweet Bual and sweet Malmsey as dessert wines.
Madeiras are fortified wines. Winemakers add neutral vinic alcohol at 96 degrees to stop the fermentation process through which yeast converts grape fructose into alcohol. As a result, not all fructose is converted into alcohol and the wine retains some residual sugar. Fortification has been used since the mid-18th century to give Madeiras the endurance they needed to survive long sea voyages.
Francisco Albuquerque, Blandy’s winemaker, says he generally stops the Sercial fermentation after ten days. For Malmsey, he suspends the fermentation after two days, so there’s a lot more sweetness left in the wine. Perhaps that is why, according to Shakespeare, the Duke of Clarence, condemned to death for treason against his brother King Edward IV, asked to be drowned in a cask of Malmsey.
Shippers discovered that Madeiras improve when they cross the equator in the hulls of sailboats. To mimic this effect, producers expose Madeiras to heat. For superior Madeiras this exposure happens in warm cellars, where the wines age for several years in old American oak casks before they’re ready for our enjoyment. The longer they stay in oak barrels, the more complex they become.
So, which Madeira do you favor? And which do your friends prefer? It’s great fun to find out!