Funchal’s farmers market

If you’re visiting Funchal, the capital of the Madeira archipelago, make sure you stop by Mercado dos Lavradores, the farmer’s market. It is a place full of color—exuberant fruits fight for attention with fragrant spices and strings of hot red and yellow peppers. 

The fish stalls overflow with large tuna, red and black bodião, and slender scabbardfish. The latter lived inconspicuously, deep in the ocean, until fishermen discovered them in the 17th century. Despite their scary look, scabbardfish became a mainstay of Madeira cuisine. Often served fried accompanied by fried bananas, it is delicious!

Tasting Malvasias in Madeira

Prince Henry the Navigator was an early-day venture capitalist. He financed expeditions on small boats called caravels to find new lands, keeping 20 percent of the resulting profits. His first big success came in 1419 when his navigators discovered an island covered by a laurel forest. They named it Madeira, the Portuguese word for wood.  

The prince brought sugar cane from Sicily to Madeira, where it thrived because of the abundance of water and subtropical climate. The island became Europe’s leading sugar producer until the first half of the 16thcentury, when Brazil supplanted it.

Prince Henry was also interested in wine, in part because of its use in liturgic services. The best 15th-century wine was made in Crete from a white varietal called Malvasia Cândida and produced with overripe grapes. 

The Jesuits planted Malvasia Cândida from Crete in a small region of Madeira called Fajã dos Padres. Today, this varietal is rare on the island. It was superseded by Malvasia de São Jorge, a hybrid created in the 1950s by Leão Ferreira de Almeida and generally used to make Madeira Malmsey. 

Manuel Malfeito, our friend who’s an enology professor, brought to Madeira a bottle of fortified wine made in Crete from Malvasia Cândida so we could compare it with Malmsey. “Perhaps this is the first time in 500 years that a wine from the original Malvasia Cândida is drunk on the island of Madeira!” said Manuel with glee. 

How do the two wines compare? The wine from Crete is pleasant and intensely sweet. The Madeira Malmsey has much more depth because of its acidity. This acidity comes in part from Madeira’s volcanic soils, which are rich in iron, manganese, and magnesium. 

It is the combination of sweetness and acidity that makes Madeiras so exquisite. Each glass of Madeira wine is a gift from a prince.

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.