A friend brought a precious gift to a recent dinner party: a bottle of Madeira from 1853! The wine was produced at a time when the future of Madeira looked bleak. Robert White and James Johnson in the 2nd edition of their book “Madeira its Climate and Scenery,” published in 1856, offered the following prognosis:
“The wine of Madeira, which has acquired worldwide celebrity, will soon be no more than a thing of history. In the Spring of 1852, a disease suddenly showed itself which, in process of time, destroyed the grape and ruined the prospects of the hardly-tasked cultivators. […] it is calculated that in two or at most three tears not a pipe of wine will be left in the island.”
The disease was caused by a fungus called odium tuckeri. According to White and Johnson, production dwindled from roughly 8,000 pipes in 1851 to roughly 2,000 pipes in 1854. Luckily, the discovery that oidium could be controlled by dusting the vines with sulphur saved Madeira’s vineyards from oblivion.
It was with great expectation that we broke the 165-year-old crimson seal to persuade the steadfast cork to retire from the job of guarding the priceless nectar. The wine left the bottle full of vigor, with a crystalline amber color and an enchanting aroma. No wonder Madeira was once used as a perfume in the court of Russia!
Less sweet than more recent vintages, the taste has an elegant “vinagrinho,” the name for the volatile acidity produced by the passage of time. It is a wine that has much to teach us about the art of growing old.
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 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.