What happened to Madeira?
one time this wine was the darling beverage of the Colonies (That's
what they called the United States before 1776.) It is now
hardly ever discussed, let alone consumed. This is primarily
because of it's being thought of as a cooking wine. While
it is used quite effectively in this role, it seems to have lost
its dominance as a favored aperitif.
Madeira is, without question, the longest-lived wine made on
Earth. It offers a myriad of flavors from medium-dry
to very sweet and everything in between. Many lovers of sherry
and port are missing a wonderful experience that only Madeira could
bring if they knew what it was and where to get it. Glad you
Madeira is one of the great mistakes of wine history. It
was discovered by mistake, made by mistake and often mistaken for
something else. It is named after an island discovered by
a British navigator in the early 15th Century who was eloping with
the daughter of a nobleman above his position. They settled
on the island and lived their lives there. His crew sailed
on, was captured, told of the island to a Portuguese explorer who
set sail for it once again. The island (barely 30 miles long
and 18 miles wide) was so thickly wooded he ordered it burned. The
fires reportedly lasted seven years, depositing layers of ash to
mingle with the already fertile soil. The Portuguese settled
the island and named it after those woods, "Madeira."
Sugar cane and grape vines from Greece were planted and flourished.
Sugar was the principle commodity, but Brazil soon captured
the lion's share of the business in the middle 1500's because of
that country's cheap land and labor. Wine became the only
product left to sell.
As the new world was being colonized, ships would set sail to
America and be steered southward to Madeira because of the prevailing
tradewinds. It was logical to load up on the local wine which
was first used as ballast for the ship. The wines were coarse
and rough when they left the island after being strengthened with
brandy for the long voyage. After months at sea, in often
very hot weather, the wines landed in America tasting better than
when they left.
The producers reasoned that if one trip was good, two was better.
So, they actually shipped the wines back and forth for years,
keeping track of the age of the barrels and thus made what is regarded
today as one of the richest and longest lived wines produced.
the American Revolution took place, less ships were going back and
forth, so less Madeira could be "made" on board. The
Portuguese took to duplicating the experience in stoves called "estufas"
and continued to supply the thirsty needs of the new world.
Then, as suddenly as it began, it suddenly ended.
The combination of a leaf fungus called odium and the most devastating
louse known to the wine world, phyloxera, practically ended all
Maderia from being made again. By the late 1800's, all the
vines had to be replaced (as they did all over Europe) with phyloxera-resistant
American rootstocks. This pause in shipments of Madeira coupled
with America's new found interest in French wines practically left
them without a market. In 1925 a trade organization was formed
called the Madeira Wine Company. It was formed by the larger
producers, Blandy's, Cossarsts, Miles, Leacock and Lomelina Lda
to help foster the enjoyment of Madeira wordldwide. Four independents
exist and are also worth seeking out; Barbieto, H. M. Borges, Companha
Vinicola de Madeira and Henriques & Henriques. All of
these producers make exceptional wine.
Madeira's finest wines were made from four grape varieties. The
one considered the best is made from the Malmsey grape. This
is a luscious sweet wine whose aging potential is legendary. Even
today, 200 year old Malmseys are available for sale and are one
of wine's most pleasurable experiences. I was fortunate enough
to come upon a bottle of 1806. The original cork had completely
disintegrated and the wine was held in the bottle by the wax covering.
It still had the creamy richness and tangy finish that no
other wine could possibly have had, especially after nearly 180
Most often Madeira is made, like Sherry, for which it is most
commonly confused, by the Solera system. Wines are cooked
for up to a year in the estufas and aged in a pyramid of connected
barrels for years. As the wine is drawn off the bottom barrels,
it is replaced with new wine on top. The new wine gives the
old it's vigor; the old wines add complexity and the vanilla flavors
from the oak.
simply labeled Malmsey are an average of two to three years old.
Wines with older designations have a minimum age of whatever
appears on the label, 10 years and 15 years are most common. Occasionally,
in a particularly superb year, single vintages will be aged separately
and released as a vintage Madeira. Unlike vintage Port, which
by law must be bottled within 26 months after harvest, vintage Madeira
can be aged in the bottle or barrel and retain the vintage designation.
In most cases, however, the bottling date is given on the
Bual is the next driest designation. This grape has the
weight and body of an olorosso sherry but also exhibits what the
British call a characteristic "tang." It, too, can
be aged for many years and can also be vintage dated.
Verdehlo is a medium dry offering that is lighter than Bual,
but still authoritive in flavor. It is very seldom see today.
The tangiest and most unique is the Sercial. A grape that
is supposed to be an offspring of Riesling, it shows some of the
same properties of the others, but with a more crispness and a unique
mineral component. All varieties, no matter how sweet, finish
with a clean sharpness that never seems to age out, even after over
100 years. . . a remarkable occurrence in the world of wine. A
recent tasting of an 1895 Bual, considered one of the finest vintages
of all time, lived up to its reputation and was easily an incredible
wine for even the most annoying wine geek. If these wines
are beyond your's, and most other's budget, the five, ten and 15
year old Madeira's are superb experiences as well.
These four grapes sadly make up less than 10% of all the grapes
now grown on the island of Madeira. Unless the label specifically
names the grape, the wine is probably made from the Tinta Negra
Mole, an obligingly pleasant, but still inferior grape when compared
to the others.
For all its wonderful history and enticing flavors, Madeira is
a relative bargain. Twenty or even thirty-year-old wines can
cost less than $100.00 (as compared to three or four times that
much for Port, Sauternes, or Bordeaux). Finding them is a
different matter. Because of their obscurity and misunderstanding,
very few are seen even in the best, most-prestegious wine shops.
A very fine selection is available, however, from a variety
of local wholesalers. A stern request from you to your local
merchant will easily produce a few bottles. I strongly suggest
you put him or her on the spot. I have yet to turn people
on to Madeira and not get a glowing response in return. A
glass of Bual in front of the fire with a good book is probably
not too far removed from a similar scene in Benjamin Franklin's
or Thomas Jefferson's home.