What Is Madeira?
Madeira wine is a fortified wine
produced on the Madeira Islands, an archipelago of Portugal in the north Atlantic Ocean. It is a rich wine which ranges from dry to sweet and is known for its complex, smokey aromas and flavors.
Madeira wine is made much in the same way as Sherry and Port wine in that the fermentation is halted at some point by the addition of a neutral grape spirit (brandy) which fortifies the alcohol level, stopping fermentation. The wine can vary from dry to sweet depending on the types of grapes used and how early in the fermentation the spirit is added. Madeira can be very long lived, often aging for decades in barrel and indefinitely in bottle.
However, after the fermentation, Madeira is unique in how it is barrel aged prior to bottling. While Port wine is either bottled early or aged in barrel in cool cellars for extended periods of time, most Madeira wine is aged in wood for long periods in a relatively warm environment and allowed to oxidize. Early in the history of Madeira, it was found that long sea voyages in the hold of warm ships actually improved the wine, whereas most wines suffer from prolonged exposure to heat and air. The wine was mellowed and made more complex, with heady smokey and roasted aromas and flavors.
Today, the process of Estufagem is used by Madeira makers in an attempt to recreate that type of aging. In cheaper wines the aging wine is warmed up by artificial means. In the best Madeiras, the wood barrels are allowed to warm more subtly in the hot summer sun or in special above ground aging lodges. This process, which can last years or even many decades, leads to the caramelized, oxidized, smokey flavors that are associated with Madeira.
Types of Madeira:
Styles of Madeira vary depending on how long they are aged, whether they come from a single vintage or are a blend of vintages, and which grapes are used in their production.
There are four "noble" grapes on Madeira which are used exclusively in the best wines:
Sercial: Wines made from Sercial are generally the driest with very little residual sugar. They are generally fermented dry. They tend to be brighter, with crisp acidity and nutty flavors.
Verdelho: Verdelho is generally slightly sweeter than Sercial but still on the dry side.
Bual: Bual is sweeter and richer with a darker color and more raisin-like flavors.
Malmsey: Also known as Malvasia, Malmsey wines are the richest, sweetest and darkest often with roasted coffee and caramel aromas and flavors.
In addition to these different styles based on the grapes used, Madeira wine you will find in the marketplace vary in terms of the amount and type of aging they receive. Vintage wines or Colheitas are wines made from a single vintage which is indicated on the label. It is possible to find very old vintage Madeiras (even dating back to the 19th century!), although their prices go up the older they are. These wines can be aged for years or even decades before being bottled and sold.
However, many Madeiras are bottled as blends of vintages. Sometimes called Reserve (5 years), Special Reserve (10 years) or Extra Reserve (over 15 years), these blends are most commonly bottled with the average age listed on the label as can be seen in the bottles pictured above.
How to Serve Madeira and
What Foods Do You Eat with Them?
Like Port, Madeira, especially the older vintage wines, often improves if decanted for several hours or more prior to serving. Because they are fortified and hearty wines, they can keep well for several days after opening, much longer than standard dry table wines.
The drier styles of Madeira, such as Sercial and Verdelho, can be served alone as an apéritif or as a digestif after dinner. The sweet wine, like Bual and Malmsey, work well as dessert wines, served after a meal in the evening, particularly on cool winter nights. While they are usually not served with much food, Madeira can be served with some cheeses or with a simple plate of dried fruits and nuts.
The rich, heady aromas and flavors of good Madeira can be very relaxing and is a great accompaniment to a cool winter evening, particularly curled up by the fire with a good book!
Done with the Madeira Wine page?
Return to the Types of Wine page.