Why Madeira is an old New World

By: Luís Antunes

On par with Port, Madeira wine is now one of the world’s most recognised wines. Here’s why

The island of Madeira is a kind of Portuguese “New World”. Actually, it is a “New World” full stop, as its discovery in 1419 marked the beginning of the successful Portuguese (and then Spanish) expansion, which would go on to define the current maps of the globe. Seeing that the Portuguese had been making wine for many years on the mainland, it seems strange that some of the pages of the oldest scriptures about wine refer to Madeira.

Vines went hand in hand with maritime expansion; they always would, as these ships travelled in the name of “God our Lord”, and Catholic liturgies require wine to be transformed into the blood of Christ. And so, wherever faith went, so did the vines, and in this brand new world, as far back as 1461 – a few years before the mass destruction of trees (the wood that gives Madeira its name) to create agricultural land –, there are already records of wine being exported from Madeira.

The main crops in the new agricultural Madeira were sugar, brought from Sicily, corn and grapes, with the Malvasia Cândida varietal, brought from Candia (today Heraklion, Crete) particularly successful. Many other crops were introduced, and still remain even today, making use of the scarce agricultural land with sloping terraces (locally called poios). These inclines sometimes suffer landslides, generating another type of land that’s very common on the island – the fajãs –, traditionally a little flatter but often affected by heavy rain.

Madeira is located off the western coast of Africa, and at this latitude the basaltic soils are fertile (even more fertile after the successive wood burnings to clear the land). In this way, production can reach 200hl per hectare (as a comparison, old vines in the Douro produce around 25hl/ha). Even so, there isn’t much wine production on the island, as the total area of vineyards reaches just 1,700 hectares, split between 14,000 plots. Usually the grapes have moderate ripening, with alcohol levels likely to be in the region of 8 to 10%. Naturally, acidity levels are very high.

Madeira wine wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for exportation. As Madeira is a strategic sailing port in the Atlantic, wine transportation began as early as the 15th century. Trade treaties benefited the export of Madeira wine to the colonies since the 17th century, which allowed a special relationship to be built with the American elites. It was with Madeira wine that the signing of the US Declaration of Independence was toasted, and Thomas Jefferson, just like the other founders, was a great lover of the drink.

Just like with Port wine, alcohol was added to help stabilise the wine for the demanding journeys. It was found that the wines that crossed the Equator and returned were the favourites. Named “vinhos da roda” (wine of the round-trip), they suffered agitation, evaporation and a lot of heat, day after day, which caused concentration and some softening.

To simulate that process, the wines began to be kept in houses’ attics, where the greenhouse effect caused a similar transformation as the journey. In the 18th century, production was normalised, with two process that are still used today: the addition of alcohol (previously distilled from sugar cane but nowadays with 96% grape spirit) and “estufagem”, which simulates and accelerates the journey and attic effect. The end result is wines with between 17 and 22% of alcohol, and residual sugar that can vary between 0g to around 150g per litre.

There were two major disasters for Madeira wine in the 19th century: a severe plague of oidium, a fungus that spreads thanks to the humid climate, and then phylloxera, an insect that attaches itself to the vines’ roots. Between them, 90% of the island’s vineyards were decimated, and over many decades, the old wine stocks were consumed and never replaced whilst prices increased significantly. All this caused the foreign markets to cool.

To make matters worse, when agriculture finally decided to solve its problems, with sulphur treatments for the oidium and the importation of vitis rupestris rootstocks (an American species immune to phylloxera), political events closed two important markets: the Russian revolution and America’s dry law. During the 20th century, with few exceptions, the Madeira wine industry survived with low-quality products, and was soon associated to being used merely for cooking.

But Madeira wine would come out on top, much to its own credit, and the winemakers who stubbornly persisted in aiming for the utmost quality, championing the most iconic varieties and the “canteiro” ageing method, in which the casks are placed on wooden support beams, in the old attics. Due to its winemaking style and ageing, Madeira wine is almost indestructible, and it’s not unusual to find wines from the 18th century still in good health.

The more mundane wines, made from Tinta Negra Mole, can be sold after three or five years, can be categorised by their level of sweetness and can be coloured and sweetened with caramel. But Madeira’s old varieties, which represent perhaps only 10% of the vineyards, have become legendary, and each one has been associated to a type of wine.

The queen variety is Malvasia (Cândida, although a variant called S. Jorge produces somewhat different wines), which makes the sweetest wines of all; textured, rich with notes of caramel and iodine. Then there’s Boal, or Boal Cachudo (to make it even more confusing, it is exactly the same variety known as Malvasia Fina in the Douro). Boal produces slighly drier wine than Malvasia; it is dark with flavours of raisins and has a rich, silky texture. Verdelho results in an even drier wine, with smoky notes and a lot of precision. The varietal that makes the driest wine of all is Sercial, fermented until losing almost all the sugar, and which has a sharp acidity and notes of toasted almonds.

Whilst all these wines (varieties indelibly associated to styles) are more or less sweet, they all have incredible acidity, and it’s this acid/sweet dance that makes Madeira wine so charming. In fact, these wines should ideally be kept vertically, as the acidity can erode the cork. Balance is essential, as with any wine, and with age comes concentration and a long finish on the mouth that can make every inhalation and every small sip a source of complexity and pleasure. There are also other varieties, some famous, which have fallen out of fashion but which the more dedicated winemakers are trying to recover for the greater heritage of Madeira wine. They are Bastardo, Terrantez and Moscatel.

The wines from noble varieties are launched after three or five years; then there are the reservas with 10 or 15 years. The Colheitas (Harvest) are made from grapes from a single harvest, and the Frasqueiras (Vintage) are aged for at least 20 years. The Tinta Negra Mole wines are classified by their level of sweetness: dry, medium dry, medium sweet and sweet. In Madeira, winemakers can also use the Solera method to age the wines: a pyramid of barrels with the new wines placed on top, and bottled starting with the barrels at the bottom. Solera in Madeira has strict rules, and very often produces wines with extraordinary quality and which are aged for many decades.

Recently, the new generation of winemakers and oenologists has come to defend the Tinta Negra Mole as being capable of producing great-quality wines, as long as that quality begins in the vineyard, with controlled yields and then careful winemaking itself. Other producers have tried to break away from the system of Madeira wine certification and have planted international and other mainland Portuguese varieties to produce dry, easy-drinking wines, under the designation DOP Madeirense and IGP Terras Madeirenses. Some results are interesting, but it looks like there is still a long way to go before reaching the amazing nobility of Madeira wine.

The epic longevity of Madeira wine and its immunity to the usual misdemeanours (exposure to heat, light, etc.) make these bottles very appealing objects to buy when the origin and storage isn’t completely known or certified. Forgotten in restaurants, wine shops, family larders or at auctions, they can be gems of sublime quality, which will give the finder great pleasure and an almost mystical experience, as it’s not unusual to find bottles from the 19th or even 18th century in good condition. Even old farmers’ wines can be bought with little risk. But the big brands today are Barbeito, Henriques & Henriques, D’Oliveiras, Justino’s and Madeira Wine Company, including the Blandy’s, Leacock’s and Cossart Gordon labels.

Like other fortified wines, Madeira is at its best when served chilled, between 12ºC and 14ºC. Madeira is an exceptionally foodie wine, and can accompany both savoury dishes and desserts. The search for gastronomic pairings for this wine is one of its special charms, as its acidic and sweet qualities often bring surprising harmonies. Of course, like so many digestifs, a good Madeira wine can be enjoyed alone, without accompaniment, but ideally in good company.

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