Madeira: wine, grape varieties, history
Madeira is the fortified wine produced on the island of Madeira since 1500, through an oxidation process, with which the wine is literally cooked, heated by the flame of huge stoves called “estufas”. In theory, Madeira is an archipelago formed by the main island of Madeira (which means wood, since it is very green) and Porto Santos.
When we talk about this extraordinary wine, we need to understand the role that oxidation plays. Conceptually, Madeira is similar to Porto, Marsala, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and also to Vin Santo Toscano, which however is not fortified. Of all the oxidized and fortified wines that of Madeira is the longest-lived, the most refined, pungent and sought-after, also due to very limited production, coming from a vineyard area of a few hundred hectares. A stamp compared to the Douro Valley, where Porto is produced, a very close relative not only for nationality but also for the similarities that exist in the production method of these two great wines. So let’s get to the point: what is Madeira wine and how is it produced?
How Madeira is made
You may have heard of maderized wine, that is, it has oxidized. Contact with oxygen leads to wine degradation. Normally a tinge of oxidation is pleasant, but if it takes over then it becomes a defect in a normal wine, a death sentence. The speech changes in nectar-like Madeira, where acidity, sugar and brandy added to the must preserve the wine, keep it alive. So oxidation works by changing the wine, enriching it, adding wonderful flavors and aromas of dried fruit, without however corrupting it.
But let’s get to the production method. The winds and the sea give great flavor to the vineyards, so we have great flavor and salt in the bunches. The soils of volcanic origin give further aromatic depth and flavors of lava: other fabric and concentration. These grapes are then harvested, pressed and the must is made which ferments and then at a certain point the fermentation the wine is cut with brandy to stop the fermentation. Based on the residual sugar, the wine is classified as dry, medium and rich.
Once the wine matured with the voyage of the globe by ship. Today the wine is heated for at least three months by the touch of the estufas, huge boilers that bring the temperature of the wine up to 45 degrees.
Much has been debated on temperatures and timing, for almost everyone it is the law of fire. Some, on the other hand, consider the temperatures of the estufas too high, so much so that some producers are experimenting with alternative methods, with milder temperatures and longer aging periods. For now, the estufas remain and the fact is that still, no wine has proved as long-lived and charismatic as the Madeira for which a winning team does not change.
You could take a cue from Italy, for once. As the producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, of Vin Santo Toscano, but also of Malvasia di Bosa teach us, the best conditions are those found in the attics, the attics where they refine their products to subject them to the mistreatment of climate changes, but without reaching such high temperatures. The problem is that there are no seasons on the island of Madeira since the climate is practically equatorial.
Ok, let’s get back to wine. After cooking with the estufas, the wine must age in wood, the wine undergoes aging in wood, a practice common to all fortified wines. The method is called canteiro, in memory of the long shelves on which they were placed to sleep and mixed. Because until Portugal joined the European Community, Madeira was obviously made with the Solera method, with the various rows of barrels that year after year refined, concentrated and were then topped up. Today the Solera method has been banned for the production of this great wine, but the blend of different blends and vintages is allowed, so much so that each producer tends to have its own recipe-interpretation of the house, always the same and stylistically defined, in Port style. and Champagne. From the barrel, the wine then passes to the bottle and is then ready to be sold, but certainly not to be drunk. A Madeiran wine needs dozens of years of rest in the bottle to develop its incredible aromatic charge and to find roundness and balance and at the same time integrate the smoky notes and notes of nuts and dried fruit.
A separate discussion is Madeira Colheita, produced from a single grape variety and aged in wood for at least five years. As an expression it is not bad at all: it maintains a strong expressiveness. And it manages to be a good witness of the vintage, highlighting the unique characteristics of each grape variety used on the island.
When the vintage has been blessed with unrepeatable conditions and extraordinary grapes are produced, the Vintage is produced. A priceless wine produced from a single vine and then aged in wooden barrels for 20 years.
And this brings us to the most important discourse on Madeira wine: the classification based on the grape variety. That seems like a formality, but that’s actually all. According to the grape variety, aromas, flavors, but also interpretations change radically.
Grapes used to produce Madeira and classification
Let’s start with the most widespread grape variety, capable of producing the simplest and most affordable wines. If no grape variety is specified on the label, it is assumed that that bottle was produced with the Tinta Negra Mole.
Malvasia is the historic grape variety, the first planted on the island by the Portuguese, who rightly thought of reproducing the opulence of Greek wines from Crete and the islands on this remote rock in the Atlantic. And in fact, it is thanks once again to the Turks, who had interrupted trade between Europe and Greece, that this wonderful wine was born. And it is precisely from Malvasia that the sweetest and most velvety Madeira is born, the rare and precious Madeira Malmsey. The densest and most syrupy one, always pungent and full of herbs, spices and honey, but with a fresh and honeyed touch at the same time that is unrivaled among sweet wines.
From Bual, a white grape variety, an excellent Madeira is obtained, always sweet, but characterized by a more intense caramelized note and an almost veil of peat, the smoking is sharper than Malmsey.
Madeira da Verdelho cannot be missing, from which wines are produced even less sweet, but always sweet, where the tones and flavors are less exasperated and tend to have an elegant profile, but always smoky.
Let’s finish with the dry Madeira, the Madeira Sercial, the one that is somewhat trivially compared to Sherry Fino, even if it is much more consistent. Sercial is the complete opposite of Malmsey: it has acid tension, its astringent charge is felt on the palate. It dominates the salt and the sharp fruit with a slight aftertaste of smoke and strong oxidized notes of candied cedar and dried fruit. This is perhaps the most difficult to approach, given that it is not a wine that is immediately ready, but that needs decades to develop all its charm.
History of Madeira wine
Legend has it that this huge rock covered with greenery is the famous Isle of the Blessed, that mysterious and legendary place that has fomented the birth of mythical theories and stories about Atlantis and the disappeared ancient civilizations.
But it is after the discovery of America that Madeira becomes a real navel of the world. It became a fundamental stop not only to stock up on food and wine for the trip but also to take what was considered the Atlantic highway. For the simple reason, that the winds and currents to reach the coasts of America passed through this small island which is 640 kilometers from the African coast. When the sailors discovered that by adding brandy to the barrels and making the wine travel twice around the world, the wine became pure nectar of the gods.
And the beauty of this enological discovery is that sailors, travelers and pirates used Madeira wine mainly as ballast and only secondarily as a drink in order not to die of dehydration and scurvy. Maybe it didn’t give you wings, but at least it kept you alive, and it was already something for here times …
From the Roman Falernum to Madeira
But as we have seen, the practice of oxidizing wine is ancient and has been practiced in Italy for millennia, so much so that the legendary Falernum wine, so loved by the Romans, was nothing more than a very strong and full-bodied wine that with the passing of the decades it oxidized in amphora and became more and more “fascinating” and complex.
Today we can no longer taste Falernum, but on the other hand, we have Madeira, which is its most illustrious descendant and we certainly cannot complain.
Madeira food pairings
The great structure and alcoholic strength make it perfect for pairing with chocolate, spoon desserts such as trifle, cream pie, biscuits and dry pastries, but also apple and walnut cake. Try it also with aged cheeses such as Castelmagno or with the great blue cheeses such as Gorgonzola, Roquefort and Stilton as if it were raining. With terrines and croutons of Tuscan livers, it is wonderful.
Madeira serving temperature
Like all liqueur wines, it should never go below 8 degrees centigrade. It should be served in classic passito tasting glasses at a temperature between 12 and 14 degrees centigrade.