The island of Madeira (in the archipelago of the same name) is possibly one of the most beautiful destinations on Earth. A little slice of heaven in the immense Atlantic Ocean that would seem to have been dreamed up by the most adventurous and intrepid Jean Leon.
Once known as the Enchanted Islands, this volcanic archipelago is located on the Tropic of Cancer, around 400 miles off the coast of Morocco. Its geographical location on important trade routes would become key in the future of Madeira’s wine culture.
From disaster to serendipitous discovery
At first, the Malvasia, Verdelho, and other grape varieties introduced to Madeira by the Portuguese did not manage to acclimatize, largely due to the high rainfall experienced by the island. The resultant wines were too astringent for consumption, exceedingly bittersweet, so the wine produced was used as ballast in commercial ships, where it was warmed to be used as a cheap and effective remedy against scurvy.
These ships’ journeys gave birth to Madeira wine: a wine of the sea. Fortified with brandy for the long journeys, any still wine would have spoiled, but the resulting product was a softened, wonderful nectar… A wine that got even better as the journey got longer. Da roda and torna viagem wines were born.
Madeira’s wine-making history is built on the elements and the topography, explained by its particular terroir and unleashed thanks to serendipity.
Island climate, mountain vine growing
From the narrow shores to the highest areas, terraces roll out across the island, accommodating small plots of vines, cane sugar, beans, potatoes, bananas, and small mosaics of flower gardens.
This all happens in a tropical climate with a clear Atlantic influence, with humid, endless summers that encourage totally unique cultural practices with the vines.
As the story goes, when the Portuguese arrived on the island at Machico in 1419, they set fire to the thick local forests. The fire lasted for years, so the soil was fertilized with the ashes of a lifetime of greenery.
In this incredibly unique setting, the vines grow higher than head height, supported on trellises, leaving space at ground level for other crops: A very smart way to grow using verticality to maximize the potential in a location that’s small in terms of dimensions. (Madeira is slightly larger than Menorca).
The soil’s extreme fertility is, perhaps, the most differentiating factor of the island’s wine culture compared to more common practices in Europe, where cultivation seeks nutrient-poor soils.
The uniqueness of Madeira’s terroir lies in the island’s volcanic origin, its tropical climate, the dense layer of forest ashes, and in that very typical way the plant growth develops, in step with the moon’s cycle, given the lack of seasons.
Madeira: the wine
In general, Madeira is a fortified wine that comes in different colors, tastes, ages, and types, with an alcohol content ranging from 18% to 20% ABV, and that is classified in the context of an arc that measures the sugar load: dry, medium dry, medium sweet, and sweet.
In term of production, the comings and goings in damp ships under the heat of the sun have given way to a much more practical and effective method:
The wine is heated using a serpentine system (in a process known as estufagem), where hot water around 115ºF runs through the system for at least three months, thus managing to reproduce the conditions of a tropical climate. However, the best examples of Madeira get their complexity after being aged in oak, in a process known as canteiro.
Where to begin?
There are lots of styles, so here are some to get you started in the world of Madeira:
- Madeira Colheita is very much in fashion. It’s made with the produce from just one year and bottled after a short aging period of five years in wood. Made from Tinta Negra, the variety that covers almost 90% of the island’s varietal map, it’s the best option for beginners.
- Frasqueira, a more iconic example, can spend up to a century undergoing a slow, painstaking oxidation process in the barrel and/or it can be decanted into glass carafes before being bottled. Heat, refreshing acidity, unctuousness, and character in equal parts.
- For the sweet-toothed, Malvasia Madeira wines treat the senses to a beautiful dark brown color, fragrance and flavor, with a smooth texture and that tart edge all of these wines have in common.
- Verdelho is the white variety planted most on the island, used to make a Madeira that is less sweet than Malvasia or Bual and built around slightly smoky and honeyed notes. It hits the spot either before or after a meal.
- For grown-up palates, Sercial is the driest of all the Madeira wines. The vineyards are located in the highest part of the island and are harvested late. The result is a fragrant symphony, with a distinctive and famous tartness that makes the young wine difficult, but that also makes it one of the most appealing wines once it has aged and matured. The perfect aperitif.
Madeira is the child of the sea and the volcano. Water and fire. Natural elements that, like capricious divine creators, have designed a kind of tropical paradise with a mountainous soul and vine culture. A land of contrasts where the impossible terraces with impossible vines rise up from the rugged and wild coast like a lighthouse and garden.