By Ed Masciana
“The very existence of Madeira has been touch and go for a century. No famous wine region has suffered so much the combined onslaught of pests, diseases, disillusioned growers and public neglect. It is doubtful whether any other would have survived as more than a footnote.”
Hugh Johnson, The Modern Encyclopedia of Wine, 1983
What happened to Madeira? At 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 asked.
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.
When 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 years!!!
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.
Bottles 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 label.
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.
Ed Masciana is the author of “Short Cuts on Wine.” published by Capra Press, Santa Barbara and contributing author of Millennium Guide to Champagne. He has taught food and wine classes for 15 years.