Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Experience the Wines of Madeira

The hillside vineyards of Madeira
The beautiful volcanic island of Madeira was discovered in 1418, when Portuguese explorer Gonçalves Zarco was blown off course by a violent storm while exploring the coast of West Africa. The earth was rich, fertile, and so covered with trees that he named the island Madeira, or "wood" in Portuguese. He reported his findings to his sponsor, Prince Henry the Navigator, who immediately decided to claim the island in the name of Portugal and establish a colony. However, the colony didn't fully flourish until 1452, when sugar cane and Malvasia grapes were imported from Sicily and Cyprus. By the end of the 15th century, Madeira was one of the largest sugar producers in the world.

This changed towards the late 1500's, when Portugal extended their reach to the Americas. They realized that the tropical climate of Brazil produced better, cheaper sugar than Madeira, so the island's farmers focused their attention on wine production instead. Madeira wine is produced from grapes grown on terraces that have been cut into the island's steep mountainsides. The grapes are crushed and fermented, but before fermentation is complete, brandy is added to increase the alcohol percentage while still preserving the natural sweetness of the grape. Although this is the standard process used to create fortified wine, one important difference is that Madeira is heated for several months. This heating, known as "estufagem", started in the late 1600's when wines from Madeira were transported on ships sailing to the Americas, as well as to mainland Portugal, England and India. Legend has it that a Madeira cask, forgotten in a ship's hold, returned to the island from a trip across the Equator. The wine was found to be richer, smoother and more flavorful than when it left, so from that point on, producers sent casks of their wines on long, tropical voyages. This practice ended in the early 1900's, but heating the wine is still a crucial step in the production of all Madeiras.

The popularity of Madeira grew as ships from numerous European countries stopped at the island to purchase and trade goods on their way to the Americas. In 1665, British authorities wanted to control the goods being imported into their American colonies, so they banned all products from Europe unless they were shipped on British vessels from British ports. However, products from Madeira were specifically exempted and British merchants in Madeira took full advantage of this by establishing ties with merchants in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston and Savannah. It became the wine of choice for most wealthy Americans, and was even used to toast George Washington's inauguration, as well as the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Unfortunately, Madeira's booming business declined in the late 1800's when the Oidium and Phylloxera diseases destroyed six thousand acres of the island's vineyards - even causing some grapes to become virtually extinct. This crisis passed and production was eventually restored, but only 20% of the damaged vines were able to be replaced with true Madeira varietals. The rest of the land was planted with American or European hybrid varietals, as well as numerous banana trees, which helped to revive the economy.

While many Madeiras today are blends of vintages and grape varieties, it is the vintage and solera wines that truly capture the essence of Madeira. These wines are created from particular grape varietals - Malmsey, Bual, Verdelho and Sercial - which not only describe the type of grape, but also the style of wine. Determined to preserve the tradition, The Rare Wine Company, along with Vinhos Barbeito, created The Historic Madeira Series in order to reintroduce Madeira to the general public. To emphasize America's deep historical connection to Madeira, each wine in the series is named for a U.S. city where it was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Each bottle bears an early engraving from the chosen city, along with a back label describing America's special link to Madeira's illustrious history. Try their "Boston Bual", "New Orleans Special Reserve" Terrantez, or "New York Malmsey" to experience Madeira first-hand, and truly appreciate the rich history behind this renowned wine.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

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