By Amanda Schuster
Good Madeira is truly one of the greatest gifts to mankind, though aside from wine geeks, aficionados and locals who appreciate it, precious few know of this fortified wine's true beauty and longevity (such as a good Colheita). And like many great things in life, it came to us largely as a serendipitous accident.
Madeira is named after the island in Portugal where it is produced. It was discovered by a Portuguese explorer named Gonsalves Zarco, who was blown off course en route to West Africa. While resting on the smaller island he called Porto Santo, he could see another island through the mist and set off to check it out. This gorgeous island was so lush and covered with trees that he named it "Madeira", which is Portuguese for "wood". Once the island was colonized and the land was cleared of many of the trees, the cultivation of sugar cane (from Sicily) began, as well as that of Malvasia grapes (from Cyprus). But because the Portuguese colony of Brazil was already profiting so well from the sugar industry, and making it finer and cheaper than any Madeiran product, the focus turned to wine production. Since Madeira is perfectly positioned within the Atlantic shipping lanes to be a natural port of call for ships on their way to and from the Americas or Africa and Asia, this was an inherent benefit for what would become the island wine trade.
Much like the discovery of the island itself, the early process of making this style of wine is as happenstance as it is cumbersome. When wines were transported to the New World, they had to pass through the tropics, which would essentially cook them. But this transformed otherwise harsh and acidic wines to ones that were mellow, with a burnt flavor that was not the least unpleasant. This practice then began on purpose, storing wine in ships' ballasts for round trip journeys, and often repeating it back and forth a couple of times till the wine reached the desired level of toastiness. These wines were called vinho da roda (wine of the round voyage). How the wines survived the trip considering all the rocking, extreme heat and filthy storage conditions is a source of wonder.
By the 1700s, America became the biggest customer of Madeira, buying up nearly a quarter of all the wine produced. The British American and West Indian islands began consuming it as their only wine. Five years before the Boston Tea Party, there was a riot on the docks when the Brits tried to attach a duty to a shipment of Madeira. It was the wine used to toast the Declaration of Independence as well as George Washington's inauguration.
But the remote island was not safe from the Oidium (powdery mildew) and Phylloxera louse crisis which devastated most of the crops in the 18th century. Since the only way around it was to graft American onto European stock, most of the new vines became hybrids. Now only about 20% of the vines in Madeira are pure originals.
The modern growing areas are relatively small, especially now that bananas have become the island's biggest export. When the dense forests were originally cleared and burned in the 1420's, this left a thick layer of wood ash in the soil, which proved to be advantageous for grape growing. Finally, a more practical form of toasting the wines came into practice, called Madirization. The wine is fortified, then slowly roasted in the barrel, sometimes over a period of several years.
The Madeira subregions are named for the grapes grown there:
Bual (Boal): The acidity of this grape is best suited for Madirization. These wines have amazing longevity and have been known to last centuries, with all complexity intact. These tend to be sweeter, rounded wines.
Malvasia (Malmsey): Grown in the warmest areas and lowest altitudes near the coast around Camara de Lobos. Known for the sweetest wines, aged in cask.
Sercial: Grown in the coolest and highest elevated vineyards. After fortification, they spend ten or more years in cask. These are the driest style of wine, but with a nutty, complex finish.
Tinta Negra Mole (Tinta de Madeira and Negra Mole): The most widely planted grape that resulted from post-Phylloxera hybrid plantings. This is a red grape that is a cross between Garnacha and Pinot Noir. It is most often used in blends with the other grapes in every style from dry to sweet. If the label does not indicate a Sercial, Malmsey or Boal, then it is likely a Negra Mole blend. Some aged, vintage varietal productions such as "Colheita" (made in the style of Tawny Port, single vintage aged in cask then bottle aging) and "Frasqueira" (Reserva) have been released.
Verdelho: Usually planted in the cool vineyards in the north of the island. Mostly used for medium dry wines with balanced acidity that take on a full-bodied, smoky character with aging.
Cheers from DrinkUpNY!
Amanda Schuster is a native New Yorker, but without much of the accent. The mobile landscape of the city has taken her on a whirlwind journey from Medieval historian, photo archivist, jewelry designer and invitation specialist to earning her sommelier certification in late 2005. After working as a retail wine and spirits buyer and freelance brand promoter, she turned to the one thing that has stayed a constant all these years – her love of writing. She has published dozens of articles on cocktails, spirits, wine and other culinary interests, and is currently working on her first novel. Her favorite cocktail is a Manhattan.