Liquor & Spirits
Fortified & Dessert Wine


Madeira is a small Portugese island off the coast of North Africa whosedistinctive fortified wines range from fairly dry to very sweet. In colonialtimes, Madeira was probably the most popular wine in America, but only asmall quantity is imported today. The vineyards of Madeira were devastatedby two plagues in the 2nd half of the 19th century and its production hasnever regained its former size.

As in the case with port, the fermentation of madeira was traditionallystopped by the addition of brandy at a point determined by just how sweetthe finished wine was meant to be. Although this technique is still occassionallyused, most Madeira is now fermented out until it is dry, just like sherry.In the past the fortified wines were then put into rooms called estufas,or ovens, and the wines slowly baked for several months. Today, large concretevats heated by internal pipes are used to bake the wines. The wine mustbe baked for a minimum of 90 days at a temperature no higher than 122 FThis concentrated aging process is meant to approximate the beneficial effectsof a long sea voyage, because it was discovered in the 18th century thatthe voyages to which all cargo was subjected, seemed to improve the winesof Madeira. Madeira has a special pungent taste that comes from the volcanicsoil in which the vines are planted, as well as an agreeable cooked or burnedtaste that it acquires in the estufas At the bottling time, each lot ofwine is sweetened to produce the appropriate style of wine. Sercial is thedriest of all madeiras, Verdelho the next driest, Malmsey is the sweetest,and Bual or Boal, is medium sweet. Although these four names are those ofspecific grape types cultivated on the island, the wines are no longer madeprimarily from the grape with which each is labeled. The grape names arenow used simply to indicate the relative style and sweetness of each wine.Maderia is the longest-lived of all wines, and it is still possible to find50- and 100-year-old single vintage Madeiras. Good examples are by no meansfaded and offer a remarkable tasting experience.


There are four basic types of Madeira. each named after the grape from whichit is made. These are: Sercial. which was once thought to be the Rieslinggrape and makes the lightest and driest Madeira: Verdelho, which is a tangymedium-sweet wine, with somewhat more body; Bual. a definitely sweet stylethat has a baked. smoky complexity; and Malmsey my own favourite,. a lusciouslyrich, sweet, and honeyed wine.

All Madeiras once bore a vintage, but this is unusual today; most beingblends or products of solera systems stems. If a pure vintage from the 1980swere to be released. this would not happen until the first decade of thetwenty first century. Any such vintage should by definition be superior.When it is sold, be it vintage or not, Madeira should be ready to drink.Due to a combination of high alcohol and the estufagem baking process. however,it has a virtually infinite shelf-life. I have been fortunate enough totaste several 100 to 200 year odd Madeiras: all were still perfectly healthy



The island of Madeira is approximately 50by 20 kilometres (30 by 12 miles)in size and is situated in the Atlantic 600 kilometres (370 miles) fromthe Moroccan coast at a latitude of 33 degrees.


The rainfall on the island is heavy because of its position in the Atlanticand its mountainous geography. Because of its latitudinal position, summersare hot and winters very warm.
Land ,is at a premium, and vineyards are located on small terraces of thesteep cliffs, rising from the water's edge to some 914 metres ( 3 000 ft)above sea level in places. The best grapes come from vines grown on thesouthern slopes of the island which receive the most sunshine.


The soil is fertile, being red in colour, porous and of volcanic origininfused with potash.

Viticulture and vinification

The vines are trained high to allow other crops tO grow beneath them becauseof the lack of available land Despite the high rainfall, irrigation mustbe practised via a network of aqueducts because of the steep slopes andporous soil After fermentation, wine is placed in a heated store room calledan estufa, and gradually heated to 45 C ( I 13 F ). Some eighteen monthsafter cooling the wine enters a solera system. All wines are fortified.

Primary grape varieties

Bual, Malmsey, Sercial, Verdelho

Secondary grape varieties

Bastardo, Terrantez, Tinta negra mole, Moscatel