Liquor & Spirits
Fortified & Dessert Wine


Madeira is a small Portugese island off the coast of North Africa whose distinctive fortified wines range from fairly dry to very sweet. In colonial times, Madeira was probably the most popular wine in America, but only a small quantity is imported today. The vineyards of Madeira were devastated by two plagues in the 2nd half of the 19th century and its production has never regained its former size.

As in the case with port, the fermentation of madeira was traditionally stopped by the addition of brandy at a point determined by just how sweet the finished wine was meant to be. Although this technique is still occassionally used, 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 concrete vats heated by internal pipes are used to bake the wines. The wine must be baked for a minimum of 90 days at a temperature no higher than 122 F This concentrated aging process is meant to approximate the beneficial effects of a long sea voyage, because it was discovered in the 18th century that the voyages to which all cargo was subjected, seemed to improve the wines of Madeira. Madeira has a special pungent taste that comes from the volcanic soil in which the vines are planted, as well as an agreeable cooked or burned taste that it acquires in the estufas At the bottling time, each lot of wine is sweetened to produce the appropriate style of wine. Sercial is the driest of all madeiras, Verdelho the next driest, Malmsey is the sweetest, and Bual or Boal, is medium sweet. Although these four names are those of specific grape types cultivated on the island, the wines are no longer made primarily from the grape with which each is labeled. The grape names are now 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 find 50- and 100-year-old single vintage Madeiras. Good examples are by no means faded and offer a remarkable tasting experience.


There are four basic types of Madeira. each named after the grape from which it is made. These are: Sercial. which was once thought to be the Riesling grape and makes the lightest and driest Madeira: Verdelho, which is a tangy medium-sweet wine, with somewhat more body; Bual. a definitely sweet style that has a baked. smoky complexity; and Malmsey my own favourite,. a lusciously rich, sweet, and honeyed wine.

All Madeiras once bore a vintage, but this is unusual today; most being blends or products of solera systems stems. If a pure vintage from the 1980s were to be released. this would not happen until the first decade of the twenty 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 to taste 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) from the Moroccan coast at a latitude of 33 degrees.


The rainfall on the island is heavy because of its position in the Atlantic and its mountainous geography. Because of its latitudinal position, summers are hot and winters very warm.
Land ,is at a premium, and vineyards are located on small terraces of the steep 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 the southern slopes of the island which receive the most sunshine.


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

Viticulture and vinification

The vines are trained high to allow other crops tO grow beneath them because of the lack of available land Despite the high rainfall, irrigation must be practised via a network of aqueducts because of the steep slopes and porous soil After fermentation, wine is placed in a heated store room called an estufa, and gradually heated to 45 C ( I 13 F ). Some eighteen months after 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