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Only one Madeira Island and one wine can call itself Madeira!
Madeira wine, what is it? Where does Madeira Wine come from?
Madeira wine is a long-lasting fortified wine, produced in the demarcated region of Madeira, located off the African coast, and has a designation of origin: Madeira Wine.
What makes Madeira terroir unique is the combination of vines, fertile volcanic soil, climate, location of the vines, and the winemakers’ skills. The secret is on the ageing and heating processes to which we subject the wines.
Depending on its sweetness, it is usually served as an appetiser or dessert wine, or cocktail and used in cooking, especially for sauces.
Madeira Wine History
Prince Henry – the Navigator, saw the advantages of developing Madeira into an island vineyard and brought the first vines from Crete in the 15th century.
Madeira Island was an essential port of call for ships travelling across the Atlantic or around Africa to reach the East Indies. Many ships would stop here and restock with wine. At first, the wine wasn’t yet as we know it today, and sailors bought it as a precious wine to prevent scurvy. In 1537, the wine was exported to Great Britain for the first time, and the first British merchants came to Madeira.
In the 17th century, wine became a powerful export product on the island, being recognised by the courts of kings, emperors, and czars. There are references to Madeira wine in the works of Shakespeare.
In the middle of the 18th century, Madeira Wine, as it is known today, came into being with the discovery of fortification and heating processes. Fortified wine consisted of adding distilled alcohol to help preserve the wine over a long voyage. Madeira gained the monopoly in the American and English colonies.
In America, Madeira became a favourite of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin. It was used to toast after signing the Declaration of Independence and when Washington officially became the capital of the United States.
During the 19th century, the production and wine trade declined. The vines were attacked, first by mildew and later by the Phylloxera that nearly destroyed wine production in Europe and reached the island. Most of the vineyards were uprooted for sugarcane plantations, and to fight against Phylloxera, we introduced more resistant and prolific vines from America. Moreover, we lost the American market because of the Civil War, and the Suez Canal opened, meaning a reduction of ships calling at Madeira.
Fortunately, the Government created Madeira Wine Institute to revitalise the Madeira industry, and the classic Madeira Wine is back on the market.
Madeira Wine types
Is Madeira Wine sweet? Well, not all. From sweet to dry, they make it from several grape varieties:
- Malmsey (Malvasia) is appreciated for its sweetness as a dessert wine.
- Bual (Boal) is a medium sweet dessert wine.
- Verdelho is a medium-dry appetiser.
- Sercial is dry or extra-dry, served as an appetiser.
- Terrantez is a more refined and noble variety that produces a smaller quantity of must.
- Tinta Negra Mole is mainly used for blending, as it varies according to the altitude at where it grows. It can be dry, sweet, medium-dry or medium-sweet.
How to make Madeira Wine?
Planting and pruning
The first settlers that came to the island faced several challenges. They found dense woods and mountains almost impassable and practically no flat arable land. One more difficulty was the water shortage.
In addition, Madeira microclimates meant that they had to choose the area carefully for grape cultivation because when it pours in the north, the sun can shine in the south, and the higher the altitude, the colder the air.
They worked hard to expand the cultivation area, burning the land to clear the dense vegetation and build hundreds of tiny and steep terraces. They also dug out water channels by hand. It led to the birth of the “Eighth Wonder of the World”: 3000 kilometres of levadas system, water channels, which transport abundant spring water from high mountains to vineyards and other island crops.
Today, most vineyards are on the south and north sides of the island, between 300 and 750 metres above sea level, where the air seems beneficial to the vineyard.
The vines hung on a trellis (pergolas or Latada) at the height of 1,5 to 2 metres. On the soil under the vines grows horticultural crops such as cabbage, potatoes, beans, etc.
The Pruning of the woody stems takes place in January, and in the summer, they strip some leaves to allow the sun to penetrate and improve the fruit richness.
The grape picking begins when the alcohol level reaches 9%.
They start picking on the warmer areas at the low altitude of the southern coast and end in the upper parts of the northern coast. The last grape harvested is the Sercial, which matures more slowly because of the lower temperature.
Pickers mostly pick from below with their hands, sometimes even kneeling on the ground. Others will stand on a short ladder to reach the grapes above them. We used wicker baskets to carry the grapes in the past, but today plastic containers replaced them to avoid losing juice. One thing didn’t change: Carrying them on one’s shoulders and then, on lorries, to the wine lodges in Funchal.
Pressing the grapes
Although not so frequent, we can still see men curling up their pants, singing and squeezing juice with bare feet in the wine press. We do it on special occasions such as the Madeira Wine Festival or with the grapes for local wine.
Machines press the wines used for exporting.
In the past, we poured the must into goatskins (“borrachos”) put on the forehead of bearers (“borracheiros”) who walked or ran to the wine lodge. This job disappeared, and today we can still see “borrachos” in museums and folk groups performances.
Each Madeira wine has a different fermentation process.
12-24 hours after pressing the grapes, the fermentation begins. Fermentation is when, by way of yeast, the natural sugar converts into wine. If we add no wine alcohol, it will continue for four to six weeks.
According to the sweetness of the wine and the characteristics of the desired wine, we can stop or slow down the fermentation process by adding wine alcohol.
Since fermentation reduces the sweetness of fresh grape juice, the longer the juice may ferment, the drier the Wine (Verdelho and Sercial). To preserve the natural sweetness, it is essential to know when to stop fermenting sweeter wines, such as Bual and Malmsey.
A fortified wine, “vinho generoso”, refers to the high alcoholic content (different from liqueur “Licoroso”, which refers to its intense sweetness).
Madeira’s fortification process only started in the 18th century with brandy from sugar cane, but its use was forbidden. Today, the spirits used to fortify Madeira has an alcohol content of 96%. It is from grapes originally from France and Spain.
This process avoids deterioration, and it can preserve the wine for more years and allow it to improve with age.
Heating process (Estufagem)
After fermentation and fortification, we heat and mature the wine in the “estufa” (hot chambers) to bring out the unique flavour of the wine and increase its longevity. This combination of ageing and heat was discovered accidentally in the 17th century and made Madeira wines special.
One of the ships sailed to India, passed the equator, and heated the barrels of wine in the tropics.
Some unsold wine returned to Funchal, and after tasting it, they found that not only did the wine did not turn into vinegar, but it was better than the wine that hadn’t gone through these long journeys (it had a fragrance and smooth taste never experienced before). Today, we call these wines “Vinho da Roda” (return journey).
We also concluded that the constantly rolling wine barrels in the ship’s cargo hold allowed the wine to oxygenate.
The reputation of Madeira wines was getting higher and higher, and over the centuries, Madeira wines were put to mature the same way.
In the 18th century, there was a change. Long sea voyages have become impractical and dangerous, with many risks at sea: robbing and ships sinking because of lousy weather and war.
They found that they could simulate the ageing journey by applying heat in place.
Madeira wine heating process – how is it made?
The “cooking process” is carried out in special rooms “Estufas”, with pipes installed along the walls to transport the heated water to the wine casks.
Winemakers gradually heat the wine for at least three months until it reaches a temperature of 40 degrees Celsius. At the end of this process, they reduce the heat slowly until room temperature.
But not all wine is matured the same way, with the assistance of artificial heat. A limited quantity is matured over many years for blending only in oak casks called “vinho canteiro”.
The fining of any wine is the process of extracting natural sediments that settle to the bottom to give brilliant transparency. Today we use a modern filter system.
Finally, the wine matures in oak casks for at least two or three years from the day of grape harvest to shipping.
Most wines can be stored for extended periods, and we have held some for over 100 years in vats containing up to 30 or 40,000 litres of wine.
During this period, the Wine is pumped from the bottom to the top of the barrel at different intervals to “oxygenate”, avoid stagnation, and improve its aroma and taste.
The Madeira Wine Institute seals the gauges with ribbon (strips of banana bark) and wax. Then they are numbered and assigned lots and will gradually mature over time.
It is the most critical moment because some Madeira will evaporate and never be drunk.
The name comes from the wooden support beams called “canteiros”, where they place the casks.
They put the wines selected for ageing in wooden barrels, usually on the top floor of the wine cellar, where the temperature is higher, for two years.
It undergoes a kind of oxidative ageing in casks, which makes the wine present a unique, strong and complex aroma.
We can only commercialize Canteiro wines after at least three years, starting from January 1st of the year after harvest.
Solera is a blending technique. The wines carry the date of the vintage wine with which the solera began. The basis for the solera must be wine from a single year or harvest. Only 10% is drawn each year, and we must replace this amount with high-quality old wine, using the same type of Wine: Malmsey, Bual, etc.
Solera starts with a row of casks of old, matured Madeira, one next to the other like an avalanche. The newest wines are on the top, and they are topping the next tier, which tops the next, which tops the bottom level. The master blend is at the bottom tier. The maximum number of additions permitted is ten, after which all the wine in the solera must be bottled simultaneously.
In summary, newer wines are blended with older ones, and the original character is preserved. It needs 10 to 20 years of gradual blending.
- Finest Madeira: 3-year maturing period
- Reserve Madeira: 5-year maturing period
- Special Reserve Madeira: 10-year maturing period
- Extra Reserve Madeira: over a 10-year maturing period
- Colheita: This wine has been aged continuously in wood for at least five years. They carry the indication of the year of the harvest.
- Frasqueira or Garrafeira (Vintage) – This wine is at the top of the hierarchy. It is from the best wines from a single year, made from a single “noble” grape variety and aged in wood by the “canteiro” system for at least twenty years before bottling. These wines carry the indication of the year of the harvest. Vintage wines are expensive and are indestructible because of the way of ageing. It means that you can drink a bottle of Vintage Madeira again and again in the months and even years after opening the bottle. We can identify Vintage Madeira by the shipper’s name, year, and grape variety hand-printed on the bottle.
“If I went to a desert island, I would definitely take and old Solera or an old Vintage Madeira” – Michael Broadbent, Master of Wine.
Madeira Institute of Wine, Embroidery and Handicrafts
Madeira wines are subject to strict quality control by the Government. The Institute approves and certifies each Madeira Wine bottle and guarantees the origin and quality of Madeira Wine through a modern laboratory and a committee of tasters.
Madeira Wine Festival
Madeira Wine Festival only happens once a year, each September. It is a very colourful and enjoyable occasion. Song, dance, and local food accompany the celebrations, and fresh grape juice (new wine) is drunk. You can even join in the treading of the grapes.
Madeira Wine Essence
Madeira Wine Essence is an event dedicated to prestigious Portuguese wines. It is a three-day-long event that, last year, took place on November 25-27th at the Savoy Palace.
Madeira wine tour and Madeira food tours
We offer various options in Funchal and the island if you are looking for a Madeira wine tour or a food tour in Madeira to try the local specialities. On these tours, we:
- Visit a Madeira Wine Lodge
- Visit a Madeira Wine Museum
- Stroll through the vineyards
- Have lunch in the vineyards
- Interact with local wine producers
- And, of course, taste Madeira wines paired with local food.
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The most notable thing about this wine for me is that it allows us to get together and welcome our guests, or after the meal is over, we can sit back and relax and enjoy a glass of wine. And think about everything that’s gone into this wine over the years! That’s what this wine is — it’s fantastic.
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