Madeira tasting with Rui Falcao at the Portuguese embassy in London
Madeira is a place - an island in the Atlantic just off the coast of north Africa to be exact.
Small, volcanic and sub-tropical with steep hills, it is an unlikely candidate for producing great wine in the same way that you might imagine Champagne is too cold or Jerez to broiling to produce anything of interest.
And yet the same combination of adversity and innovation that led to secondary fermentation in bottle and the solera method have in Madeira resulted in one of the world's great wines.
A small island, Madeira's wines are complex and confusing to the outsider, intriguing and nuanced to the initiated.
The history of Madeira goes back to 1450 - the unique flavours of Madeira are due to a combination of climate, soil, viticulture and production method, of which the last two are for me the most significant.
The defining flavours of Madeira are a biting acidity and complex, aged aromas of old leather, roasted spices and nuts, and rich fruitcake.
Madeira is exposed to heat and air in large barrels which "cooks" the wine over many years to bring about these oxidative aromas.
The high acidity in Madeira is due to the acidic volcanic soils, fertilisation and irrigation of the vines which leads to high yields and high acidity, plus high humidity and a year-round temperature of 20C-25C.
Varieties and Styles
Styles are defined by the grape variety used:
- Sercial: grown on the highest vineyards (600m-700m+), this is the driest style; match with consomme
- Verdelho: semi-dry from slightly lower down; match with cheeses
- Bual: sweet from lower down, a dessert by itself
- Malvasia / Malmsay: the sweetest form the lowest vineyards.
Additionally - and confusingly - Tinta Negra (which actually represents almost 75% of vineyard area) can be made into any sweetness level at any altitude.
Madeira, being fully oxidised in its creation, can last forever - it is a wine to buy for your children and grandchildren - once opened, a bottle will not spoil.
Madeira must be aged for a minimum of three years, but often for much longer.
Blended Madeira is a blend of ages - 3, 5, 10, 15, 20, 30 and 40 years are the standards.
Confusingly, these reflect neither a minimum nor an average age, but a style - as defined and verified by the Madeira Wine Institute. This feels like something from a different, less literal age, from a time when people wrote "here be dragons" at the edges of their maps.
Vintage Madeira is a single grape variety from a single year.
A Frasqueira must spend at least 20 years in barrel; a harvest wine is bottled when younger and is a quasi baby-Frasqueira.
More recent innovations are Alvara, a blend of varieties and single cask vintages - wine from a single variety, a single year and a single barrel which is a step on the way towards vineyard bottlings. As in Jerez and Champagne, terroir is not generally considered as a quality factor.
Other related articles
On Madeira - The Tasting
On Madeira - The Background
IVBAM (Madeira Wine Institute) - website