Madeira Part 1

Did you know that it wasn’t Champagne, Burgundy or Bordeaux that was used to toast the signing of the American Constitution in 1765, but the now little-known wines of Madeira? Now many of you have probably heard of this wine (usually as an ingredient in Madeira cake), but many have never seen or tried it. How could a wine of such significance a few hundred years ago be considered mainly a cooking wine today? And does it deserve more recognition than it is given? Well, it turns out that is a very complicated question requiring 2 weeks to cover! This week I’ll speak about the history and the method of production that makes Madeira so unique, and then next week I’ll delve into the location of the Island and how this relates to the styles of wine made here. So let’s get into it!

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So first of all we must look at why Madeira, a tiny island sitting a few hundred kilometres off the north east coast of Africa would be a wine of such prestige it was drunk in the palaces of royalty the world over, as well as during the signing of the US Constitution. At first glance, it’s hard to see how wines from this small (less than 60km across at the widest point), remote, mountainous and extremely humid island would become popular. To make matters worse, Madeira has a subtropical climate, which presents many viticultural issues such as vine heat stress, but particularly fungal diseases, which thrive in this environment tropical heat and high rainfall. Therefore to understand the why of Madeira, we need to look back into history, and appreciate that several centuries ago calories and clean drinking water were not as abundantly available as they are today. Sweet wines were sterile and full of energy, so were a staple of life for many. The high-quality sweet wines of the world, such as Tokaji, Vin de Constance and Sauternes were fashionable not just because they were delicious, but they were craved due to the valuable calories they provided.

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Wines from some regions like Oporto and Xeres (production regions of Port and Sherry respectively) were fortified to arrest the fermentation process and retain the natural grape sugars- these areas are too dry and hot to encourage natural botrytis. Madeira, being a Portuguese colony, followed the example of Port and fortified their wines in a similar way. These wines had the added advantage over botrytised styles by providing the wine a longer life between production and consumption- very valuable in a world where hygiene was near-inexistent and therefore spoilage was common, and voyages by boat or on horseback could take months. The island of Madeira was a stop to take on provisions on the way to the New World, and of course this included fresh newly made barrels of Madeira wine. During the long, hot voyage, sailors discovered these wines with their searingly high acid from their unique location, evolved into a rounder, complex and utterly delicious wine that was very different from when it left the island, and became especially popular in far-away destinations, even if it wasn’t so popular where it originated! This wine became known as vinho do roda; ‘wine of the round trip’. This was a unique mistake- many other wines like Burgundy and Bordeaux simply would not deal well with rolling and pitching across a deck as it crosses the equator and would arrived spoilt, whereas Madeira was improved by the voyage.

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Although deliberate oxidation is pivotal to various wine styles around the world (Oloroso Sherry from Xerez, vin jaune from the Jura and the rancio wines of Banyuls), the practice became so strongly associated with Madeira that it became known as ‘madeirization’. This long ageing process which made the wines so complex, full-bodied and basically immune to spoilage took a long time to complete- in fact the longer it took the better and more ageworthy the wines would be- so the prices rose and Madeira became a sought-after style of wine. But just what is ‘madeirization’? Basically it is the slow and even heating and oxidation (if done too fast the wine will simply cook and spoil) of a fortified wine whose increased alcohol levels will protect it from the negatives associated with these common enemies of table wines. The alcohol inhibits the action of acetobacter, which transforms wine into vinegar, while the heat caramelises the residual sugars in the wine, transforming sweet primary fruit notes into cooked or stewed fruits, nutty notes and burned butter. The colour darkens as the wine slowly oxidises, turning brown as an apple would when left to the mercies of oxygen. I bet the first time this happened it was a brave individual who took the first sip of madeirized wine- I mean think about it- this process is basically the exact opposite of everything we do here at Wine Ark!

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Today madeirization is still carried out in Madeira, though the boat voyages and rolling of barrels across decks has been replaced with (slightly) more modern methods. There are 3 ways young wines are aged in Madeira today;

-the estufagem system is the most widely used, as it is the fastest and cheapest method. It involves ‘baking’ the new wine in stainless steel tanks covered with heating tubes. These heat the wine to a constant 50 degrees Celsius for about 3 months. This creates the cheapest but least complex and integrated styles of Madeira
armazem de calor is the next process, named for the artificially heated warehouses where barrels of wine are left in for somewhere between 6-12 months. This is gentler and resulting wines have more subtlety and finesse.
-finally there is the canteiro method, which is the most time-consuming and expensive, as it replicated the original method as closely as practically possible. Barrels of wine are left in the rafters of Madeira producers’ halls and heated only by the sun’s rays. This ageing process continues for anywhere from 20 years to a full century, and the wines are the highest quality, and obviously the most expensive!

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager