Madeira Part 2

So in the previous piece I kicked off our study of Madeira by getting across its history and how the wines are made, so to round it all out, I’ll go into where exactly the island is, the grape varieties used in the wines, and the different styles of wine made here. So let’s get into it!

So first, to give you an understanding of why Madeira tastes the way it does, we have to understand where it is. As I mentioned last week, Madeira was a stop to take on provisions on the way to the New World from Europe. It is located 500km due west of Morocco, on the north-west corner of Africa, and 200km due north of Spain’s Canary Islands. It is on the 32nd Latitude, which puts it in line with countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, as well as US states New Mexico and Arizona- not areas necessarily known for their wine-growing! Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, this puts Madeira definitely in the sub-tropical zone of climate, and explains why the Estufa or cooking method talked about last week was integrated into the method of production of Madeira wines!


There are 4 styles of Madeira, all of which are named after the unique grape varieties they are made from, each of which grows with varying success in different parts of this hot, humid island. Each variety has a different ripening ability and sugar content, which equates to a dryer or sweeter style of Madeira. All the below are white grapes, though the ageing process mentioned last week, which takes place after the wines have had fermentation stopped by fortification, makes them darker than pretty much any other white wine on earth.

Sercial is the grape that struggles to ripen the most in Madeira’s climate, reaching only about 11% potential alcohol. This is a style for ageing that only really starts to show its true potential at 5-10 years old. Considered the driest of all the main styles, it still has 20-45g/l sugar in the bottle, though you wouldn’t really notice due to the searing acid. The wines are so acidic in fact that the grape is known locally as the “dog choker”!

Verdelho is the medium dry style of Madeira, with less acid and a little more sugar. Before the arrival of Phylloxera, this grape was considered the workhorse of the island. Still a fresher style of wine, it is allowed to ferment for a few days before it is fortified, so more fruity flavours come through. Not kept on skins again to keep freshness.

Boal, or Bual (depending on your allegiance; English or Portuguese) is a hard wine to find, as there are only 10-15 hectares of this grape planted on the whole island. This is basically the size of a medium-sized Premier Cru in Burgundy. All Boal/Bual is planted on the south of the island where it is a little warmer and most importantly dryer, as this variety (also known as Malvasia Fina in this part of the island just to be a little more confusing) doesn’t like the wet. This variety gets a distinctive dark colour when put through the Estufa system, and takes on distinctively chocolatey, nutty aromas, followed by prune and fig.

Malvasia or Malmsey is the richest and sweetest of all styles, and is made from the variety which deals best with the wet climates of the north of the island. These wines are fortified almost immediately after they are crushed (it gets to about 1% natural alcohol) to retain the most sweetness. They are aged in the most time consuming Canteiro system for years, where they attain a concentrated, nutty complexity unlike pretty much anything else on earth.


Other varieties of note are Torrontes, Bastardo and Tinta Negra. Torrontes is not related at all to Argentina’s version of the Muscat grape, and is extremely rare, used only in Frescera vintage wines, among the most treasured of all wines of Madeira (more on that below). Medium sweet, this wine has searing acid and a rich, heavy body, it is unbelievably rare due to the difficulty of grafting and growing in this niche region. Next is the even rarer Bastardo grape, which is also known as Trousseau from the Jura in eastern France (who knows how it made it this far!) which in 2010 made 4.5 litres of wine on the whole island! On the other end of the scale is Tinta Negra which is the most planted variety. This is the workhorse of Madeira- very versatile and able to make dry, off-dry, medium sweet and very sweet styles. This grape usually makes up the majority of the entry level wines destined for cooking, and has an interesting past- its parents are Pinot Noir and Grenache!


On top of these style laws, there are other terms which relate to the ageing of the wines. Basically there are 2 categories of quality Madeira; Those with an indication of age, and those with an actual vintage date. The vintage wines are easy- this is just like vintage Port, where producers are able to create such a superior vintage due to incredible weather conditions, and all the wine in the bottle must come from a single year. Things become a little murkier with the indication of age however- only 2 terms are used with these styles of Madeira, and these indicate minimum amounts of time the wine has been aged in barrel before release. Colheita means the wine has aged in barrel for a minimum 5 years, while Frescera means the wine has been in barrel for a minimum 20 years- which is a pretty big gap really! Quality wines with an “indication of age” are similar to Tawny Port, however where Port makes it simple by putting things like ‘10 year old Tawny’ and ‘25 year old Tawny’ on the bottle, this is not the case in Madeira.


Almost like a purposeful attempt to muddy the waters even more once the wine is bottled, producers can put an indication of age in bottle before release; instead Reserve means 5 years ageing in bottle, Special Reserve means 10 years, and there are a mix of other names for older. Several producers have done away with this and started putting numbers indicating age on bottles similar to Tawny Port- thank God! Ageing usually occurs in old French oak, though some producers are branching out and ageing their wines in American oak, while one is using old Cognac casks while another ages their wines in old Irish Whiskey casks! They then sell these back to the distillery- mutually beneficial situation!

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager