Madeira is a type of fortified wine made on the island of Madeira. While the island is Portugese, it lies almost 400 miles due west of Casablanca, and was an important trading post and refueling station during the Age of Exploration.
The style of Madeira came about by accident. Vines were planted on the island soon after the island was discovered in 1419. These were probably a Cretan variety called Malvasia that makes light, dry, aromatic wines. By the late 15th century, the Dutch East India company was picking up pipes (a barrel that held 112 gallons) of Madeira for long sea voyages to the East Indies. Invariably, this wine would spoil in the barrel, but ingenious producers realized that the addition of a little rum would preserve the wine, which was eventually changed to brandy, like in the production of Port.
As the story goes, one ship brought back a barrel of Madeira that hadn't been opened during the voyage to the East Indies and back, and upon landing in Madeira, the pipe was opened and the resulting wine was found to have a distinct mellowness that came from the heating and cooling of the wine in the hold of the ship, developing sweet and sour flavors, a warm, rich nuttyness, and an oxidative power that came to be highly prized. Wines of this sort were called vinho da roda - wine that had made the "round trip" from Madeira to the East Indies and back, crossing the equator twice. Putting pipes of Madeira on a ship and sailing it halfway around the world and back was incredibly expensive, but it took until 1794 until technology was able to duplicate the long ship voyage.
Meanwhile, the 1661 marriage of Catherine of Bragança, the daughter of the King of Portugal to Charles II of England opened new trade markets for the wines of Madeira. With wine merchants on the island able to sell directly to any English colony, an influx of English merchants came to the island. Names like Leacock, Cossart-Gordon and Blandy joined Henriques, d'Oliveria, Justino and Barbeito to become major exporters of wine.
At its peak in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Madeira was the favorite drink of not only French pirates and English nobility, but American luminaries such as Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton. The USS Constitution was christened with a bottle of Madeira, and it was toasted as the Declaration of Independence was signed. Because it was stable in the era before air conditioning, pipes of Madeira could be stored in warm climates without the need to build subterranean cellars.
But all things come to an end. In 1852, oidium (powdery mildew) was found on the island and decreased production by 90 percent. After a cure was found for that, the root louse phylloxera was imported into Madeira and proceeded to almost destroy viticulture there, to the point that sugar cane and American vitis labrusca grapes were planted. The four traditional high acid white grapes (Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malvasia) were replaced by a high yielding red grape called Tinta Negra Mole. Out of the 85 shippers of wine on the island in 1850, only fifteen were there after phylloxera.
To add insult to injury, both the Russian market and the American market collapsed in the early 20th century due to revolution and Prohibition. Changing consumer tastes dictated lighter, drier wines, and Madeira became synonymous with cheap cooking wines. To combat this image, the Madeira Wine Institute was founded in 1979 to provide support for viniculture, aging practices and marketing of their wines.
Madeira is made by a unique process of heating and cooling fortified wine either artificially or naturally. The wine itself starts out like most other fortified wines - grapes are picked, crushed and fermented. Inexpensive Madeira is fermented dry. then placed into concrete or stainless tanks that have exterior pipes through which hot water is run, heating the wine to 130 degrees Fahrenheit for three months. This process is called cuba de calor. The wine is allowed to cool slowly, then fortified with 192 proof brandy to about 20 percent alcohol, sweetened and colored to meet the style of Madeira the producer wants, and aged for a minimum of two years in large, neutral barrels.
Higher quality Madeira is a different animal altogether - made much more like Port. Grapes are picked, crushed and fermentation starts, only to be arrested at a chosen point by the addition of 192 proof brandy. The fortified, still sweet wine is then put into a barrel and placed in a non-temperature controlled room called a canteiro, after the wooden beams the pipes are placed on. These rooms effectively bake and cool the wine over a minimum period of three years, pushing the wine into the wood and drawing it back out, mimicking ship transport. They are then bottled.
As you can imagine from its production method, Madeira is almost indestructable. Bottles that are 200 years old are usually in perfect condition, and once opened, a bottle of Madeira can be drunk over a period of months or years.
Four white grape varieties have been historically used to producer Madeira: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual (or Boal) and Malvasia (Anglicized as Malmsey). These are called the "noble" grapes, and each was historically linked to a style of wine. During the 19th century phylloxera crisis, a lot of Madeira was labelled as one of these four grape names, but corresponding to the style it was made in, so that Sercial Madeira was dryish, Verdelho was slightly sweet, Bual was moderately sweet and Malmsey was very sweet. Late 19th and early 20th century replanting post-phylloxera was mainly with the red grape Tinta Negra Mole. Today, these five grapes make up 95 percent or more of all Madeira (though Tinta Negra Mole is 85 percent of that) - there are still tiny amounts of the almost extinct Terrantez and Bastardo made.
In 1993, the Madeira Wine Institute passed regulations that required a bottle of Madeira with a noble grape name on the label to be 85 percent of more of that grape, and that those wines be aged for at least five years. This forced wines made from mainly Tinta Negra Mole to use a variety of terms to describe the color, sweetness and age of their wines:
- Color: Very pale, Pale, Golden, Medium Dark, Dark
- Body: Light, Full-Bodied, Fine, Soft, Velvety, Mellow
- Sweetness: Extra Dry, Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Rich, Rich
- Aging: Finest (3 years), Reserve (5 years), Special Reserve (10 years), Extra Reserve (15 years)
The noble grapes are also allowed the terms Colheita, aged for at least 5 years and entitled to put the vintage year on the bottle and Vintage, which has been aged for at least 20 years and also has the year of harvest.
Last but not least, there is a style called Rainwater - made from Tinta Negra Mole, this is meant to mimic the noble grape Verdelho's historic light, dryish, smoky style.