Portugal Wine

Drinking history, drinking Madeira

Although highly popular in the past, fortified wines have slowly fallen out of fashion since the late 80s. The market demands lower alcohol levels and higher acidity – or at least bottles of wine that can be finished in a meal. If there is a fortified wine that can survive this trend, that is Madeira. Its high acid pierces through the palate, demanding another sip. Its oxidised nature allows it to be stored open for months, if so desired. 

The wines have a unique character marked by orange zest aromas and the typical walnut and almond notes from prolonged barrel ageing. The driest forms of Madeira can be wonderful gastronomic wines, pairing with a great diversity of foods and tolerating spicy dishes and those rich in umami (see our kimchi and aged cheddar grilled sandwich).

Bottled and branded similarly, the general consumer might find its varieties difficult to judge. A typical way to categorise them is by sweetness. But we prefer to do so by flavour profile too.

GrapeSweetnessFlavour profile
SercialDry or off-dryCitrous (lime, lemon), quince, apricot, salty
VerdelhoOff-dryDried apricots
TerrantezOff-drySimilar to Verdelho, but also mineral and smoky.
BualSweetPrunes, raisins, apricot jam, caramel
MalvasiaLusciousFigs, toffee

A most defining feature is its ageing. We recommend 10 year old wines minimum. Colheita wines with 30 years or more provide superior examples, but prices scale up fast. Ageing not only rounds flavours and unleashes more nuanced aromas, but it also increases the concentration of the wines. Barrel ageing causes up to 15% of the wine to evaporate every year. This concentration, when matched to the high natural acidity of Madeira’s grapes, yields a very harmonious balance.  

One could ask oneself why fortify such seemingly rich wines. Interestingly, Madeira’s wines were originally still. They only started to be fortified to ensure its survival in transport by ship in the 18th century (copying Sherry and Douro). The fortification, oxigen, and heat during transport causes a combination of Maillard reactions and oxidative reactions that produce those nutty, honey, caramel and dried fruit notes resulting in Madeira’s distinctive flavour profile. It is so characteristic that the process is often referred to as maderisation. Naturally, nowadays the ageing is not performed in ships, but rather in stationary barrels exposed to the mild temperatures of the island.

A volcanic archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic with a mild climate is also a great bet for viticulture. Grapes ripen well and the cool ocean winds maintain their acidity. The south tends to be warmer, aiding the maturation of sweeter varieties, whereas the north is more exposed to the Atlantic winds. This cool air is the origin of Madeira’s great acidity and the key to its longevity.
There are few wines from the 19th century that can be drunk with pleasure. We bet that most of them are from Madeira. Even though only eight winemakers are still operative (we like Barbeito, D’Oliveiras, Blandy’s especially), wines this old are released every year. A chance to drink history…

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