What makes Madeira wine outstandingly unique?

The island of Madeira is located just off the coast of Morocco in the Atlantic Ocean and its steep volcanic hills and several micro climates are almost a guarantee for successful wine growing. However, it is exactly the island’s location and remoteness that puts a twist in the story of Madeira wine.

To understand what makes Madeira wine so unique, we must travel back to meet the conquistadors of the 15th Century.

The early Portuguese settlers already started a wine production, mixing wild grapes found on the island with sweet Malvasia grapes brought over from Crete. The Madeiran wine trade started mainly in the East Indies, but during the long journey the wine was completely spoilt, almost unfit for human consumption, therefore not so popular in the foreign market.

Then the Portuguese settlers thought about adding a small amount of distilled alcohol made of sugarcane, the same method they had been using for making Port. This way the wine was able to travel far without being spoilt. The only problem was that people in the East Indies still associated Madeira wine with a vinegary, undrinkable slipslop, therefore a large quantity was sent back to Madeira.

At this point, the wine had spent a good few months travelling on ships, then stood in vain in the tropical Indonesian heat just to be put on a ship again and travel all the way back to its home. The wine was heated up and cooled down over and over again, and when the barrels were finally opened in the ports of Madeira, the sailors knew that they just discovered something exceptional.

The winemakers quickly realised that aging the wine on the sea voyages would be a very costly production, so they started to build so-called estufas, or chambers that were heated up by the direct sunlight.

Madeira wine, to this very day, is still heated to approximately 46 degrees during the making. Nowadays, depending on the quality and price range, there are three methods to heat up the wine: circulating hot water around the tank that holds the wine; steaming the room where the wine is stored, creating a sauna-like environment for a minimum of half a year; or, for the highest quality Madeiras, aged using only organic heat. Winemakers will leave the barrels in the direct sun. This process can last between 20 to 100 years. Heat aging makes Madeira wine long-lived and they usually survive decades or even centuries after being opened.

After this aging process was discovered, Madeira wine was resurrected and started its reign. It became extremely popular in countries where preserving and storing wine was an issue, such as the southern parts of the United States, the Caribbean, and North Africa.

Madeira can be consumed pre-meal as an apéritif, or post-meal as a digestif, while cheaper Madeiras are often used for cooking. In a traditional Madeiran household, the wine would be paired with bolo de mel, a rich, spiced honey cake, as almost all Madeira wines have a nice, dry finish that compliments a sweet dessert very well.

It is also worth mentioning that Madeira cake, a staple dessert in British and Irish cuisine, has its roots in the British Isles, and was originally served with Madeira wine.

If I grabbed your attention and you would also like to sample some fine Madeira and some traditional honey cake on this beautiful island, or indeed compare it to the Port wines of the Douro Valley contact sales@smoothred.com or call +44 208 877 4940. All our gastronomic getaways can be tailored to suit your tastes. 

By Karmen Sipos

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