Last week, I wrote about Ice Wine. So, this week, I though I would keep the dessert wine theme going, but visit a wine that most people haven't explored, and take a different direction. The funny thing is that most people that have heard of Madeira, think of it as something they cook with. Madeira is one of those wines that has survived through the ages. It ebbs and flows with wine drinkers. Now is the time to rediscover this unusual wine!

The "different direction" that I was referring to has to do with how the wines are made. With last weeks ice wine blog, we were talking about cold weather, and how it affects the wine. This time, we are talking about heat, and how it has affects the wine.

First off, Madeira is located in the Atlantic Ocean. It is an island off the coast of Morocco, and is part of Portugal. It was discovered by Zarco the Squinter, a Portuguese explorer, in 1419. The name, "madeira" means "wood" in Portuguese, as the island was heavily wooded. So much wood, that they couldn't grow anything on it. Zarco had the forest set on fire, to clear some of the brush. Little did he know that it was a volcanic island....the fire burned for seven years. The extensive fire added ash to the soil, which now contributes to the crops that are grown there.

Madeira became a main supply port for ships that were exploring routes around the South African Cape. Sugar cane, grains, and wine were loaded into the ships, for travel south of the equator. To prevent the wine from spoiling, they would fortify it, by adding a neutral spirit (now brandy is the spirit of choice). The additional alcohol helped to keep the wine from oxidizing. On the long voyages, the wine would be exposed to heat (crossing the equator) and a constant mixing motion from the rolling seas. They soon discovered that the wine developed a unique taste, that was preferred to the standard fortified wine. Obviously, the cost of making wine by shipping it all over the world was excessive, so the winemakers came up with a process of cooking the wine on the island, and simulate the affects of ship voyages. The process is known as estufagem.

Madeira cask in estufagem
The wines start out just like any other wine. They ferment, and create still wine. Depending on the sweetness level, the fermentation may be stopped by adding the spirits (fortification), leaving residual sugars (the timing of the fortification will determine the ultimate sweetness of the wine). The wines are then put into wooden casks, and heated (in either a room, via artificial heat, or stored in a warehouse that is only heated by the sun). The heating process can last as little as a few months, to as long as 100 years (for the finest Madeira). The wine ages, mellows and oxidizes during this time, mimicking the long voyages across the equator.

One of the more interesting aspects of Madeira is that it can be made from five different grapes, four of which will show up on the bottle label, and help you to determine the style of wine. The fifth grape (Tinta Negra Mole) is the most common, and is only used for bulk Madeira...particularly cooking Madeira (which has salt and pepper added).

The four grapes we see on the wine shelf are:
Sercial - This is the driest style of wine. It is known for its' almond flavors, and high acidity
Verdelho - This is an off-dry style of wine, with some residual sugar.
Bual - This is a sweet, dessert style wine. It is characterized by a dark color, medium-rich texture, and raisin flavors.
Malmsey (actually, the grape is Malvasia, but the bottle will say Malmsey) - This is the sweetest style of wine, and has a dark color, rich (almost syrupy) texture, and strong caramel and coffee flavors.

At one time, these wines were extremely popular in the United States. Rainwater Madeira was once the drink of the South. And, a little trivia here....when our Founding Fathers had finished signing the Declaration of Independence, they toasted the occasion with Madeira.

So if you are adventurous, try the Sercial Madeira as an aperitif. The Verdelho can work as an aperitif, dinner wine, or even dessert (all depending on what you are eating). The Bual and Malmsey make wonderful dessert wines (Bual is one of my favorites for apple pie). Here is something else to keep in mind...since the wine has been fortified, and cooked, it has already been "destroyed". You can open a bottle, and it won't go bad on you. Enjoy!


  1. Thank you Jim. Good to know.

  2. Thanks For Sharing Such a Good information about dessert wine.I I am also wine tasting over the weekend.