John Nielsen’s first encounter with the Madeira wine was not the most pleasant. He found it sweet and thin, and in general could not quite understand its fame. But that was all to change.
Mention the word “Madeira” and most people will think of Madeira wine that is produced on the beautiful island. Others will recall using the wine to enhance their cooking.
Venturing into the world of wines and gaining a taste for the alcoholic grape juice can often be a long process. A dear friend, Luiz began the educational process and my mind opened up to a world that I now adore and have worked with for 25 years. Luiz explained the complicated set up of the vineyards and then laid out six different bottles to taste.
The first few wines I had tasted were largely “non vintage” and were by his account “excellent for cooking with”…..the next bracket had an average age of 20 years and proved rich and elegant, but it was the 30 year olds that were simply stunning, I suddenly began to understand the depth and change.
The beautiful island, also known as the “island of Paradise” lies 465 miles off the African coast of Morocco and 622 miles from the Portuguese capital city of Lisbon. With stunning botanical gardens, miles of “lavada” trails for the keen walker, and a landscape that boast mountains, sea cliffs, historical sights and a fascinating history, it’s an ideal destination for all to explore.
The island of Madeira has an oceanic microclimate with the warm Gulf Stream passing through the islands and offers year round warm waters to swim in. The capital town of Funchal is picture perfectly set in the bay and is home to the majority of 300,000 population. You’ll also find a range of some of Madeira’s luxury hotels here including one of Europe grand hotels, Reid’s Palace and newly opened chic boutique hotel, The Vine.
The soil and climate of Madeira were found to be ideal for the production of wine. But many arduous years had to pass by, since the first plantings – circa 1470, before the land was cleared and enough vines planted to make an industry.
Most vineyards are on the south and north of the island, the smallest quantity on the eastern end. Usually the vines hang off trellises with lattice crosspieces for the vines to rest on at heights of six feet.
The roots of Madeira’s wine industry dates back to the Age of Exploration when Madeira was a regular port of call for ships traveling to the New World and East Indies.
The earliest examples of Madeira, like Port, were unfortified and had the habit of spoiling at sea.
Following the example of Port, a small amount of distilled alcohol made from cane sugar was added to stabilize the wine by boosting the alcohol content. The Dutch East India Company became a regular customer, picking up large (112 gal/423 l) casks of wine known as pipes for their voyages to India. The intense heat and constant movement of the ships had a transforming effect on the wine. It was found that the customer preferred the taste of this style of this Madeira Wine. Today three techniques are used to ensure the highest quality of Madeira’s are aged without the use of any artificial heat, being stored by the winery in warm rooms left to age by the heat of the sun. In cases like vintage Madeira, this heating process can last for from 20 years to 100 years.
Grape Varieties and Styles
There are four major types of Madeira, named according to the grape variety used. Ranging from the sweetest to the driest style they are: Malmsey, Bual, Verdelho, and Sercial. The four varieties will guide you in terms of taste, but real style and quality factor is the age. Often found in the export markets are the 5 year old “Reserve ” & the 10-year old Special Reserve.
When visiting Madeira make sure you taste the 15 to 20 year old Extra Reserve.
These wines are rich and a delight. Try them with a bit local goat cheese! To cap of the fine flavors seek out older Vintage Madeira, which must have a minimum age of 20 years and often can be over 50 years old, they can be quite sensational.
The initial winemaking steps of Madeira start out like most other wines with the grapes being harvested in October, crushed, pressed and then fermented in either stainless steel or oak cask. The annual harvest offers visitors a wonderful time to visit, when celebrations are high and the villages are decorated to mark the big event. Through out the island locals can be found helping produce the vintage or at least be part of the process!
The 1954 and 1905 Bual were sensational and dear to my heart. The 1905 was the birth year of my late grandmother and to celebrate her 75th birthday we opened this beautiful bottle. I can still taste the deep rich texture with raisin and honey flavors.
The 1954 proved brilliant and cemented my deep admiration for the growers and makers of this wine, as well as the island.
Madeira’s have been known to survive over 150 years in excellent condition. It is not uncommon to see Madeira’s pushing the century mark for sale at stores that specialize in rare wine.
As I walk down the cobbled streets of Funchal and pass by a wine shop or two, my eyes search to find a few more bottles with vintage Madeira from years that I will treasure.