The making of a legend
The Portuguese island of Madeira, which lies in the Atlantic Ocean, 480 miles southwest of Lisbon, was an important refuelling port for passing ships on the trade routes of old. Madeira wines were taken on board as victuals and brandy was added to each barrel of wine to improve its keeping qualities during the long sea voyages. The heat of the ship's hold was found to have dramatically improved the wines, making them richer and more complex, as well as making them stable and capable of ageing almost indefinitely.
In the 18th century winemakers experimented with replicating this process on land. Initially they simply used the heat of the sun to warm up the barrels. This is known as the Canteiro process and it is still used. Today, after fortification with 96% grape spirit, the wines are left in casks of varying sizes normally 300 - 650 litres, in lodges where the temperature can reach over 30oC and the humidity can be as high as 90%. During the process around 4 - 5% is lost by evaporation.
Later special 'ovens' or estufas were created to heat up the barrels of wine. The estufa process has been modified in recent years. The wines are now kept in containers, mainly of stainless steel, which are heated by 'jackets' containing hot water. This enables the wine to be maintained at the required temperature of 45 oC - 50 oC for a period of three months. Modern estufas can be large, ranging from 20,000 - 100,000 litres. After heating, the wines are allowed to cool down gradually.
After the Canteiro or estufa process the wines are carefully tested for quality and potential for further ageing. The length of time a wine is left to age is a decision based on quality and the style of wine required. The wine is aged in old wooden barrels and then offered as a 3, 5, 10 or 15-year-old wine, with the very best being offered as vintage Madeira after a minimum of 20 years' cask ageing.
Madeira wines are without doubt the longest lasting quality wines produced. A vintage Madeira can last for a century or more, and then once opened the wine can be enjoyed, re-stoppered and stored for months without deterioration.
Look out for the name of the grape variety on the label of your bottle of Madeira. Most labels list the grape used, and if one is mentioned then the contents have to contain at least 85% of this variety. The grape varieties listed give a huge clue as to the style of the wine. The main varieties used are as follows:
A white grape usually grown in the coolest vineyards at heights of up to 1,000 metres on the north side of the Island. It is the same grape as the 'esgana cao' (literally translated as dog strangler) which is grown on the Portuguese mainland. Due to the height at which it is grown, sercial ripens with difficulty and makes a dry and acidic wine. With fortification and cask ageing a good sercial is pale, dry, tangy and austere. Serve cellar cool as an aperitif perhaps with olives, smoked salmon or roasted almonds.
A white grape also predominately planted on the cooler north side of the island, tends to produce a medium-dry to medium-sweet wine, perhaps with a slight caramel tinge. More mellow than sercial, it retains the acidity. Serve cellar cool with ham or pâtés.
A white grape grown in warmer locations on the south coast of the island, it reaches higher sugar levels than both sercial and verdelho. Produces a dark, medium-rich raisin and caramel wine which again retains its acididty. Serve at room temperature with a hard cheese, dried fruit, cakes or fruit tart.
A white grape produced mainly in the warmer locations on the south of the island around Camara de Lobos to the west of Funchal. Produces a richly sweet wine that avoids being cloying due to maintaining the high level of acidity found in all Madeira wines. Serve at room temperature with rich fruit cake, chocolate or coffee desserts.
A red grape and the most widely planted grape on the island. It can and does make decent Madeira, but its wines rarely have the keeping qualities and style of the above four.
Very little of terrantez, a white grape, is now grown. Some re-planting is taking place but with low yields growers are not very enthusiastic. Mainly now found in old vintages or soleras, it can vary in style from dry to rich.
A sweet red grape, again very little is now produced, but it can be found in some glorious old vintages; often shows some bitterness.
3, 5, 10 and 15-year-old
These are the most readily available wines, the label shows the age of the youngest constituent. Mainly produced in the estufa system. If the wine is made from one of the first four classic grape varieties mentioned above this will be stated on the label. If no grape variety is stated, the wine will be made mainly from the widely grown red tinta negra grape and the wine will be labelled with the level of sweetness.
First offered by The Madeira Wine Company, a wine labelled 'single harvest' is a wine from a single vintage that has had five to ten years' cask ageing in the Canteiro system. It cannot be labelled as a 'vintage' wine as it has not had enough cask ageing.
A single-vintage wine that has had approx 12-18 years in cask, ageing in the Canteiro system, bottled off as a single vintage probably because the blender has considered that more cask ageing (up to 20 years minimum) will not improve it enough to make a top-quality vintage wine.
The top-quality Madeiras produced. A single vintage wine that has had at least 20 years' cask ageing, in many instances up to 40 years or more, in the Canteiro system. These wines are increasingly rare but are outstanding examples of wines that can last a lifetime and beyond and still remain remarkably fresh and appealing when eventually opened. These wines share a characteristic nuttiness, with hints of caramel, toffee, marmalade and raisins. All this complexity and depth of flavour is underpinned by a bright, crisp acidity which prevents the wines from being cloying and leaves the palate feeling refreshed.
From time to time we are able to make small parcels of vintage Madeiras available for sale on our website. They make wonderful gifts for special anniversaries and birthdays.