Explore / Serve, Store & Taste

The Ultimate Guide to Madeira Wines


Expertise Expertise

The making of a legend

Madeira wine as we know it was discovered quite by accident (or so the story goes) in the 15th century. 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 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.

Bottles of Madeira
Bottles of Madeira

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.

Casks of Madeira at Blandy's
Casks of Madeira at Blandy's

Madeira grapes

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 1,000metres 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.

Bual (Boal)

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.

Malmsey (Malvasia)

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.

Tinta negra

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.

Tinta negra grapes on the vine in Madeira
Tinta negra grapes on the vine in Madeira


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.

Madeira types

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 labelled with the level of sweetness.

Single harvest

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.

Not yet a member? Join now and receive £20 off your first order

Join The Wine Society

Want more inspiration?

Sign up for a carefully-curated selection of recipes, guides, in-depth expertise and much more.

Our website uses cookies with the aim of providing you with a better service. By using this website you consent to The Wine Society using cookies in accordance with our policy.


4.4. Cookie Policy

By using The Wine Society website, you agree to cookies being used in accordance with the policy outlined below. If you do not agree to this, you must alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you or cease using the website.

The Wine Society uses cookies to enable easy navigation and shopping on the website. We take the privacy of all who use our website very seriously and ensure that our use of cookies complies with current EU legislation. The following guide outlines what cookies are, the types of cookies used on The Society's website and how they work.

You may alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you, but this will cause difficulties when accessing and using some areas of the site. Instructions on how to do this can also be found below.

4.4.1. What are 'Cookies'?

  • Most major websites use cookies.
  • A cookie is a very small data file placed on your hard drive by a web page server. It is essentially your access card, and cannot be executed as code or deliver viruses. It is uniquely yours and can only be read by the server that gave it to you.
  • Cookies cannot be used by themselves to identify you.
  • The purpose of a basic cookie is to tell the server that you returned to that web page or have items in your basket. Without cookies, websites and their servers have no memory. A cookie, like a key, enables swift passage from one place to the next.
  • Without a cookie every time you open a new web page the server where that page is stored will treat you like a completely new visitor.
  • More recently, cookies have also been used to collect information about the user which allows a profile of their preferences and interests to be created so that they can be served with interest-based rather than generic information about available goods and services.

4.4.2. How do Cookies help The Wine Society?

Cookies allow our website to function effectively. Cookies also help us to arrange content to match your preferred interests more quickly. We can learn what information is important to our visitors, and what isn't.

4.4.3. How does The Wine Society use cookies?

The Wine Society does not accept advertising from third parties and therefore, as a rule, does not serve third-party cookies. Exceptions to this include performance/analytical cookies (see below), used anonymously to improve the way our website works, the provision of personalised recommendations, and occasions when we may team up with suppliers to offer special discounts on goods or services.

The Society uses technology to track the patterns of behaviour of visitors to our site.

4.4.4. What type of cookies does The Wine Society use?

We use the following three types of cookies: Strictly Necessary Cookies
These cookies are required for the operation of our website, enabling you to move around the website and use its features, such as accessing secure areas of the website. Without these cookies, services like shopping baskets or e-billing cannot be provided. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Authentication Cookie and Anonymous Cookie
    These cookies remember that you are logged in to your account – without them, the website would repeatedly request your login details with each new page you visit during your time on our website. They are removed once your session has ended.
  • Session Cookie
    These cookies are used to remember who you are as you use our site: without them, the website would be unable to tell the difference between you and another Wine Society member and facilities such as your basket and the checkout process would therefore not be able to function. They too are removed once your session has ended. Functionality & Targeting/Tracking Cookies
These cookies are used to recognise you when you return to our website and to provide enhanced features. This allows us to personalise our content for you. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Unique User Cookie
    This cookie is used to:
    • store your share number in order to identify that you have visited the website before. Without this cookie, we would be unable to tell whether you are a member or not.
    • record your visit to the website, the pages you have visited and the links you have followed. We use this information to make our website, the content displayed on it and direct marketing communications we may send to you or contact you about more relevant to your interests.
    • This cookie expires after 13 months.
  • Peerius Cookies
    These third-party cookies are used to provide you with personalised recommendations based on your purchase and browsing history. They expire within 4 hours of your visit. Performance/analytical cookies
These cookies collect information about how visitors use a website, for instance which pages visitors go to most often, and if they get error messages from web pages. These cookies don't collect information which identifies a visitor. All information these cookies collect is aggregated and therefore anonymous. It is only used to improve how a website works. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Google Analytics Cookies
    These are third-party cookies to enable Google Analytics to monitor website traffic. All information is recorded anonymously. Using Google Analytics allows The Society to better understand how members use our site and monitor website traffic. Authentication Cookie
In order for us to ensure that your data remains secure it is necessary for us to verify that your session is authentic (i.e. it has not been compromised by a malicious user). We do this by storing an otherwise meaningless unique ID in a cookie for the duration of your visit. No personal information can be gained from this cookie.

4.4.5. How do you turn cookies off?

All modern browsers allow you to modify your cookie settings so that all cookies, or those types which are not acceptable to you, are blocked. However, please note that this may affect the successful functioning of the site, particularly if you block all cookies, including essential cookies. For example, In Internet Explorer, go to the Tools Menu, then go to Internet Options, then go to Privacy. Here you can change the rules your browser uses to accept cookies. You can find out more in the public sources mentioned below.

4.4.6. Learn more about cookies

4.4.7. Changes to our cookie policy

Any changes we may make to our cookie policy in the future will be posted on the website and, where appropriate, notified to you by email. Please check back frequently to see any updates and changes to our cookie policy.