The Wines of Madeira

Extreme viticulture in Madeira. The famous Sercial from Seixal (‘Saychal’) on the cooler, wilder northern coast.

The volcanic archipelago of Madeira lies about 600km off the coast of Morocco. Discovered in 1419 by sailors in the service of Henry the Navigator (the son of John I of Portugal and nephew of Henry IV of England), the main island of Madeira became a regular port of call for ships bound for Africa, the Indies, and the Americas. Agriculture prospered, principally sugarcane, but also wheat, and, of course, the vine.

The earliest madeira wines were unfortified and in the habit of spoiling at sea. Sailors took to adding a small amount of distilled alcohol to stabilize the wines, a practice that had become routine by the mid-18th century. One day, a ship that had sailed out across the Equator returned to Madeira with some leftover wine. Producers tasted this wine and found that the intense heat and constant movement of the sea voyage had actually improved it. So-called vinho da roda [‘round-trip wine’] soon became very popular. To save on the phenomenal costs of shipping wine halfway around the world and back, producers began heating and ageing the wines on Madeira itself, either on trestles or in special rooms called estufas.

These were the halcyon years. But in 1852, the vineyards of Madeira were blighted by powdery mildew, and in 1872 by phylloxera. The industry had barely recovered when the Russian Revolution and American Prohibition cut off madeira’s two most important markets. American vines began to take over the vineyards and quality plummeted. The wine never recovered the prestige that it had enjoyed in the late eighteenth century, when it was poured to toast the 1776 United States Declaration of Independence. Much as Marsala, it came to be regarded as ‘cooking wine’.

Founded in 1979 to drive up quality, the Instituto do Vinho da Madeira (IVM) decreed that thenceforth madeira could only be made from Vitis vinifera. In 2006, the IVM merged to become the Instituto do Vinho, do Bordado e do Artesanato da Madeira (IVBAM), and continues to promote and incentivize the replanting of traditional varieties. Some of its other remits are to fix harvest dates, control quality, and promote madeira.

The lie of the land

The archipelago of Madeira consists of the inhabited islands of Madeira and Porto Santo and the uninhabited islands of Ilhas Desertas and Ilhas Selvagens. At 55 by 22km, Madeira is by far the largest island, with rugged, mountainous terrain and a peak altitude of 1,861m. The climate is subtropical with a mean temperature of 19°C, mild winters, hot summers, and high rainfall and humidity. When Winston Churchill visited the island in 1950, he came in a hydroplane because there was not enough flat land on which to build a runway.

Vineyards are mostly planted on man-made terraces of red and basaltic bedrock called poios and irrigated from historical irrigation channels called levadas. Given the high temperatures and humidity, rot is a constant threat, and vine canopies are frequently raised off the ground on trellises called latadas. There are ~2000 growers cultivating ~490ha (cf. Bordeaux 120,000ha), with rows of vines often interspersed with market vegetables and even bananas. Every year, growers hope for a wintery spell, without which the vines won’t know when to flower or shoot. Global heating is, therefore, a major threat.

Grape varieties

The vineyards of Madeira hug the coasts, and certain villages such as Seixal [‘Saychal’] and Sao Vicente are particularly noted for the quality of their grapes. Madeira varieties are classified as either ‘permitted’ or ‘recommended’, with almost all madeira being made from the latter. Recommended varieties include Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malvasia. Sercial and Verdelho do best at higher altitudes, and Bual and Malvasia at lower altitudes. Terrantez and Bastardo (which, in contrast to the other five, is a black variety) are both very rare because so difficult to cultivate. All six are varieties of V. vinifera. Broadly speaking, Sercial is dry, Verdelho off-dry or medium-dry, Bual medium-rich, and Malmsey rich.

Since 1993, a bottle labelled with any one variety must contain at least 85% of that variety. Madeira that does not bear a variety on the label, or that predates 1993, is likely to have been made mostly or entirely from Tinta Negra (formerly Tinta Negra Mole), a black variety that is often described as the workhorse of Madeira. After phylloxera hit in the nineteenth century, producers turned to Tinta Negra for its disease resistance and prolific yields, and it still accounts for over half of total production. It is a chameleon that, at best, can imitate if not quite match the quality of the other, noble varieties. But small growers, for whom viticulture is but a sideline, tend to favour it over more demanding, lower yielding varieties.

Vinification

The harvest is mostly manual, with Malvasia picked first and Verdelho and Sercial last. The grapes are crushed, pressed, and fermented in stainless steel tanks and oak casks. Malvasia and Bual are traditionally fermented on their skins to extract more phenols and balance the high residual sugar. As with port, fermentation is interrupted with 95% grape spirit. The precise timing of interruption depends on the amount of residual sugar desired, so, for example, very early for Malmsey and very late for Sercial.

Next comes the idiosyncratic estufagem process that seeks to replicate the effects of a long, tropical sea voyage. The fortified wine is entered into a stainless steel container or lined concrete vat. It is then gently heated to 45–55°C and maintained at this temperature for at least three months. After a rest period of three more months, it is entered into oak casks and aged oxidatively for 3–15 years. Finally, the individual wines are blended, often across several vintages, to produce a consistent and harmonious house style. Unlike with port, the indicated age pertains to the youngest wine in the blend.

A more expensive alternative to estufagem is canteiro, a gentler process that results in less caramelization and more freshness and fruitiness. The fortified wine is entered into 480l pipes or casks that are then placed on a beam, or canteiro, in a south-facing attic room (or equivalent) for 20–100+ years. Five years of canteiro is equivalent to only three months of estufa, so canteiro is used only for the finer wines. In Madeira, wineries have attics rather than cellars, and their cellars are a kind of terroir, with no two casks maturing in quite the same way.

There are nine attics at the historic Blandy’s Wine Lodge in Funchal, each with different temperature and humidity conditions.

Styles

Madeira must be made from V. vinifera varieties, which account for just over half of plantings on Madeira. Of these, Tinta Negra is the most commonly cultivated, and is often an important component of a brand name such as Blandy’s Duke of Clarence. Plantings of the four noble varieties remain small, and madeira labelled with one of the noble varieties is relatively expensive. 

Sercial is pale in colour with aromas of almonds and citrus peel, razor sharp acidity, and a dry, salty finish. It is very easy to pair with food, classically, on Madeira, with limpets, the snails of the sea. In comparison, Verdelho is less dry and more rounded, with a smoky complexity and aromas of dried fruits and honey. I usually get herbs and anise on Verdelho, but not everyone does. Bual is still darker, fuller, and sweeter, with aromas such as dried fruits, pecan, orange peel, passion fruit, banana, and molasses. The luscious Malvasia (Malmsey) is, perhaps unexpectedly, lighter in colour than Bual, with notes of baked orange peel, cloves, and Christmas cake. In a blind tasting, it can be distinguished from PX sherry (see later) by its high and balancing acidity, which is the hallmark of all quality madeira. The off-dry Terrantez, my favourite, is nuanced, floral, and spicy, with an almost delicate texture and notes of pepper and ginger. Bastardo is in fact Trousseau from the Jura, which long ago made its way down into Portugal and thence Madeira. The Portuguese called it Bastardo because it is so hard to cultivate, leaving Madeirans to speak of ‘the great Bastardo vintages of old’. Sadly, I’ve never tasted a Bastardo madeira.

The age of a madeira is indicated on the label: three years (Finest), five years (Reserve), 10 years (Old Reserve), 15 years (Extra Reserve), or more than 20 years (Vintage). Despite its name, Finest, which accounts for ~61% of production, is usually destined for cooking. Madeira with one of the noble varieties on the label must be aged for at least five years (to Reserve), often without any artificial heating. Vintage [Frasqueira] is made from exceptional grapes and must be aged for at least 20 years followed by a further two years in bottle. A more recent style is Harvest [Colheita], which is vintage-dated madeira that has been aged for at least five years (or, in the case of Sercial, seven years) versus 20 years for Vintage. Unlike with port, there are no declared or mythical vintages. What ends up in the glass depends not just on the vintage conditions but on the variety, the village, the shipper, the cask, the bottling date… leading to many surprises and much mystique. One might, for example, speak of Blandy’s 1977 Terrantez, or Barbeito’s 1993 Sercial. With increasing age, the appearance of madeira tends towards mahogany with a yellow-green rim, which, together with the high acidity, helps to set it apart it from other fortified wines.

Tasting frasqueiras with Luis d’Oliveira.

Here are a couple of pointers which also apply to tawny port and other oxidatively ages wines:

  • Once in bottle, vintage madeira improves much more slowly—so always check the bottling date, which must now, by law, feature on the back label. More recent bottling also avoids problems with the cork and with excess sediment. 
  • One on the great things about madeira is how stable (and long-lived) it is. You can invest in a fine bottle and taste from it for a month or even six. Wine bars and restaurants take note: this makes vintage Madeira ideal for wine by the glass—the major problem with Madeira being that very few people have tasted of what it is capable at the top end.

Industry

Each year, ~80% of the ~3.3m litres of madeira produced are exported. The largest national markets are France, Germany, Japan, the UK, and the US, although much of the madeira exported to France is of the cooking variety. The largest shipper of madeira is Justino’s, but the most famous is The Madeira Wine Company (MWC), a wrapper for Blandy, Cossart Gordon, Leacock, Miles, and others. In 1989, the Symington family acquired a controlling stake in the MWC and set about modernizing operations. In 2011, it sold most of this stake back to the Blandy Group, which thereby regained overall control. Beyond that, there are only a small handful of madeira shippers, most notably Barbeito, Pereira d’Oliveira, HM Borges, and Henriques & Henriques. The visionary Ricardo Diogo Freitas of Barbeito aims for freshness and elegance, and some of his bottlings are achieving icon status. Since 1850, the d’Oliveira family has been selling only a small fraction of production and is now sitting on large reserves of very old vintages—only releasing their 1899 Terrantez in 2020! HM Borges offers excellent value for money across the range, as does Henriques & Henriques.