Madeira is definitely one of the great wines of the world, but much less known than others. Here’s the low-down.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here are a couple of pointers which also apply to tawny port and other oxidatively aged 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.
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.
Confidence derives from the Latin fidere, “to trust.” To be confident is to trust and have faith in the world. To be self-confident is to trust and have faith in oneself, and, in particular, in one’s ability to engage successfully or at least adequately with the world. A self-confident person is able to act on opportunities, take on new challenges, rise to difficult situations, engage with constructive criticism, and shoulder responsibility if and when things go wrong.
Self-confidence and self-esteem often go hand in hand, but they aren’t one and the same thing. In particular, it is possible to be highly self-confident and yet to have profoundly low self-esteem, as is the case, for example, with many performers and celebrities, who are able to play to studios and galleries but then struggle behind the scenes. Esteem derives from the Latin aestimare [to appraise, value, rate, weigh, estimate], and self-esteem is our cognitive and, above all, emotional appraisal of our own worth. More than that, it is the matrix through which we think, feel, and act, and reflects and determines our relation to our self, to others, and to the world.
People with healthy self-esteem do not need to prop themselves up with externals such as income, status, or notoriety, or lean on crutches such as alcohol, drugs, or sex (when these things are a crutch). On the contrary, they treat themselves with respect and look after their health, community, and environment. They are able to invest themselves completely in projects and people because they have no fear of failure or rejection. Of course, like everybody, they suffer hurt and disappointment, but their setbacks neither damage nor diminish them. Owing to their resilience, they are open to people and possibilities, tolerant of risk, quick to joy and delight, and accepting and forgiving of others and themselves.
So what’s the secret to self-esteem? As I argue in Heaven and Hell, a book on the psychology of the emotions, many people find it easier to build their self-confidence than their self-esteem, and, conflating one with the other, end up with a long list of talents and achievements. Rather than facing up to the real issues, they hide, often their whole life long, behind their certificates and prizes. But as anyone who has been to university knows, a long list of talents and achievements is no substitute for healthy self-esteem. While these people work on their list in the hope that it might one day be long enough, they try to fill the emptiness inside them with externals such as status, income, possessions, and so on. Undermine their standing, criticize their home or car, and observe in their reaction that it is them that you undermine and criticize.
Similarly, it is no use trying to pump up the self-esteem of children (and, increasingly, adults) with empty, undeserved praise. The children are unlikely to be fooled, but may instead be held back from the sort of endeavour by which real self-esteem can grow. And what sort of endeavour is that? Whenever we live up to our dreams and promises, we can feel ourselves growing. Whenever we fail but know that we have given it our best, we can feel ourselves growing. Whenever we stand up for our values and face the consequences, we can feel ourselves growing. This is what growth depends on. Growth depends on living up to our ideals, not our parents’ ambitions for us, or the targets of the company we work for, or anything else that is not truly our own but, instead, a betrayal of ourselves.
Sardinia, although only slightly smaller than Sicily, produces seven times less wine. Yet, the island lays claim to over a hundred indigenous grape varieties and has more DOCs and IGPs than Calabria and Basilicata combined—the more visible ones being the island-wide Cannonau di Sardegna DOC, Vermentino di Sardegna DOC, and the catch-all Isola dei Nuraghi IGP, which, unusually for an IGP, does not permit varietal labelling. Before you ask, nuraghi are the stone towers built by the mysterious Bronze Age Nuragic civilization, still visible all around the island to stir the imagination. Even within a single DOC, there are often many styles including sparkling, late-harvest, passito, and fortified (dry and sweet). In short, it’s all terribly complicated—but I’ll try to give you some highlights.
The climate is Mediterranean, with hot, dry, summers and short, mild winters. As in Corsica, the sea greatly moderates temperatures and the shifting landscape and diverse soils harbour a variety of distinct terroirs. From 1324 to 1718, the Kingdom of Sardinia came under the Crown of Aragon, and the commoner grape varieties are more Spanish and French than Italian—so not Sangiovese and Trebbiano as you might expect, but Cannonau (Grenache), Vermentino, and Carignan, and even Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. In 1718, Sardinia passed to the House of Savoy, and, with Piedmont, came to form the rump of the Kingdom and later Republic of Italy.
Let’s begin in the granitic northeast with the island’s only, if quite large, DOCG, Vermentino di Gallura (not to be confused with Vermentino di Sardegna DOC). Vermentino di Gallura is made in a range of styles, including sparkling, late-harvest, and passito, although most are dry still wines of varying weight. These are typically fresh and mineral with notes such as white flowers, citrus and stone fruits, green mango, acacia, and sage. Robert Parker described Capichera’s barrique-aged VT (late-harvest) as ‘the best Italian white wine made from native grape varieties and the best Vermentino in the world’, although I found the more delicate and versatile Classico more to my taste.
In the port of Alghero, in the northwest, a dialect of Catalan is still spoken. Many varieties are cultivated on the surrounding calcareous soils, most notably Torbato, a low-yielding variety rescued by Sella e Mosca, which, with Argiolas down south, is one the island’s leading producers. Sella e Mosca’s Terre Bianche Torbato is dry, crisp, and smoky, but also rich and ripe, with notes of melon, pear, white flowers, fennel, ginger, turmeric, aloe vera, and honeycomb, and a lingering, salty finish. A fun pick for a blind tasting, their Alghero Cabernet Sauvignon, Marchese di Villamarina, is bloody, dusty, and savoury, with a long and elegant finish on coffee and dried fruits.
An hour from Alghero, in Sénnori on the other side of Sassari, is Dettori, the only certified biodynamic producer on Sardinia. Their wines, from single vineyards made picturesque by old bush vines, are deep and textured, with, it seems, a life of their own. Father and son work with Cannonau, Vermentino, and Moscato, and two lesser known indigenous reds, Monica and Pascale, which they are keen to rehabilitate. Monica is something of a workhorse grape on Sardinia, easy to cultivate with often very high yields—and therefore mostly associated with soft, simple wines. Pascale, on the other hand, is a rare and demanding breed. While at Dettori, I tasted a 2000 Pascale, which, to my delight, was delicate and silky with notes of pomegranate, cranberries, mushrooms, and dried fruits. I also tasted two vintages of the Vermentino, but, while the 2000 was still alive with notes of dried fruits and nuts, I preferred the vibrant and textured 2019. Still, who knew that 20-year-old Vermentino could be a thing?
While still in Gallura, at Olbios, I sampled some very inspired and off-piste wines, including a 2007 Vermentino part aged under flor. Flor ageing is in fact a tradition of the west coast, more specifically, of Vernaccia di Oristano DOC and Malvasia di Bosa DOC. According to lore, Malvasia was brought back to beautiful Bosa by the returning Knights Templar. The vines thrived in the area’s calcareous soils and the wine became highly prized, notably for holy sacraments: while in Bosa, I was shown a plot owned by the pope. But today the DOC counts just eight small producers and the sparkling styles shift more easily at Christmas.
The people of Sardinia, who are very long-lived, attribute anti-ageing properties to Cannonau, just as they attributed antimalarial properties to Vernaccia di Oristano. Cannonau, it is said, was brought over by the Aragonese, although there is some emerging evidence that it—and therefore Grenache—may have originated in Sardinia. Cannonau is cultivated across the island, although certain areas, such as Mamoiada in the eastern hills, with its old vines and granitic soils, are especially noted for it. Mamoida does not have a DOC of its own, but some 70 vintners, including favourites such as Francesco Cadinu and VikeVike, have recently banded together to form the Mamojà association. Cadinu’s two Perdas Longas cuvées are made from 70- and 120-year-old vines and are superlative in every sense, with almost physical layers of black fruit, plum, tobacco, chocolate, coffee, herbs, and liquorice. I called them ‘wines for giants’ and a burly winemaker I drank with confided, ‘When you go down into Cadinu’s cellar, you don’t know when or if you’ll come up again.’
Another area to watch, although still finding its feet, is Mandrolisai DOC in the central heights, which is noted for blends based on Bovale (similar to Spain’s Bobal), completed by Cannonau and Monica. I lunched with around half of the appellation’s 15 producers. After the final course of porchetta (suckling pig), one asked me: ‘So which was better, the food or the wine?’ But how was I supposed to answer that?
Down in the southwest, the noble Carignano del Sulcis, with its old ungrafted vines in sandy soils overlooking the sea, is surely deserving of a DOCG. Imagine a perfectly balanced Carignan, full of power and restraint, fleshy blueberry to balance the earthy spice, and a sign-off on squid ink… In the Languedoc, Carignan is often blended, so it is unusual to taste a Carignan in purezza. But until the vine pull scheme, Carignan was the most planted grape variety in France. When I gave a Carignano del Sulcis to a friend to blind taste, he put it in Bordeaux and I can see why. But on analysis, it’s earthier, spicier, and softer.
Around the capital city of Cagliari in the south there are a number of varietal DOCs, including for Malvasia, Moscato, Monica, Nasco, Nuragus, and Giro. Nasco (ultimately from the Latin muscus, musk) is a rare indigenous variety that is low yielding and susceptible to rot. The historical style is sweet, though less so than Sauternes, with notes of citrus, cream, and spice, and no botrytis. Incidentally, did you know that Sardinian is the living language closest to Latin?
Let’s end as we would a Sardinian meal, with mirto, a liqueur made from myrtle berries. Red mirto is more common than white, and superior. It is sweet, with intense notes of dried figs, bluebells, maple syrup, juniper, mint, eucalyptus, cloves, and orange zest, and a pointed, bitter almond finish. In fact, many wines I tasted on Sardinia were marked by myrtle, which grows wild on the island. So, for blind tasters, maybe myrtle can be to Sardinia what eucalyptus is to Australia.
On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles broadcast an episode of the radio drama Mercury Theatre on the Air. This episode, entitled The War of the Worlds and based on a novel by HG Wells, suggested to listeners that a Martian invasion was taking place. In the charged atmosphere of the days leading up to World War II, many people missed or ignored the opening credits and mistook the radio drama for a news broadcast. Panic ensued and people began to flee, with some even reporting flashes of light and a smell of poison gas. This panic, a form of mass hysteria, is one of the many forms that anxiety can take.
Mass hysteria can befall us at almost any time. In 1989, 150 children took part in a summer programme at a youth centre in Florida. Each day at noon, the children gathered in the dining hall to be served pre-packed lunches. One day, a girl complained that her sandwich did not taste right. She felt nauseated, went to the toilet, and returned saying that she had vomited. Almost immediately, other children began experiencing symptoms such as nausea, abdominal cramps, and tingling in the hands and feet. With that, the supervisor announced that the food may be poisoned and that the children should stop eating. Within 40 minutes, 63 children were sick and more than 25 had vomited.
The children were promptly dispatched to one of three hospitals, but every test performed on them was negative. Meal samples were analyzed but no bacteria or poisons could be found. Food processing and storage standards had been scrupulously maintained and no illness had been reported from any of the other 68 sites at which the pre-packed lunches had been served.
However, there had been in the group an atmosphere of tension, created by the release two days earlier of a newspaper article reporting on management and financial problems at the youth centre. The children had no doubt picked up on the staff’s anxiety, and this had made them particularly suggestible to the first girl’s complaints. Once the figure of authority had announced that the food may be poisoned, the situation simply spiralled out of control.
Mass hysteria is relatively uncommon, but it does provide an alarming insight into the human mind and the ease with which it might be influenced and even manipulated. It also points to our propensity to somatize, that is, to convert anxiety and distress into more concrete physical symptoms. Somatization, which can be thought of as an ego defence, is an unconscious process, and people who somatize are, almost by definition, unaware of the psychological origins of their physical symptoms.
As I discuss in The Meaning of Madness, psychological stressors can lead to physical symptoms not only by somatization, which is a psychic process, but also by physical processes involving the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. For example, one study found that the first 24 hours of bereavement are associated with a staggering 21-fold increased risk of heart attack. Since Robert Ader’s early experiments in the 1970s, the field of psychoneuroimmunology has blossomed, uncovering a large body of evidence that has gradually led to the mainstream recognition of the adverse effects of psychological stressors on health, recovery, and ageing, and, inversely, of the protective effects of positive emotions such as happiness, belonging, and a sense of purpose or meaning.
Here, again, modern science has barely caught up with the wisdom of the Ancients, who were well aware of the close relationship between psychological and physical well-being. In Plato’s Charmides, Socrates tells the young Charmides, who has been suffering from headaches, about a charm for headaches that he learnt from one of the mystical physicians to the King of Thrace. However, this great physician cautioned that it is best to cure the soul before curing the body, since health and happiness ultimately depend on the state of the soul:
He said all things, both good and bad, in the body and in the whole man, originated in the soul and spread from there… One ought, then, to treat the soul first and foremost, if the head and the rest of the body were to be be well. He said the soul was treated with certain charms, my dear Charmides, and that these charms were beautiful words. As a result of such words self-control came into being in souls. When it came into being and was present in them, it was then easy to secure health both for the head and for the rest of the body.
Mental health is not just mental health. It is also physical health.