Madeira: intense, indestructible… and overlooked

What comes to mind when you hear “Madeira wine “? If anything, it’s likely to be a dusty bottle sitting alongside the Marsala, balsamic vinegar and cooking oils.

But it wasn’t always like this. Madeira was the celebratory toast at the signing of the US Declaration of Independence, both Thomas Jefferson and Winston Church were fans, and – at least according to Shakespeare in Richard III – George Plantangenet, the Duke of Clarence chose to be drowned in a butt of it when he was sentenced to death for high treason. Whether the last bit is true or not, Madeira has a long pedigree and deserves more than being thrown into the back of a kitchen cupboard.

Madeira the place is a stark, dramatic, volcanic island in the Atlantic Ocean about 600km west of the coast of Africa. It was discovered by Portuguese explorers in 1419 and still belongs to Portugal. Its location made it a perfect refueling stop for ships on the East Indies trade route. And THAT was the critical factor in creating Madeira’s unique style.

The wines were fortified (a spirit added) to raise the alcohol level to make sure they would survive the journey. Then they were loaded onto the ships and subjected to extreme heat as they passed over the equator. Sometimes the wines returned to Europe (doubling the heat exposure) and – people loved them.

From then on, barrels of wine were sent to the Indies just to expose them to the heat. It wasn’t long before someone came up with a way of cooking the wine without having to ship it halfway round the world and back. This “estufagem” (heating) is still used today. Simpler wines are artificially heated for a few months, while the finer examples are stored in naturally hot lofts, called “canteiros”, for years and years. Both give Madeira its typical aromas of burnt sugar, caramel, toffee and roasted nuts.

Most other wines have to be enjoyed within a few days of opening, but not so Madeira. It’s almost indestructible – it’s been fortified, deliberately exposed to oxygen and thoroughly cooked. There’s not much else you can throw at it. It’s a survivor.

Madeira wines can be everything from dry to super sweet, but they are all typically bright and fresh with mouthwatering acidity. The drier styles are best served as aperitifs and the sweeter styles enjoyed with dessert. There are also some very cool cocktails out there.

There’s lots of information on the label to help guide you, but the terms can be confusing. Firstly, some are labelled with one of the four “noble” grape varieties. The trick lies in knowing that the variety also indicates style:

Sercial: the driest and palest of the wines.

Verdehlo: medium dry.

Bual: medium sweet to sweet.

Malmsey: this is the sweetest (and the drowning choice of the Duke of Clarence).

The four noble varieties are all white grapes and they are joined by a black grape, Tinta Negra, in blends and the less premium wines, where you will usually see an indication of sweetness, ranging from “Extra Seco” (very dry) to “Rich” (sweet).

Other labelling terms usually relate to the age of the wine. Generally, the older the wine the more likely it is to be made with the noble varieties and to have been aged in the naturally hot lofts as opposed to artificially heated.

Rainwater: a lighter style, aged for 3 years.

Finest: aged for 3 years.

Reserve (or Old): aged for at least 5 years.

Old Reserve or Special Reserve: aged for 10 years, often just one variety.

Extra Reserve: aged for 15 years, often just one variety.

Solera: aged in a solera system, like sherries, where wines from multiple years are slowly and repeatedly blended. These are always aged in canteiros.

Colheita: aged at least 5 years, often a single variety and all the grapes were harvested during the year shown on the bottle.

Canteiro: aged for at least 3 years in a naturally heated loft.

Frasqueira/ Vintage: aged for least 20 years in cask, in a naturally heated loft.


We don’t have that many available here, but here’s some of what we do have:

Casa dos Vinhos Selected Rich ($27 approx.): Deep amber colour, sweet and full bodied with burnt sugar, caramel, roasted nuts and dried fruit.

Blandy’s, Duke of Clarence Rich ($30 approx.): The Blandy family is one of the original founders of the Madeira wine trade and still own and manage this company today. The Duke of Clarence is dark amber, sweet, rich and full bodied with notes of toffee, honey and nuts and raisins. SMOOTH.

Blandy’s, 5 Year Old Verdelho ($28 approx.): Medium dry, with dried flowers, raisins, figs, cedar, nutmeg and cloves.

Blandy’s, Bual, 10 Year old ($55 approx.): Definitely a step up. Sweet, unctuous and complex with salted caramel, figs, raisins, vanilla, walnuts, orange peel, cloves and nutmeg.

Blandy’s, 2002, Bual, Single Harvest Colheita ($70 approx.): Golden hued, medium sweet and full bodied with intense figs, dates, sandalwood, vanilla, dark chocolate, walnuts, toasted hazelnuts and toffee.

If you’re lucky enough to have a bottle of Madeira lurking in the back of your cupboard dust it off. If not, hunt one down. They are very special wines, surprisingly good value and deserving of a lot more love.

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