Madeira wine is a type of fortified Portuguese wine that is made on the Island of Madeira and is often produced in a variety of different styles from a dry wine to a very sweet wine that can be consumed with dessert. Some wines that are produced in areas in America and Crimea are referred to as “Madeira” or “Madera,” however, they do not conform to the EU regulations and many countries limit the sale with that name. Officially only wines produced on the island of Madeira can be called “Madeira Wine”.
Madeira wine dates back to the age of exploration when Madeira was often a port of call for ships travelling to the new world or the East Indies. A well-established wine industry on Madeira supplied the ships with wine during their voyage across the sea. However, as it had a habit of spoiling during the long journey, they decided to fortify it with a small amount of distilled alcohol like they did with port. Much to the surprise of the merchants, the intense heat and the constant movement of the ship transformed the wine once they returned from their long trip. Fortunately their customers preferred this type of wine to the original product and so began the popularity of Madeira Wine.
Madeira Wine has been noted for its importance in the History of the USA as no wine quality grapes could be grown across the Colonies and this meant that wine needed to be imported. Madeira wine became a prized import. In fact it was said that Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Hamilton were all fans of the wine and used it to toast the Declaration of Independence.
How it's made
Nowadays there are three common processes for creating Madeira wine. The first is Cuba de Calor, which is the most common method. For this the wine is bulk aged in stainless steel or concrete tanks that are surround by heat coils or hot water pipes that circulate around the container. The wine is heated up to temperatures of 55 °C for a minimum of 90 days as per the regulations of the Madeira wine institute.
The second most common method is Armazem de Calor, this is only used by the Madeira Wine Company and involves storing the wine in large wooden casks that are in a room with tanks or pipes to create steam, essentially creating a giant sauna, and thereby exposing the wine to heat. The whole process lasts from 6 months to over a year so this method takes a lot longer than Cuba de Calor production.
The last method is Canteiro, which is used for the highest quality of Madeira wines and takes the longest, in the majority of cases from 20 years to 100. This is due to no artificial heating taking place as the wine is left in warm rooms to be heated by the sun, much like the original method back in the 18th century.
Although growing the grapes needed for Madeira wine production has increased in popularity in other countries, you can safely say that conditions don’t get any better than Madeira Island itself. With its oceanic climate, odd tropical influences and high rainfall, it allows the perfect growing environment. Although the grapes are still at risks from fungal diseases and other hazards, planting the vines in low trellises helps prevent this.
For those who have never tried Madeira wine, it is often sold in a traditional wicker cask and it isn’t uncommon to see bottles that are 100 years old for sale. Madeira wine is known for its long lasting properties even whilst unrefrigerated in hot summers and it is often noted as being very fruity, whilst low in acidity and well balanced. This flavour makes it ideal as an aperitif (before a meal) and a digestif (after a meal). What is more, its distinctive fruity flavour has led it to being used in cooking, especially in desserts like the dish “Plum in Madeira”.