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The Cellar: The Wonders of Madeira Wine

Friday, January 31, 2014


Sercial Grapes

At a recent Private Tasting at the Providence Wine Academy, participants were guided through the wonders of the fortified wines that are Port, Sherry and Madeira. Fortified wine is a category that is largely overlooked; one that offers a lot of quality, diversity, as well as value. If you think all fortified wines are thick, sweet and sticky stuff (you know, the stuff grandma used to sip), it is time to think again. Madeira, for example, is a super versatile wine that can range in style from bone-dry to deliciously sweet, but always with an acidic nerve. Because of these variations Madeira can be served before, during or even after a meal.

Madeira wines are made on the island of Madeira, which is located in the Atlantic Ocean approximately 600 miles southwest of Portugal. Madeira’s winemaking history dates back to the 1450’s and the exploration of the New World. Back then wines from Madeira were already very popular and highly sought-after, both in Europe and later here in the Americas. It is said that Madeira was the preferred wine of many of our founding fathers; that is was a bottle of Madeira that was passed around after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and that it was served at George Washington’s inauguration.

Unlike Any Other

The four principle grape varieties that make the best Madeira wines are Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey. Look for these names as a good bottle of Madeira almost always displays the grape it is made from. If the bottle simply says ‘Madeira’ chances are that the wine is made from a lesser, high-yielding grape variety called Tinta Negra Mole. All Madeira wines start their life similarly to most other wines, but they are fortified with neutral grape spirits at differing points of fermentation, depending on the grape variety used and the level of sweetness the winemaker wishes to achieve. Sercials are almost always dry, which means that it is fortified after fermentation when all the sugars already have been converted into alcohol. Malmseys, on the other hand, are fortified much sooner, before all the sugars are converted, leaving residual sugars in the wine resulting in a sweeter wine.

500 years ago winemakers would fortify their wines, not because they wanted to, but out of necessity, so that their product wouldn’t spoil during lengthy transports. When first made, Madeira was intended to be a regular fortified wine much like Port. However when a shipment of Madeira returned to port after an unsuccessful sales trip, the winemaker discovered that the month’s long voyage through the hot tropics had changed his wine significantly. The large amount of oxidation and constant exposure to heat had given the wine nutty and caramelized aromas and flavors making it truly unique. It is this process of prolonged heating (technically referred to as ‘estufagem’) that makes Madeira special. To achieve this effect today Madeiras must be heated to 130 degrees for 90 days (these are minimum levels). While less expensive Madeiras are exposed to direct heat while in stainless steel tanks, better quality Madeira will remain in barrel and placed in heated rooms for months, years, even decades.

I could go on forever as there is so much more to Madeira than you might think. Please, if you haven’t done so already, give Madeira a chance. Cheers!

Steffen Rasch is a Certified Sommelier and Specialist of Wine. Feel free to email him at [email protected] with any wine-related question or learn about wine in person by signing up for one of his tastings through the Providence Wine Academy.


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