The Forgotten Wine Island – Madeira

Chances are you may have only heard about the island of Madeira once or twice in your lifetime, and only because it is the birthplace of Cristiano Ronaldo (any football fans out there?)

Imagine hypothetically if wine region extraordinaire Bordeaux, with all its might and notoriousness, suddenly disappeared. Well, that’s pretty much what happened to the little wine Island of Madeira.

In the 16th century, the island was a well-established and notable wine region due to the fact it was a regular port of call on the way to the East Indies, a bustling commercial route. With imported technology from its cousins up in the Douro Valley, fortified wine (wine to which a distilled spirit, usually brandy, is added) was needed for the long voyages across the Atlantic and to quench the thirst of the crew. Madeira wine aged in those voyages became a delicacy appreciated from the British Colonies back to mainland Europe – these long voyages were top-notch wine ageing methods back then. The wine was so sought-after that the American forefathers use to have “Madeira parties” (ancestors of our current wine tastings) and by the 1600s, Madeira became the most popular wine in Britain’s North American colonies.

It got a huge push on popularity due to the 1660’s British crown ban on the import of products made or grown in Europe, unless shipped on British vessels on British ports (talk about protecting the local industry, eh?). Madeira products, however, were specifically exempted from the ban. From Boston to New Orleans, the commercial ties flourished and became high fashion for Thomas Jefferson and his band. The declaration of Independence was even toasted with Madeira! Then, all of a sudden, powdery mildew attacked in the mid-19th century, virtually destroying production for the next three years. It was then phylloxera’s turn to further take away the last breath of the industry. By the end of the century, most of the vines were uprooted to make space for sugar cane production. Fast- forward to the start of the 20th century when the industry was slowly regaining its feet, the Russian Revolution and the American Prohibition came and finished off the wine trade (both the Russian and the American markets were Madeira’s largest consumers). The island and its wine were virtually scratched off the map with new shipping technologies – the route wasn’t needed any longer.

As for the grape varieties, there are the Big Four (Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia) and another pantheon of rare near-extinct grapes that if found, demand sky-rocket prices for their bottlings. The most widely planted grape is the Tinta Negra Mole (about 80% of all of island’s plantings), introduced post-phylloxera and is the only dark skinned grape variety used for Madeira wine. It has a thicker skin compared to the white varietals, more vigour and produces higher yields. It’s used for the cheaper Madeira wine, which includes the rainwater type and Madeira sauces for cooking.

Madeira wine is easily understood if you associate each grape variety with a style of wine – often the labels are produced as a single varietal, with blends being used either for the lower side of the spectrum or for the very high-end wines.

The Sercial grape, often cultivated at high altitudes in the south, in between 600m to 800m, and in the north, with strong maritime influences, has a late ripening cycle and it rarely achieves more than 11% alcohol before fortification. It’s always used to produce the “dry” style of Madeira, and it’s the only type of wine drank as an aperitif or alongside a meal. It’s pale in colour, often developing an amber coloured wine after ageing, offers a light-body and an incredible freshness, vibrant aromas and intense flavour characteristics – is lemony, with herbaceous notes and a stony mineral character.

Although this style is called “dry”, it has enough sugar to be considered a dessert wine; effectively, all Madeira wines are sweet, with labelling terms describing style rather than types of wine. The ideal food pairing with this variety is what you’d pair Manzanilla or Fino Sherry with – nuts, olives, cheese and/or anchovies.

The Verdelho grape, the widest planted white variety in Madeira, is an early ripening variety that produces gold coloured wines with tropical and exotic fruit flavours. It is used to produce medium- dry style of wine, which develops a smokier character, is richer, more texturized and shows intensity and a subtle dryness to it. Undertones of spices and light caramel. Food pairings work with soup, gazpacho and even chowder. It is the most flexible type of Madeira and could be paired with most types of local cuisine.

Boal it’s a variety of late budding, early ripening and is planted in its majority in warmer, sunnier climates. Shows good acidity, it’s medium bodied, almost waxy and oily, intensely perfumed with hints of dried fruit and spices. After fortified and aged, this variety evolves into a densely scented wine, showing fragrances of roasted coffee, cacao, dates, golden raisins and salted caramel. Those characteristics are ideal with nutty and stewed fruit desserts, chocolate and aromatic and rich cheeses. It’s used for the Medium Sweet style.

For the sweetest type of Madeira, the grape variety used is the Malvasia Branca de Sao Jorge, which shows early buddying and late ripening. It produces a full-bodied and rich wine, luscious and is dark in colour. It reveals bouquets of spices and honey, turning to dark amber with complex notes of dried fruit, mocha, butterscotch, toffee nuts and marmalade. Pair it with heavier desserts, such as ice-creams, rich chocolate desserts and cheese.

The Wine Aging classification, shown above, describes for how long the wines need to be aged before labelling and introduced into the market;

• Reserve (5 years) – This is the minimum amount of ageing a wine labelled with one of the noble varieties is permitted to have.
• Special Reserve (10 years) – Wines are often aged naturally without any artificial heat source.
• Extra Reserve (over 15 years) – A style that’s rare to produce, with many producers extending the ageing to 20 years for a vintage or producing a colheita. It is richer in style than a Special Reserve Madeira.
• Colheita or Harvest – This style includes wines from a single vintage but aged for a shorter period than true Frasqueira Madeira. The wine can be labelled with a vintage date but includes the word Colheita on it. – This style must be aged at least 20 years.
• Vintage or Frasqueira – This style must be aged at least 19 years in cask and one year in bottle, therefore cannot be sold until it is at least 20 years of age.
• Finest has been aged for at least three years. This style is usually reserved for cooking.
• Rainwater a style of Madeira that’s mild and tends to be made with Tinta Negra Mole.

So, what makes Madeira wine truly singular? When wines needed to survive an entire sea journey (often years long) fortification was essential. The intense heat of the ships on the long journeys created a desirable effect on the wine, smoothing its flavours and developing a richer texture. The increased popularity of the style demanded higher prices, and producers sought a cheaper method to age their wines and emulate the long journeys (described as ‘vinho de Roda’), so they created the “estufa” and the “canteiro” methods.

The first consists of exposing the wines to intense heat by storing them in trestles at the winery or in special rooms known as “estufas”, where the sun and the heat would age the wine. Nowadays, this method consists of putting the wine in a large container (usually stainless-steel vats lined with pipes), which circulate hot water(50°c) around the container. It’s then kept at this temperature for 3 months before bottling. This process imprints burnt caramel flavours and are used for cheaper Madeira. The “canteiro” method consists of storing the young fortified wine in wooden casks (traditionally made of Brazilian Sandalwood), filled three-quarters full to allow the wine to oxidise, and stored on rooftops or attics where they’re exposed to heat through tile roofs. The wine is aged from anything between 5 years to a century, developing the flavours in a rather delicate, slow way, resulting in subtle caramel flavours and more fresh fruit and nuts.

The island has a lot more to offer than just wine – its singular ecosystem, dramatic scenery and exquisite cuisine make it a great travel destination.


Vinnie Ordobas is a WSET Level 3 qualified Sommelier at Wilde Restaurant, at The Westbury Hotel. A multi-lingual wine writer, coffee fanatic and spirits enthusiast, Vinnie spends most of his free time around book shelves, baking brownies and analysing football.

Loves to travel and to learn new languages and keen on challenging his palate by trying eccentric cuisines and singular wines. Aspires to be World’s Best Jenga player.

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