Water everywhere. Around, over and within, it flows in an endless circle of rebirth. It is the very nature of the island of Madeira. It flows from the high mountains down to the sea, along streams and cascades, along the roads and valleys. But it also runs down in the “levadas”, water pathways built by men, stretching over kilometers to guide this vital force through the fields and villages.
With breathtaking views and semi-tropical forests, there it sits, a mountainous volcanic pearl in the Atlantic, as a testimony to the great achievements of the Portuguese sailors.
But water is not the only vital force in this island. There is a far rarer treasure to be found, one that represents the enduring legacy of our maritime ancestors. It goes by the name of Madeira wine, the first fortified wine created. While its origins date back to the 16th century, fortification only became widespread in the 18th century.
Both Port and Madeira are essentially produced in the same way, with the addiction of a high-alcohol solution (aguardente) to halt the fermentation process. Contrary to most Port wine though, Madeira wine is mostly made from white grapes. But the differences do not end there; quite the opposite. To better understand Madeira wine, I will elaborate on this a bit further.
To put it simply, in Port there are two different approaches: in the first, wine is initially aged in oak (or stainless steel in the entry-level wines) and then in bottle. Ruby, Ruby Reserve, LBV and Vintage Port belong to this category. Some LBV (“unfiltered”) and all Vintage Ports are not stabilized before bottling, and continue to age in a reduced environment, keeping a strong fruity character. In the other approach, wine is aged in used/neutral oak for a variable period of time and then either bottled separately to produce the Colheitas, or combined to produce aged tawnies. As wines age in this oxidative environment, they will become sweeter and more concentrated. Also, a secondary evolution takes place, where the fruity flavors are gradually substituted for nutty, caramelized flavors. Because most Ports are made from red grapes, the acidity levels are lower to begin with, and this may cause some older wines to become heavy and cloying. When they age well though … (I believe I have clearly explained my opinion on this in the last post) they can be fantastic.
Madeira wine (at least those over 5 years old) ages in oak barrels, therefore in an oxidative environment. However, there is a fundamental difference between Madeira and Port wine in this regard. Centuries ago, something intriguing was discovered. From the fortified Madeira wine that was regularly shipped in commercial ships (sometimes used as ballast), the wine that came back from the travels was significantly better than when it was originally shipped. It was eventually discovered that the reason for this was, counter intuitively, the heat the wine was exposed to during the journey, created this change. Since then, the wine has been aged in barrels kept in cellars in or near Funchal, where instead of controlled humidity and low temperatures, they have been subjected to temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius. This accelerates both the oxidative process and the evaporation of wine, concentrating it and increasing sugar levels and adding complexity to the flavor profile. But the interesting thing is that, because it comes from white grapes with high acidity levels, the wine retains an impressive freshness that counterbalances the sweetness and makes this wine truly special. Also, because it is already oxidized, it is nearly indestructible, and a bottle can usually be left open for at least 2 years without the wine losing any of its qualities.
Madeira wine is produced in a variety of styles and categories: depending on the grape variety, aging time and whether it is the result of a blend of harvests or not. Without going into too much detail, Madeira made from the Sercial variety is the driest, with Verdelho being medium-dry, Boal medium-rich and Malvasia being rich. Much rarer is the Terrantez variety, which is probably between Verdelho and Boal. Different brands have different styles, so really the best way to decide is to try them all if you can (would love to … but my liver begs to disagree).
Madeira wines with an indication of age result from a blend of wines where the mean age is at least the one indicated on the label. Look for at least 5 years old, but please indulge yourself in the 10 to 20 year old categories. There is really no substitute for age in Madeira. There are also the Colheitas, made from a single harvest, and then a particular subset of these, the Frasqueiras (or vintage Madeira). These are truly special, having been aged for at least 20 years in oak before bottling.
This would be more than enough to justify why Madeira wine, together with Port, are the best fortified wines in the world. However, deep within the cellars of Madeira, true hidden gems lay dormant. Centuries old, what these bottles contain is not wine anymore. It is the vital essence of the island and of the endless ocean. It is the gateway to dreams untold and mysteries unknown. It is the nectar that ran through the fountains of mount Olympus. So, for those of you who, like me, have had the opportunity to taste an 18th century Madeira, I propose a toast 100 years from now!