Lookin' Good at 58

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Today's wine post is about a fortified wine that comes from the island of Madeira which belongs to Portugal in the Atlantic. I have had the opportunity of stopping for a day at the port of Funchal doing a crossing of the Atlantic while working on a cruiseship. What a beautiful island it is too!

The story of Madeira starts when the early explorers while heading south toward the West Indies searching for the spices or just seeking out new lands to claim , would bring with them some wine to drink. Over a long voyage without any temperature control in those days , the wine would undergo a transformation in the bottle when it crossed the equator causing the wine to heat up and oxidize. When the explorers opened the bottle to drink in the New World they noticed it was not the same as it was back where they started. Actually it tasted a whole lot better to them. The heating of it gave it longevity as well.

So when we say a wine is madeirized in today's world of wine terminology it means the wine is cooked and oxidized. The main cause is it has been stored in too high a temperature. Not a good thing for a wine but for Madeira it is normal. Unfortunately that is why you do not see Madeira on too many wine lists and is mainly used in the kitchen for that madeira sauce you see on the menu. It deserves better attention than what it is given.

To reproduce the same effect of the temperature changes that took place when the explorers used to cross the equator with bottles of wine , a unique method called "estufa" which literally means stove was begun.

How this works is the wine will be held in stainless steel tanks with a water-jacket containing hot water. Heated gently to about 113 degrees F ( 45 C ) , the wine returns to an ambient temperature over the next 6 months. It is gently cooled so as to allow the wine to develop without any unwanted flavours.

Another more traditional method is to store and rack in heated warehouses so that the wine can adjust to the changing temperatures gradually. This is called the canteiro system by which the more noble wines are usually aged.

Using either method , the wine is must be aged 3 years before going on sale.

The four noble grape varieties to make madeira are malvasia , bual , verdelho and sercial. The other grape variety used to make up over half the madeira is the Tinta Negra Mole.

Malmsey which is associated with the Malvasia grape is the sweetest version of Madeira. Malvasia has an extreme sweetness and strength that comes from ripening late that enables this grape to succeed in making the sweet version.

Madeira colheitas are single vintage wines made from the noble varieties which can survive up to 200 years. These wines must be stored in casks for a minimum of 20 years and bottled for another two years before going on sale.

When you see a Madeira bottle with the label saying malmsey , bual , verdelho , or sercial on it , this means that it must be produced by at least 85 % of the named grape. Usually sold as 5 ,10, or 15 year old madeira and colheita as well.

When you see sweet , medium-sweet , medium dry , and dry , this madeira is made from the workhorse grape Tinta Negra Mole with the four levels of sweetness representing the styles of the four noble grapes.

As with port , during fermentation the wine is fortified to about 17-18%.

Here is a brief description of the 4 noble grape varieties from dry to sweetest.

Sercial - coming from the highest vineyard and harvested very late this wine is the slowest to develop and needs aging before it can be enjoyed as a wonderful aperitif more substantial than a fino sherry.

Verdelho - a faint honey and smokey flavour this madeira is good before or after meals.

Bual - the most planted white grape variety on the island it is slightly less sweet than Malmsey and lighter but still makes an excellent dessert wine.

Malmsey ( Malvasia ) - the sweetest of all and the earliest maturing , it has soft texture and very fragrant. Fatty in the mouth you can distinguish it with it's colour of dark brown.

If you get a chance and you see Madeira at your local wine store pick up a bottle of Malmsey and enjoy it on it's own after dinner. It makes a nice digestif.


bulletholes said...

my friend Gewels posted about her Wine Shop she just opened...go say hello, will ya?

Waiter Extraordinaire said...

Bulletholes..sure will drop by and say hello. Thanks. Hey Chef!

Paula Sindberg said...

Thanks for a good introduction to Madeira. More people should try these exceptional wines.

James Mortimer said...

Beautiful drop that stuff.

I remember having some brilliant Madeira recently at a camping site in Southern Queensland, Australia a couple of months ago.

The beauty W.E. of a grape being "under appreciated" is that it is well priced.

It is amazing how much good wines and fortified are unknown by the general populace and are hence easily accessable by clever lads such as us.

Waiter Extraordinaire said...

Paula...welcome and glad you enjoyed the post of Madeira.I try to talk about something interesting regarding wines each Thursday.

Waiter Extraordinaire said...

James..sure true. Been around for ages but has slipped through the cracks the last 100 years I would say.We just have one bottle at the local store when I checked.