In the great age of exploration, Portuguese sailors would fill the holds of their ships with the wines of Madeira and sail to the New World. Like many wines of the era, destined for export, they were fortified – grape spirit was added to improve their stability and keeping properties.
As the ships crossed the wide oceans the barrels of wine nestled in their bellies were gradually heated by the tropical sunshine and the wine inside began to cook. It is this process of heating and the consequent oxidised character of the wine that makes Madeira so distinctive.
It also gives it the useful property that, unlike other wines including other fortified wines, a bottle of Madeira can be opened, enjoyed, and the bottle can be left half finished on the shelf for months without deteriorating. In a sense, this is because the wine has already spoiled: it goes to show that the concept of a faulty wine can be rather narrow and prescriptive.
In the world of fortified wines, there are two paradigms; Sherry-style where the wine is fermented to dryness (all the grape sugars are converted to alcohol) before the spirit is added and any sweetness is added later, and Port-style where the addition of spirit stops the fermentation leaving some unfermented grape sugars remaining in the wine. Madeira is generally made in the Port fashion.
The traditional grape varieties of Madeira (still used for the most premium wines) are Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey. These correspond, handily enough, to styles of increasing sweetness and richness, so a Sercial is a light style suitable as an aperitif where a Malmsey is a powerful and rich wine that is the perfect finish to a big meal. Cheaper, commercial, styles will be labelled Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet and Sweet.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of one of the great Madeira houses, Blandy’s. Why not celebrate their birthday with the Alvada five years old (a contemporary blend of Bual and Malmsey, available at Waitrose) or really push the boat out, so to speak, with the Colheita Bual 1993 (available from Planet of the Grapes). You don’t need to finish the bottle right away but I’m certain you won’t be able to resist for long.
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