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Our Complete Guide to Madeira: Bottled History

What is Madeira?

Madeira is a wine of history, made by mistake and crafted by circumstance. With the ability to last for hundreds of years, sometimes it is, quite literally, bottled history. It’s a region whose great fortune was mirrored in its near extinction. Now these singular wines and their makers are experiencing a resurgence into the hearts and glasses of wine drinkers on the hunt for the authentic. Most people still have no notion of what the wine is or why they should drink it. Madeira is a sip of the past and its story is nearly as complex as its wines.

Like the rest of the wines from Europe, Madeira takes the name of where it is made. In this case, it is deemed for the beautiful archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean. The cluster of islands are closer to Africa than Europe and remained unsettled until the Portuguese “discovered” them in 1418 at the beginning of the Age of Discovery. It’s prominent location, known as ships’ “last stop” before the new world, has been the key in its destiny.

So, what is the story? 

The wine itself started off like any other, grapes were picked, pressed, fermented and aged in barrels. Most of it was then ferried to markets in Europe, Asia or the New World in giant casks in the hulls of ships. The problem is that wine spoils quite easily, especially when exposed to heat from the sun on the open ocean, oxygen from permeable wood barrels and the constant moving of waves. The first step in its singularity was the addition of sugar distillate in an effort to fortify the wines for long journeys. This is a trick stolen from the Porto producers and keeps the wine fresher on those long sea voyages by increasing the alcohol content.

However, the real mark of Madeira was discovered by accident. Trading ships would sometimes return to the island with a few casks of unsold wine. So, they tried to drink or sell the wine upon return. It turns out that of all the heat, movement and oxygen resulted in surprisingly tasty wine. Soon the ‘unsold’ wines were sought out by locals and traders alike. At first the Vinho de Roda (wines that made the round trip) were purposefully put on ships and carried on long treks for their unique transformation. But, soon enough, the cost of this form of aging was too great to bear. Someone had the bright idea to leave the casks in the hot sun, or in boiling attics to mimic the effect of the heat and oxygen exposure. The product of this strategy quickly became known as maderized wine. 

The other fringe benefit of this new form of aging was that the wines became nearly indestructible. This was a modern luxury in the age before refrigeration and meant people could stock up on large quantities of wine, without worrying about losing it if they didn’t have adequate storage. It also survived the sea voyages to the New World where it became the wine of choice for anyone who could afford it, including the founding fathers of the United States of America.

Life was good for the Madeirans in 1850, which it turns out was the end of an era. A year later powdery mildew attacked the islands vineyards, its subtropical, humid climate made it the perfect host for all forms of rot. This was followed by phylloxera, an infamous louse that munches on vine roots, eventually killing the plant. These small farmers couldn’t withstand the devastation and either switched their crops to sugar and banana or replanted sturdy American vines and hybrids. The American grapes might have been of inferior quality, but at least the plants didn’t succumb to all the disease pressure. 

If that wasn’t enough, the turn of the century brought the dual calamities of the Russian Civil War and American prohibition drying up their two biggest markets. And the final nail in the coffin was the improvements in shipping technology, ensuring boats didn’t need to make the stop in the ports of Funchal. The island faded into the background of commerce and became another chapter nearly forgotten history.

Fast forward a 100 years to today: Where once there were hundreds of producers and shippers there are now only 6. After years of losing historic vineyard sites to other crops and serving the bulk markets, there is now renewed interest from the premium sector of wine consumers. Regulations are changing to preserve vineyards, methods of production, styles and labelling laws. With all this focus on quality we may now be entering a second golden age and there couldn’t be a better time to try this illustrious beverage. 

Besides all the history, what makes it so special?

It’s singularity is totally based on its unique aging process. Madeira is one of the most complex wines in existence. It comes in a range of styles from dry to sweet and round. Couple that with a depressed market place and you can find wines that are near bargains for every palate. Yay!

Where is it grown?

It’s grown on the island of Madeira, part of a volcanic archipelago in the north Atlantic. As mentioned above, Madeira is closer to North Africa than Portugal, but just an hour plane ride from Lisbon. If you haven’t already, take a look at the map we included at the top of this post. You can see that most of the grapes are grown on the south side of the island, which is where the capital Funchal and most of the people also live. The north side has a dense pine forest that has been given UNESCO world heritage site protected status, along with a few vineyards. It is hard to overstate the beauty and individuality of this small island.

Most of the plots are tiny and owned by individual farmers who also grow other crops. The steep slopes of the 6,000 ft mountain in the middle of the island means that every single vineyard is terraced, worked by hand and expensive to farm. Grapes are sold to the producers and shippers so almost everything made is a blend of vineyards. There are some exceptions with companies like d’Oliveira and Barbieto who own a good majority of their own vines.

What is the climate like on the island?

As you may have assumed, the climate is mainly subtropical/Mediterranean, with moderating cooling oceanic influences. Summers are hot and dry with short rainy winters, but the mountain provides a plethora of microclimates: cooler, wetter, alpine, and arid. That is what makes this island so special. Even with wet winters, most of the rain falls on the north, windward side. This led to the construction of 1,300 miles of levadas, or canals, which channel water to farms, sometimes through the mountain itself. It is a true feat of human engineering and takes constant upkeep to maintain.

What kind of grapes are used?

Originally the main grapes were Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, Malmsey (Malvasia), Moscatel and Terrantez. Each of these was well suited to the different climates and elevations and produced a wide variety of styles that took on the names of the grapes. Sercial was very dry and high acid, Malmsey was sweeter and fuller, eventually the styles were codified into labelling laws, so if you see the word Sercial, you know its going to be steely, zippy and dry on the finish.

But grape varieties have been a point of contention on the island for a long time. With the outbreak of mildews and phylloxera, many of these classic grape vines died or were grubbed up to make way for heartier varieties. Inferior American species, hybrids, or the now ubiquitous work horse (and only red varietal) Tinta Negra Mole proliferated. Some producers started using these non-classic grapes in their wines, and applying the grapes associated with that style. Meaning a medium sweet wine labeled Bual, might not actually have any Bual in it! The 70’s finally saw a crackdown on labels and now you are guaranteed at least 85% of a wine must have the stated varietal in the bottle.

How is it made?

We touched on this briefly, but as it is what makes the wine so special, let’s dig in! While terroir and grape variety certainly lead to major differences in flavor and body, Madeira just wouldn’t be Madeira without its unique method of production.

There is a lot of bulk and cooking Madeira (another unfortunate factor that has led to its sulking reputation) made with inferior methods but for our purposes here, we will only discuss the methods of fine wine production.

Base wines are made just like the dry wines we are all familiar with. Grapes are pressed and their juice starts to ferment into wine. Some grapes like Bual and Malmsey are fermented on their skins (like orange wine) to extract more of their aromatic flavors. When the wine reaches its desired level of dryness it is fortified with unaged brandy and fermentation stops. 

Sercial, the driest style is fortified when most of the sugar has finished fermenting into alcohol, Verdelho with a few more grams of residual sugar, Bual even more and Malmsey when it has anywhere from 63-117 grams/liter of residual sugar. All the wines are usually fortified to about 19.5%, meaning different amounts of distilled spirit is added to the wine during fermentation. Port and Sherry are produced in a very similar way, up to this point.

Now is when the real fun begins. Most modern wine is made with two very important concepts applied: introduce as little oxygen as possible and keep it cold. The invention of stainless steel allows both protection from oxygen and temperature control. But a cool cellar or air conditioning can help with the temperature and full barrels and lees contact can help control oxygen exposure.

Madeira goes the opposite direction.

Canteiro refers specifically to the process of making the wine without artificial heat. Fortified wine is put in barrels and then purposely left in hot places, like attics or buildings with lead roofs. Each producer has a style they are trying to achieve, therefore they have a variety of rooms and buildings, each utilized to control how much heat is applied. Wood barrels allow for a certain amount of oxygen to touch the wine. Then, the hot weather allows evaporation to occur and leave room for more oxygen in barrels which don’t get topped up.

What does it taste like?

As briefly mentioned, each of the main noble grapes is associated with a specific style and taste profile. More on this in a moment. For now, I’m going to make some broad generalizations about Madeira.

The combination of fortification, oxygen, heat could easily destroy a wine, but instead they give us a menagerie of flavors unachievable in any other type of wine. From fresh to dried fruits, nuts and cereals, herbs, graphite, rocks, toast, smoke, flint, coffee, toffee, meat and mushrooms. The possibilities are endless. They also render the wine indestructible. You can open a bottle of madeira and as long as you put the cork back in to avoid other matter getting in there, it is nearly impossible to destroy. It’s easy to get hooked on Madeira because you can have just a glass here and there and keep the bottle around for a while. Between that and the insane flavor profile, you’ll start to reach for Madeira on a week night over opening a new bottle--especially when it’s just you. 

Another cool thing about Madeira is even with all that sugar, they tend to finish rather dry. So while port may over power and keep the sweetness on your tongue a Malmsey with be sweet on the attack, complex in the middle and have a long dry, high acid finish, quite refreshing. Food possibilities are also broad. Drier styles are great aperitifs but also pear really well with spicy complex foods like Indian and Thai. Sweeter styles are amazing with rich dishes but also go great with a variety of desserts. Honestly the wines are so complex, I love to savor a glass for hours sans food or at the end of a meal. If I’m baking brownies? Madeira. If I’m ordering in Wonton Soup? Madeira!

How do I pick one out?

What do the labels tell me about the bottle?

The Portuguese are known for their organization. This means wines have been clearly categorized for a somewhat easier purchasing experience. They also have a strong governmental board who actually take the time to test and verify the wines that are made throughout the country.

Two main things can be learned from looking at a bottle of Madeira and we’ll dive into both. 

  1. First the grape variety which denotes the level of sweetness, and can give you an idea to the flavor profile of the wine. The sweetness level will also be written out on bottles of Tinta Negra Mole. 
  2. Age of the wine. Most Madeira is a blend from a series of casks, from different vintages, aged for different lengths of time. Each cask is used like an ingredient in a recipe. Shippers know that if you mix a little from barrel A in one part of the attic that is 7 years old, with a little more from barrel B in a hotter part of an attic that is 5 years old, with a touch from barrel C on the floor that is 9 years old, they will get a consistent wine every time. This makes blending an important aspect in wine, just like in Sherry and Champagne. Wines can be bottled from a single cask with no blending required.

The Grapes:

  • Sercial: The driest of the Madeira styles, with lots of searing acidity, almondy notes. It stands up to intensely flavored foods like olives, goat cheese, and ginger, but also pairs really well with seafood like sushi.
  • Verdelho: Just a touch more sweetness than Sercial, which nicely tempers the acidity and gives it a lip smacking quality. It also makes it the easiest to pair with just about anything on the table, from slightly spicy to rich and roasted.
  • Bual: Super fun to say, but even more fun to drink. Another step up in sugar content and a little darker and richer than the other two. It’s got raisins, fig and date notes, and demonstrates the maderized quality really well. This makes it pair really well with roast lamb, chocolate desserts and hard cheeses. Many people want “dry” wine, but I’ve never seen someone not enjoy a good glass of Bual. Personally, this is my weakness. 
  • Malmsey aka Malvasia: Even though this style has the most sugar content, its high natural acidity means it finishes dry on the palate. It’s full and dark and rich with coffee, toffee, walnut and chocolate notes. Pair this one with spicy indian curry, hot wings, blue cheeses, and desserts.
  • Terrantez: A nearly extinct, thin-skinned temperamental variety that is slowly making a comeback. And we’re grateful! It doesn’t have a regulated level of sweetness, but is sought out for its duality of bittersweet notes, light in body, floral, smokey, fruity and herbal.
  • Moscatel: It’s out there, but very hard to find. It carries the requisite spicy, rose, and notes this variety is known for but lacks the acidity to keep its high sugars in check.
  • Tinta Negra Mole or Negra Mole: The only red grape and often denigrated as inferior quality to the other “Nobel” grapes. But in the hands of good farmers and made with the care of the other grapes firms like Barbieto are elevating its status and proving it’s a worthwhile grape. (Think Pinot Muenier in Champagne). Its name isn’t associated with a level of sweetness so it will be labeled either:  seco (dry), meio seco (medium dry), meio doce (medium sweet) and doce (sweet).
  • Rainwater: historic style that is lighter in color and body. Often lands on the dryer side. At the height of Madeira’s popularity, this was the most sought after style. It is fresh and easy to drink. However, there is no true standard of what it must include or how it must taste. We recommend our favorite Rainwater at the end of this post. It is a tricky style to learn about because there is a fair bit of folklore surrounding its history. We are not sure who began this style or exactly how it was made. More on this later.

The Age Statements:

  • Reserve - Aged a minimum of 5, but up to 9 years and must have up to 85% of a single noble variety. These are often much cheaper, and made with artificial heat sources, they can lack complexity and integration.
  • Special Reserve - Aged for 10-14 years, from a noble variety grape, and no artificial heat is used. 
  • Extra Reserve - Aged 15-20 years, but most shippers don’t bother with this category because once it gets to 20 years, you can label it a Frasqueira and fetch a higher price. Richer than Special reserve due to the concentration from evaporation.
  • Colheita - means harvest in Portuguese and denotes a wine made from a single vintage. The wine must be aged a minimum of 5 years up to 19.
  • Frasqueira - means vintage. You won’t find the word on a bottle though, just the vintage date of the wine, along with the grape variety. They must be aged a minimum of 20 years, sometimes MUCH longer and fetch the highest prices of any Madeira. They also should survive forever, as long as you put the cork back in.

What Madeira are we drinking?

For beginners we love to drink and share the Rare Wine Co. Historic Series of Madeira. These were developed through a partnership between The Rare Wines Co. and Ricardo Freitas of Vinhos Barbieto. The Rare Wine Co. has been distributing Madeira to American aficionados for decades, but wanted to find a way to reintroduce Madeira to a new audience. Ricardo Freitas has large stocks of old Madeira and wanted to help the RWC explore what the wines around the time of the American Revolution, might be like. 

Each bottle is labeled with a grape and an American city, each known for their affinity to that specific grape/style. They are blends from barrels aged anywhere from 5 years and up. They’re priced to quality makes them a perfect jumping off point to discover your own preferences before jumping down the rabbit hole of Frasqueira/Vintages. Here they are:

Rare Wine Co. Historic Series Madeira, Baltimore Rainwater Special Reserve, NV

***This is a very special wine, reverse engineered by RWC to taste as close as possible to how we believe Rainwater would have tasted at the height of its popularity. How they did this is a true marvel of art and science. For years they researched original sources and cellar notes. They learned how the wines tasted and how they were made. Finally, after searching they found and were able to drink a bottle of Rainwater from 1850. They drank it. They thought about it. And they combined that perspective with their research and made this terrific wine. While writing this blog we opened a bottle and frankly, revelled in the joy of drinking it.

Available in NYC. 

Available in SF.

Rare Wine Co. Historic Series Madeira, Boston Bual Special Reserve, NV

Available in NYC.

Available in SF.

Rare Wine Co. Historic Series Madeira, Charleston Sercial Special Reserve, NV

Available in NYC.

Available in SF. 

Rare Wine Co. Historic Series Madeira, Savannah Verdelho Special Reserve, NV

Available in NYC.

Rare Wine Co. Historic Series Madeira New York Malmsey Special Reserve, NV

Available in NYC.

Available in SF. 

Rare Wine Co. Historic Series Madeira, George Washington Special Reserve, NV

Available in NYC.

Here are some terrific bottles from Broadbent that have significant age. You seldom find better value for old wines than this:

(We'll update these links when the wines become available in NYC. Call the shop if you have any questions.)

Broadbent, Madeira Verdelho 10yr

Available in SF.

Broadbent, Madeira Colheita, 1999

Available in SF.

Vintages our friends keep talking about:

D’Oliveira, Boal 1984 

A rare chance to drink a birth year wine, as 84 was difficult around the globe. The perfect amount of sweet to bounce of the acidity, the caramel, spicey, black pepper, dried apricot, sweet corn, toasted almonds… will never get out of my head.

Clara Dalzell, GM Flatiron Wines

D’Oliveira, Verdelho 1973 

I like acid…the Verdelho in the past year or so has been in a really great place where the balance between oxidation and acid concentration is on point if you like freshness…

Adam Reiger, importer

Blandy’s 1977 Malmsey

Vintage Malmseys, aged in the right location, develop a natural richness with deep layers of aromas and flavours.  This wine, aged 41 years in old American oak casks at Quinta das Maravilhas in Funchal, has an exceptional quality, freshness and complexity we never expected!

Chris Blandy