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A guide to Madeira wine

Jonathan Goodall / 23 June 2016

From rich and sticky sweetness to drier, nutty, even lemony styles, Madeira is unique, the only wine to be ‘cooked’ in the processing.

Madeira wine
Madeira wine

Rising 6,000 feet above the Atlantic, 400 miles west of Morocco, Madeira’s volcanic peaks are clad in dense vegetation and eternally shrouded in cloud.

Only the cooling effect of altitude allows the cultivation of wine grapes on this subtropical island. It’s the kind of place where King Kong might wrestle a wonky Plasticine Triceratops; an appropriate setting for The Tipple That Time Forgot.

The history of Madeira wine

Trade was brisk in the 17th and 18th centuries when Madeira was ideally situated on busy trade routes to Africa and the Americas. The wine was fortified with spirits to help it withstand long voyages, but nothing could prevent it from ‘cooking’ below decks when crossing the tropics. 

Such brutal treatment would destroy most wines, but Madeira was found to improve, developing distinctive burnt-molasses notes, which winemakers learned to reproduce in the winery.

Making Madeira

Cheaper wines, bulk and Three-Year-Old, are stored in heated estufas (‘stoves’) for up to three months at temperatures pushing 50 degrees centigrade. 

Casks of Five-, 10-, 15-Year-Old and Vintage Madeira are stored in sweltering attics in Funchal, the capital, for longer, gentler heating. The term ‘maderised’ had to be invented to describe the unique flavours of this idiosyncratic wine. 

When applied to other wines, ‘maderised’ is often a euphemism for ‘stale’, yet Madeira maintains an incredible freshness thanks to the rapier-like acidity of its grapes. 

About 90% of Madeira, much of which is used as cooking wine in France and Belgium, is made from the red Tinta Negra Mole grape variety. 

The top 10%, quality-wise, is made from one of four ‘noble’ white grapes, and each denotes a particular style. In ascending order of richness these are Sercial (dry), Verdelho (off-dry), Bual (medium-sweet) and Malvasia (rich and sweet). Malvasia is sometimes called ‘Malmsey’ in England. 

The taste of Madeira

Sercial and Verdelho, the drier styles, lean towards nutty, dried-fruit and citrus-peel flavours, while the richer Bual and Malvasia aremore akin to crystallised fruits, candied peel, marmalade and treacle.

Find out about the key taste areas of wine

Pairing Madeira with food

Lightly chilled, the drier styles make tangy, zesty aperitifs, served with salted almonds or spicy chorizo. 

Drier Madeiras are more versatile with food, making a curiously good match with sushi. The richer styles, Bual and Malvasia, are superb with chocolate, cakes and puddings such as tiramisu, tarte tatin, toffee pudding, Christmas cake and mince pies.

All Madeira goes well with cheese, nuts and game and has a famous affinity with all things mushroom. 

The priciest Madeira is largely confined to the pinstripe premises of such fine-wine merchants as Corney & Barrow and Berry Bros & Rudd, though the leading Blandy’s and Henriques & Henriques brands are available in selected Waitrose stores. Barbeito is available in Oddbins.

The best-selling Madeira is Blandy’s Duke of Clarence, available in ‘all good supermarkets’ (about £12). It’s named after the first Duke who, in 1478, was allegedly ‘drowned in a butt of Malmsey’ for treason, though some historians think this might be a reference to his drinking habits. 

Either way, it shouldn’t stop you enjoying an occasional glass or two.


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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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