Madeira may be most famous wine you’ve never tasted.
It was not always so. During colonial times, 75 percent of the wine consumed in America was Madeira because of its near indestructibility. Long, hot ocean voyages that destroy other wines improve Madeira.
Madeira is a Portuguese island 625 miles southwest of the mainland, almost due west of Casablanca, Morocco. It is a lush tropical garden that produces grape varieties that become Madeira wines—malvasia (malmsey), bual, sercial, verdelho, tinta negra (the only red), and terrantez.
Temperature is defining influence in Madeira wine making. Wines are heated to 100-130 degrees for four months or more. They are finished in winery towers where they may spend years—five years to 15 years or more—moving down from floor to floor in the tropical climate.
In a recent interview, Chris Blandy, seventh generation of Madeira winemaking family that dates to 1808, explains:
“Making Madeira is more like making bourbon. We may lose 15 percent of the wine each year to evaporation. That concentrates flavors. Climate conditions are decisive. You can taste the difference in barrels aged in different rooms and floors that faced different compass directions.”
Finished Madeira is incredibly long lived. Makers count on great grandchildren to judge their work. Bottles exist for sale from 1715, recent sales included bottles from 1790 and 1808. The simplest stuff is five years old; 10-plus years is common; 50-year-old bottles are not rare.
If you have never tasted Madeira, you owe yourself the treat. It can be a great after-dinner drink, or a cocktail-like pour—all are fortified up to 19 percent alcohol. An open bottle will stay good for months.
Main Madeira styles:
• Malmsey. Sweetest, most approachable style; smooth, delicious. World-class malmsey hits its peak after a century, but 10-year-old infants can be excellent.
• Bual: slightly less sweet than malmsey, medium rich, raisiny, reddish-brown color.
• Verdelho: tangy acidity, smoky, medium dry, orange-amber color.
• Sercial: driest, most mouth-puckering. Almond aromas, pale gold color, most acidic.
Brands: Blandy’s, Leacock, Sandeman, Rare Wine Company are brands you are most likely to find; all produce quality wines.
Last round: I put “drink wine” on my to-do list so I can feel I accomplished something today.