Madeira is a fortified wine made on the Portuguese Madeira Islands, off the coast of Africa. Madeira is produced in a variety of styles ranging from dry wines which can be consumed on their own, as an apéritif, to sweet wines usually consumed with dessert. Cheaper cooking versions are often flavoured with salt and pepper for use in cooking, but these are not fit for consumption as a beverage.
The islands of Madeira have a long winemaking history, dating back to the Age of Exploration (approximately from the end of the 15th century) when Madeira was a standard port of call for ships heading to the New World or East Indies. To prevent the wine from spoiling, neutral grape spirits were added. On the long sea voyages, the wines would be exposed to excessive heat and movement which transformed the flavour of the wine. This was discovered by the wine producers of Madeira when an unsold shipment of wine returned to the islands after a round trip.
Today, Madeira is noted for its unique winemaking process which involves oxidizing the wine through heat and ageing. The younger blends (three and five years old) are produced with artificial methods that heat and accelerate the aging process and the older blends, colheitas and frasqueiras are produced by the canteiro method. Because of these methods of producing these wines are very long-lived and those produced by the canteiro method will survive for decades and even centuries, even after being opened. Wines that have been in barrels for many decades are often removed and stored in demijohns where they may remain unharmed indefinitely.
Some wines produced in small quantities in Crimea, California, and Texas are also referred to as "Madeira" or "Madera"; however, most countries conform to the EU PDO regulations and limit the use of the term Madeira or Madère to only those wines that come from the Madeira Islands.
The roots of Madeira's wine industry date back to the Age of Exploration, when Madeira was a regular port of call for ships travelling to the East Indies. By the 16th century, records indicate that a well-established wine industry on the island supplied these ships with wine for the long voyages across the sea. The earliest examples of Madeira were unfortified and had the habit of spoiling at sea. However, following the example of Port, a small amount of distilled alcohol made from cane sugar was added to stabilize the wine by boosting the alcohol content (the modern process of fortification using brandy did not become widespread until the 18th century). The Dutch East India Company became a regular customer, picking up large (112 gal/423 L) casks of wine known as "pipes" for their voyages to India.
The intense heat in the holds of the ships had a transforming effect on the wine, as discovered by Madeira producers when one shipment was returned to the island after a long trip. The customer was found to prefer the taste of this style of wine, and Madeira labeled as vinho da roda (wines that have made a round trip) became very popular. Madeira producers found that aging the wine on long sea voyages was very costly, so they began to develop methods on the island to produce the same aged and heated style. They began storing the wines on trestles at the winery or in special rooms known as estufas, where the heat of the island sun would age the wine.
With the increase of commercial treaties with England such as the Marriage Treaty in 1662, important English merchants settled on the island and, ultimately, controlled the increasingly important island wine trade. The English traders settled in the Funchal as of the seventeenth century, consolidating the markets from North America, the West Indies and England itself. Notable brands include Cossart and Gordon founded in 1745 and Blandy's in 1811.
The eighteenth century was the "golden age" for Madeira. The wine's popularity extended from the American colonies and Brazil in the New World to Great Britain, Russia, and Northern Africa. The American colonies, in particular, were enthusiastic customers, consuming as much as 95% of all wine produced on the island each year.
Madeira was a very important wine in the history of the United States of America. No wine-quality grapes were grown among the thirteen colonies, so imports were needed, with a great focus on Madeira. One of the major events on the road to the American Revolution in which Madeira played a key role was the British seizure of John Hancock's sloop Liberty on 9 May 1768. Hancock's boat was seized after he had unloaded a cargo of 25 pipes (3,150 US gallons (11,900 L)) of Madeira, and a dispute arose over import duties. The seizure of Liberty caused riots to erupt among the people of Boston.
Madeira was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, and it was used to toast the Declaration of Independence. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams are also said to have appreciated the qualities of Madeira. The wine was mentioned in Benjamin Franklin's autobiography. On one occasion, Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, of the great quantities of Madeira he consumed while a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress. A bottle of Madeira was used by visiting Captain James Sever to christen USS Constitution in 1797. Chief Justice John Marshall was also known to appreciate Madeira, as were his cohorts on the early U.S. Supreme Court. Madeira and walnuts were often served together as a last course at dinner parties in Washington in the early decades of the 1800s.
The mid-19th century ushered an end to the industry's prosperity. First came the 1851 discovery of powdery mildew, which severely reduced production over the next three years. Just as the industry was recovering through the use of the copper-based Bordeaux mixture fungicide, the phylloxera epidemic that had plagued France and other European wine regions reached the island. By the end of the 19th century, most of the island's vineyards had been uprooted, and many were converted to sugar cane production. The majority of the vineyards that did replant chose to use American vine varieties, such as Vitis labrusca, Vitis riparia and Vitis rupestris or hybrid grape varieties rather than replant with the Vitis vinifera varieties that were previously grown.
By the turn of the 20th century, sales started to slowly return to normal, until the industry was rocked again by the Russian Civil War and American Prohibition, which closed off two of Madeira's biggest markets. After the repeal of Prohibition, improved shipping technology meant that ships no longer needed to stop off in Madeira, the island which was directly in the trade winds between Europe and America. The wine became known as The Forgotten Island Wine. The rest of the 20th century saw a downturn for Madeira, both in sales and reputation, as low-quality "cooking wine" became primarily associated with the island—much as it had for Marsala.
In 1988, the Symington family of Portugal invested in the Madeira Wine Company which owned many of the Madeira brand names. They asked Bartholomew Broadbent to re-launch Madeira and create a market for it again in America, which he did in 1989, establishing a firm rebirth of Madeira.
Towards the end of the 20th century, some producers started a renewed focus on quality—ripping out the hybrid and American vines and replanting with the "noble grape" varieties of Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malvasia. The "workhorse" varieties of Tinta Negra Mole now known officially as just Tinta Negra, and Complexa are still present and in high use, but hybrid grapes were officially banned from wine production in 1979. Today, Madeira's primary markets are in the Benelux countries, France, where it is entirely used for cooking, salt and pepper having been added prior to bottling, and Germany; emerging markets are growing in Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The island of Madeira has an oceanic climate with some tropical influences. With high rainfall and average mean temperature of 66 °F (19 °C), the threats of fungal grape diseases and botrytis rot are constant viticultural hazards. To combat these threats, Madeira vineyards are often planted on low trellises, known as latada, that raise the canopy of the vine off the ground similar to a style used in the Vinho Verde region of Portugal. The terrain of the mountainous volcanic island is difficult to cultivate, so vineyards are planted on man-made terraces of red and brown basaltic bedrock. These terraces, known as poios, are very similar to the terraces of the Douro that make Port wine production possible. The use of mechanical harvesting and vineyard equipment is near impossible, making wine grape growing a costly endeavor on the island. Many vineyards have in the past been ripped up for commercial tourist developments or replanted with such products as bananas for commercial concerns. Some replanting is taking place on the island; however, the tourist trade is generally seen as a more lucrative business than wine-making. Most of the grapes, grown by around 2100 grape growers are from vines planted on small plots of land off of which the grape growers survive by making an income from a variety of different inter-grown crops.
Approximately 85% of Madeira is produced with the red grape, Negra Mole. The four major white grape varieties used for Madeira production are (from sweetest to driest) Malvasia, Bual, Verdelho, and Sercial. These varieties also lend their names to Madeira labelling, as discussed below. Occasionally one sees Terrantez, Bastardo and Moscatel varieties, although these are now increasingly rare on the island because of oidium and phylloxera. After the phylloxera epidemic, many wines were "mislabelled" as containing one of these noble grape varieties, which were reinterpreted as "wine styles" rather than true varietal names. Since the epidemic, Tinta Negra (or Negra Mole) and Complexa are the workhorse varieties on the island and are found in various concentrations in many blends and vintage wines. Bastardo, Complexa, and Tinta Negra are red grape varieties.
Grown exclusively on the neighboring island of Porto Santo, which is also permitted under the appellation law to provide grapes for Madeira wine, are the varietals Listrão (Palomino Fino) and Caracol. Listrão Madeira was formerly made by a few companies such as Blandy's and Artur de Barros e Sousa, the latter being the last old producer to utilize the varietal when they closed their doors in 2013, but Madeira Vintners founded in that year subsequently restarted production of, and released in 2020, a 5-year-old Listrão Reserve Madeira. Caracol, an obscure grape believed to be unique to Porto Santo and only used for the local production of dry table wine in the past, was turned into fortified Madeira for the first time by Madeira Vintners, becoming the first new grape in over a century to be used for high-quality single-varietal Madeira wine. The company's stocks are still aging as of 2023 and no wine is on the market yet.
Regulations enacted recently by the European Union have applied the rule that 85% of the grapes in the wine must be of the variety on the label. Thus, wines from before the late 19th century (pre-phylloxera) and after the late 20th century conform to this rule. Many "varietally labelled" Madeiras, from most of the 20th century, do not. Modern Madeiras which do not carry a varietal label are generally made from Negra Mole.
Other varieties planted on the island, though not legally permitted for Madeira production, include Arnsburger, Cabernet Sauvignon, and the American hybrids Cunningham and Jacquet.
The initial winemaking steps of Madeira start out like most other wines: grapes are harvested, crushed, pressed, and then fermented in either stainless steel or oak casks. The grape varieties destined for sweeter wines – Bual and Malvasia – are often fermented on their skins to leach more phenols from the grapes to balance the sweetness of the wine. The more dry wines – made from Sercial, Verdelho, and Negra Mole – are separated from their skins prior to fermentation. Depending on the level of sweetness desired, fermentation of the wine is halted at some point by the addition of neutral grape spirits.
The younger wines (typically 3 and 5 years old) undergo the estufagem aging process to produce Madeira's distinctive flavor by artificial heating, whereas the wines destined for long aging are barrel-aged using only the naturally high temperatures of the barrel storage rooms (see canteiro process).
Colourings such as caramel colouring have been used in the past to give some consistency (see also whiskey), although this practice is decreasing.
What makes Madeira wine production unique is how the wines are aged in relatively high temperatures, meant to duplicate the effect of a long sea voyage on the aging barrels through tropical climates. Three main methods are used to heat the wine during aging. The two processes belong to the estufagem process (estufa means hothouse or stove in Portuguese), in which artificial heat is used to accelerate the aging process of the wines, whereas the canteiro process is used for the older and more expensive wines and employs only the natural heat of the barrel warehouses.
Much of the characteristic flavour of Madeira is due to this practice, which hastens the mellowing of the wine and also tends to check secondary fermentation in as much as it is, in effect, a mild kind of pasteurization. Furthermore, the wine is deliberately exposed to air, causing it to oxidize. The resulting wine has a colour similar to a tawny port wine. Wine tasters sometimes describe a wine that has been exposed to excessive heat during its storage as being cooked or maderized.
The four major styles of Madeira are synonymous with the names of the four best-known white grapes used to produce the wine. Ranging from the driest style to the sweetest style, the Madeira types are:
A fifth noble grape, Terrantez, almost became extinct on the island but has been making a comeback. Its style ranges in sweetness from that of Verdelho to that of Bual, never being quite as dry as Sercial nor quite as sweet as Malvasia.
Wines made from at least 85% of the noble varieties of Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malvasia are usually labelled based on the amount of time they were aged:
A wine labeled as Finest has been aged for at least three years. This style is usually reserved for cooking.
The terms pale, dark, full, and rich can also be included to describe the wine's colour.
Madeira produced from Negra Mole grapes used to be legally restricted to use generic terms on the label to indicate the level of sweetness as seco (dry), meio seco (medium dry), meio doce (medium sweet) and doce (sweet). However, in 2015 the Madeira Wine Institute announced that producers may officially recognise Tinta Negra on their front labels and that all "expressions" must state their bottling date.
Wines listed with Solera were made in a style similar to sherry, with a fractional blending of wines from different vintages in a solera system. The Solera method of blending is most widely practiced in the sherry production of Spain. However, the rules for Madeira soleras are different. When it comes to sherry, as wine is used for bottling, new wine is added to the barrels of older wine and this continuous addition of young wine to old would result in very little wine being from the original vintage. With Madeira, approximately 50% of a bottle would likely be from the stated year because they are only allowed to add up to 10%, not more than 10 times. Another interesting peculiarity of old solera Madeiras is that they were initially developed as a result of trying to extend the stocks of vintages when the vines had stopped being productive due to Phylloxera. Therefore, as there was no younger wine to add to the vintage, it was usually older wines that were added. In recent years, vintage Madeiras have been commanding higher prices than soleras, but, from 1966 (when Michael Broadbent started wine auctions at Christie's), until about the end of the 20th century, solera Madeiras always fetched a premium at auction over the vintage ones.
A style called "Rainwater" is one of the largest-selling styles of Madeira in the United States, most commonly drunk as an apéritif. Nowadays it is almost always an inexpensive medium-dry style of wine made entirely from Tinta Negra grapes, and aged for around three years including a period in an estufa, but Barbeito continues to produce a more expensive Rainwater in the old pre-phylloxera style by blending Sercial and Verdelho grapes.
Accounts conflict as to how this style was developed. The most common name derives from the vineyards on the steep hillsides, where irrigation was difficult, and the vines were dependent on the local rainwater for survival. Another theory involves a shipment destined for the American colonies that was accidentally diluted by rainwater while it sat on the docks in Savannah, Georgia, or Funchal. Rather than dump the wines, the merchants tried to pass it off as a "new style" of Madeira and were surprised at its popularity among the Americans. Another theory as to how Rainwater was named was when a gentleman in Savannah, Georgia tasted a Madeira and declared "this is as fine as Rainwater."
Exposure to extreme temperature and oxygen accounts for Madeira's stability; an opened bottle will survive unharmed indefinitely. As long as a cork is put into the top of the bottle to prevent the effects of evaporation, fruit flies, and dust, a vintage Madeira, once opened, can last for decades. Properly sealed in bottles, it is one of the longest-lasting wines; Madeiras have been known to survive over 200 years in excellent condition. It is not uncommon to see 150-year-old Madeiras for sale at stores that specialize in rare wine. Vintages dating back to 1780 are known to exist. The oldest bottle that has come onto the market is a 1715 Terrantez.
Before the advent of artificial refrigeration, Madeira wine was particularly prized in areas where it was impractical to construct wine cellars (as in parts of the southern United States) because, unlike many other fine wines, it could survive being stored over hot summers without significant damage. In the Americas, Madeira was traditionally stored in the warm attics of houses.
Popular uses include apéritifs (pre-meal) and digestifs (post-meal). In Britain it has traditionally been associated with Madeira cake.
Because Madeira has a very high acidity, it can be paired with any food, even citrus or balsamic. Also, although it is sweet, even the Malmsey has a dry finish, so it does not get killed by the sweetness of desserts and pudding. This makes it the most versatile of all dessert wines. Whereas most sweet wines are rendered dry by the sweetness of the dessert, this does not happen with Madeira.
Madeira is also used as a flavouring agent in cooking. Lower-quality Madeira wines may be flavored with salt and pepper to prevent their sale as Madeira wine, and then exported for cooking purposes. Madeira wine is commonly used in tournedos Rossini and sauce madère (Madeira sauce). Unflavored Madeira may also be used in cooking, such as the dessert dish "Plum in madeira".