Exploring the Wines of Madeira Island: A Guide for Wine Enthusiasts

Discover the rich history and unique exotic flavors of Madeira wines

By Sandra Crittenden

Madeira is both a wine and a place. The place is an island that was formed by a huge volcanic eruption in the Atlantic Ocean 7.5 million years ago that created layers of rock which jut upward over 6,000 feet above sea level. It is a part of Portugal, but it is closer to Morocco sitting 500 miles away from its home country. 

 When the Portuguese began sailing the world in the 1400s during the Age of Discovery, sailors landed on the shores and immediately claimed it for their king. It quickly became known as "The Island of Wine" and was an important stop for ships heading in or out of Europe on their trade routes. 

 Madeira, the wine, is created in a fortified style and it takes its name from the island where it is produced. Madeira differs from other fortified wines like Port and Sherry because of its unusual production method. 

 Madeira was first fortified with brandy in the 18th century, a process used to stop fermentation of the grapes, which then allowed it to be safely stored and transported. Ships traveled from Europe to the island and stocked up on wine before continuing to far flung destinations like the East and West Indies, Africa, and North and South America. 

 The fortification of the wines prevented it from spoiling during the long trips at sea, but other positive changes happened as well. The wine would be subjected to repeated temperature changes, they were heated through the tropics and cooled when arriving at colder destinations. 

 The changing nature of the wine was noted by sailors who drank it on the island and then again upon its arrival to its destination, the wine flavors seemed to deepen and actually improve, it became referred to as 'sea aging.’ 

 Placeholder imageNorth America became a major market for Madeira wines as there was a great demand for these wines in the colonies. George Washington celebrated his inauguration as the first president of the United States with Madeira, and in the following years, Americans would toast their independence with the delicious wine. 

 A semi-tropical island, Madeira has six different climate zones. This diverse climate and distinct terrain with its precipitous cliffs, along with the unique soils formed from the volcanic rock created a special place for wine grape cultivation. 

 Today, the island’s vineyards sit on step-like terraces called poios which have been carved out of the island’s bedrock. The main types of grapes grown on the island for Madeira wine production are the red grape Negra Mole and four white grapes Malvasia, Bual, Verdelho, and Sercial. 

 Nowadays the 'sea aging' process is replicated on land and Madeira wines are repeatedly cooled and heated during production along with being exposed to oxygen; steps that are not typical to traditional winemaking today but simulate the previous transatlantic voyages of the wines. 

 This process works for Madeira wines because grapes are picked much earlier than normal, creating a more acidic wine which helps the flavors to survive. The unique aging process then preserves the wine allowing some Madeiras to be cellared for incredible lengths of time. 

 Collectors of vintage Madeira understand the value of their investment. These wines allow connoisseurs the opportunity to taste history. 

 Christie’s Auction House has sold bottles from the mid-19th century for around $300-$400 but the most expensive ever sold was a Terrantez from 1715 which went for $25,000. 

 Because Madeira has gone through the oxidative process, it doesn't oxidize once opened, so like a top-quality bottle of Cognac, it can be enjoyed for years. 

 When buying Madeira, know that it is ready to drink, extra aging is not required. The single years are better than the blends. The single varietals are better than multi-grape blends and designate the style. 

 Malmsey aka Malvasia is the sweetest grape variety followed by Bual. Verdelho creates a drier style and Sercial is the driest of all. The majority of Madeira wine is made from the Tinta Negra Mole grapes and is typically the main grape in blends.

 By law, each wine must be at least 85 percent of the grape on the label, less than that and it will be released as a blended Madeira. Vintage Madeira or Colheita Madeira are top-quality options for long storage. 

 Madeira is often served after dinner as a digestif but, as there are a variety of styles and grapes, it can be served from appetizers to dessert. Drier styles work well with savory foods like soups, charcuterie, paella, and grilled seafood. 

 Sweeter styles can be dessert on their own or they also work well with cheese plates, pecan pie, and chocolate desserts. Whether dry or sweet, the wines share a complex mix of aromas and flavors including citrus peel, roasted nuts, and caramel. 

 Madeira is a robust fortified wine with a higher alcohol content ranging around 18-20 percent alcohol by volume so be sure to enjoy responsibly. It's made in different styles, from dry, used as an aperitif, to sweet, used as a digestif. 

 While it can be enjoyed any time of year, the warming effects are particularly charming during the cooler winter months. Open a bottle of this liquid gold this January and know that you can enjoy a taste of another island paradise right away and also for many more months to come. 

Blandy’s Sercial 5 Year Madeira
The driest style, this wine can be an aperitif or served with pate, quail poppers, or creamy clam chowder.
The Rare Wine Co Historic Series “Savannah Verdelho” Special Reserve Madeira
This wine is part of a four-group set that is made in an off-dry style that was preferred by the colonists in Georgia. With just a touch of sweetness, it can be the pre-dinner starter. It also pairs well with spicy Cajun gumbo or Chinese style salt and pepper shrimp.
D’Oliveiras Tinta Negra 1995
This house stores as much Madeira in cask as possible, bottling only enough to meet short-term needs, therefore allowing it to release older vintages over time. This medium-dry, complex wine is served on the island as an aperitif or with light savory starters like consommé.
Henriques & Henriques Single Harvest Malvasia 2001
Concentrated and rich, this sweet style pairs equally well with vanilla ice cream or hard cheeses like Gruyere or Pecorino or as an after-dinner drink like Cognac.