With days getting shorter and temperatures steadily falling, we are just now entering into the best time of year for fortified wines. For most wine lovers, that means vintage port; but you would be doing yourself a disservice if you did not at least consider Madeira as well. This small island off of the coast of Morocco has been producing some of the best semi-sweet and sweet fortified wines for centuries.
Madeira’s wine making industry dates back to the 16th century and earlier, but really took off when the island became a supply port for vessels originating in Europe and bound all over the world. The wine of Madeira, fortified with spirits to prevent spoiling, proved to be incredibly useful for sea journeys. As a provision, it was both nourishing and prevented scurvy; as a commodity, it found considerable demand in the American colonies; and as ballast, pipes of Madeira were ideal for weighing down the ship’s bilges for stability.
The unintended side-effect was that the wines so stored were exposed to oxygen as the pipes rolled in their berths, and were also gradually heated as the ship approached or crossed the equator—sometimes multiple times over the course of a single voyage. It was discovered that this process greatly improved the flavor of the wine, and Madeira wine makers set about reproducing the effect on land using specially constructed estufas (artificially heated stores) and canteiros (stores heated naturally the sun) where wine could be subjected to tropical conditions without the cost of a sea voyage. This gradual application of heat and oxidation produces a wine with mellow, secondary characteristics and incredible longevity.
An additional benefit of this process is that it makes a wine that is virtually indestructible. Proper storage for a bottle Madeira is upright at room temperature – or really any temperature except for extreme cold. It can also improve with bottle age almost indefinitely. We often sell bottles of Madeira that are 200 or more years old—and these bottles are not only drinkable but extraordinary.
Another major advantage Madeira has over just about any other wine is that an opened and partially consumed bottle can be kept for weeks or even months without any loss of quality. In fact it may actually get better! The bottom line is that there is very little one can do to a Madeira that has not already been done.
Vintage or solera dated Madeira comes in four basic styles named after the grapes from which they are made. These varieties are Sercial, which is the lightest and driest of the four, with the most acidity; Verdelho, which is medium sweet and a bit richer than Sercial; Bual, which is quite sweet; and Malmsey, which is luxuriously rich and honeyed. All differ from port in that the flavor profile is decidedly secondary. The best can be hugely complex, sweet, smoky and nutty with a bouquet that can be appreciated from across the table.
If you have not guessed by now I am big fan of these wines and over the years HDH has attracted a small but very enthusiastic group of buyers who chase after rare old bottles in our auctions and at retail. Special bottles will occasionally show up as part of a larger wine consignment and they always fly out the door. And with good reason! These wines are a real treat, and I highly recommend you give them a try.