Madeira's fortified wines are made in a method completely different from other wines
I’ve been on the Portuguese island of Madeira for the last several days with a group of Wine-Knows. Madeira is unusual in many ways. First, it’s closer to Africa that it is to Europe (same latitude as Casablanca, Morocco). Second, the wine for which it is most famous (fortified wine) was discovered by accident. But, the most remarkable distinction of this wine is that it breaches many tenets used in traditional wine-making.
Let’s start with some basic background. Madeira’s wines, highly coveted in the 17th century, were being shipped all over the world. The island was perfectly positioned on the newly opened trade routes to the Americas, as well as a long- scheduled stop on the important trade routes to India. Its earliest wines, however, had a habit of spoiling at sea as they were being transported. To stabilize them, Madeira wine-makers followed suit of their colleagues in the mainland’s Port area and added a small amount of brandy to alleviate degeneration. Thus, the birthing of the island’s “fortified” wine.
Madeira winemakers learned other instrumental factors from the wines’ long trips at sea centuries ago that are used today to make their wines unique. Wines returned to Madeira after a year’s voyage tasted better than when they had left. During the voyage the wine would evaporate, oxidize and concentrate, creating something very different than the table wine that had been originally shipped. Winemakers today reproduce all of this but in a completely different way.
The Use of Heat:
Winemakers figured out that the intense heat of the ship’s hold was changing the wine into something completely different….and better. Madeira’s wine is now actually put through a heating process to mimic the months spent in the hot cargo holds of old galleons. Heat is a big NO for traditional winemakers who prefer cool cellars for storage.
Exposure to Oxygen:
Madeira goes against the grain of another basic principle of conventional wine-making: avoiding contact with oxygen. Viewed as a huge culprit, Oxygen can turn wine into vinegar, and create other various not-so-nice flaws. Madeira, in contrast, works with oxygen. In fact, the term “Maderized” has been coined to describe wines that have been exposed to oxygen. Typically, these wines are darker brown, with caramel and nutty flavors, all of which are typically found in Madeira.
Colors vary from light-caramel to deep-brown depending on oxygen exposure during aging.
Winemakers throughout the world pay great attention to the ripeness of grapes. Ripe is not just sugar ripe, but physiological ripeness where all elements of the grapes are mature. Madeira’s gentle climate often produces under-ripe grapes which creates a major challenge for winemakers. While the amount of sugar directly corresponds to the amount of alcohol in the wine, unripe grapes translate to wines with low alcohol, and most importantly, with lack of an acid balance.
Madeira is an example of wines that don’t represent the status quo of current wine-making…not only in its production but in the way it tastes. If you don’t know Madeira, you should. Start your journey with a dry Sercial as an aperitif, then work your way up through the sweeter wines that pair well with cheese and chocolates.