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A Rich Pour - Column No. 3: Madeira - A Magical and Majestic Wine (Part 2)

Having examined the fascinating foundations of winemaking on the island of Madeira last time around (you can reference Part 1 here), I will now get down to brass tacks and take a closer look at the wine itself, as well as its role alongside food and cigars.


As the summer growing season draws to a close, trucks converge on the city of Funchal to deliver the bounty of the year's harvest to the wineries.

Each of the four noble grape varieties requires a different approach as regards fermentation, and they are therefore pressed separately. In the case of the drier Sercial and Verdelho, with their greater acidities, the juice is run off the skins before fermentation even commences. The sweeter Bual and Malmsey, however, tend to be fermented skins and all, in order to maximize extraction of tannins and color.

It takes about two days at a temperature of between 85 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit for the grapes to complete their fermentation. The winemakers utilize a wide range of vessels, including regular-sized as well as immense oak casks, or loge pipes and cubas respectively, and more up-to-date temperature-controlled stainless steel containers.

Despite rapid advances in technology, exposure to oak is still valued for the better quality wines. Though American oak remains the preferred choice, Polish and Austrian oak are also in evidence within the wineries. Baltic oak and chestnut wood had been tried once upon a time, but were found to be less reliable.

The initial fortification

Madeira is identical to Port and Sherry in that grape alcohol is incorporated in its makeup, thereby fortifying the alcoholic strength and preventing any possibility of further fermentation. The addition of grape alcohol is tailored to the specific grape variety.

With Bual and Malmsey Madeira, the winemaker aims to leave some residual sugar, and therefore adds the grape alcohol before fermentation has run its course. Malmsey is stabilized at an early stage, while Bual is fortified approximately halfway through the fermentation process. The drier Sercial and Verdelho, on the other hand, are fully fermented prior to having the grape alcohol added.

Another two rather unusual sorts of Madeira are made in miniscule amounts. One is Surdo, an exceptionally sweet wine which has undergone barely a few hours of fermentation before being fortified. The other is named Abafado, meaning 'suffocated'. Abafado is nothing more than pure, totally unfermented grape juice bolstered to some 20% alcohol by volume through the addition of that same grape alcohol used to fortify the other varieties of Madeira. Why are these two atypical wines made at all? They are produced for their uncommon sweetness, and then blended, in minute quantities, into the finer Bual and Madeira wines to give them even greater fullness.
Although the label states 15 years, there is a small quantity
of much older wine in such a quality Madeira.

The heating, or estufagem

Estufagem is the critical stage in the making of Madeira which distinguishes this wine from all other fortified wines. According to government regulations, Madeira must undergo at least three months of maturation in an environment heated to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, or else age a minimum of four months at 113 degrees Fahrenheit.

Since such warm temperatures cause even more evaporation and oxidation than would normally be the case, the wines need to have their alcohol levels adjusted once the heating period has ended.

The care and length of time lavished on heating any Madeira is directly proportional to its provenance and quality. Less expensive Madeira, deriving its grape must predominantly (if not entirely) from the Tinta Negra Mole, is relegated to concrete vats, or cubas de calor, lined with ceramic and heated by coils. This class of Madeira undergoes a shorter estufagem.

Good quality Madeira from the noble grape varieties receives more 'tender' treatment, and is usually transferred to oak casks. As in the fermentation stage, loge pipes and cubas are the vessels of choice. Hot water pipes either heat the casks from within, as with the cubas, or from the outside, as for the much smaller loge pipes.

Once again, the rapidity and degree of temperature extremes with which the heating cycle is carried out are directly related to the quality of the grapes and wine. The better wines typically pass six months to a year at just over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the estufa. Henriques & Henriques has pioneered the use of stainless steel vats encased within hot-water 'jackets' to ensure more precise control of this process.

At the top of the estufagem 'ladder', the finest Madeira is racked into old small casks specially allotted to wines from specific grape varieties, and is then stored in the upper levels of the estufa. Here, gently warmed by the sun and the ambient heat rising from below, the vinho canteiro quietly rests for years or, in rare cases, decades.

Surdo and Abafado are always kept in their own casks. These two special wines rarely undergo the estufagem process.

Oddly enough, experimentation is now taking place with the production of non-estufagem wines made from the traditional noble grapes, as well as from other varieties. This experimentation could potentially revolutionize the production techniques for Madeira in the coming years.
Slumbering casks and demijohns of Madeira

The quiet time

No Madeira begins to gain 'credit' for ageing until after the estufagem has been completed. The wine is then moved to casks of varying sizes and wood types; these casks may be fabricated from oak, mahogany or even teak. In order to keep the oxidation of the wine going, some air space is left within the casks.

The maturation process may last a few months or many, many years, with the finer wines ageing a decade or longer. Some wines of great age may be siphoned from their casks into straw-covered Demi-Johns and left for an even longer time. A wine destined for issue as Vintage Madeira may well rest for a couple of decades in wood, plus two years more in the bottle, before release into the marketplace.

One feature shared by Madeira firms and their counterparts in Spain's Jerez region is the Solera, an arrangement of elaborately tiered casks through which annual topping up of the 'pool' of stored wine occurs. This system results in a continuous blending of older and younger wines, and it is not uncommon for the 'starter' wines in such a Solera that is, the most ancient to date back centuries.

This combination of Bual and Montecristo Piramide exemplifies
lushness of texture and richness of flavour.

In the bottle

Blended Madeira is, by far, the most readily available version of the island's wine. Most of the island's firms safeguard their traditional 'recipes', much as a blender in Champagne, Cognac or Scotch whisky country would, and some Madeira 'house styles' trace their roots back to the 18th Century.

Less expensive blends, produced principally from the Tinta Negra Mole grape, seek to mimic the superficial taste, if not the real substance, of a particular style of Madeira from one of the 'noble' varieties. These wines have, until recently, formed the commercial backbone of the industry. Some can be eminently drinkable if ultimately lacking in depth and complexity. Others, such as vinho a granel, are merely bulk wines, best reserved for cooking.

Most of these lesser wines will not gain anything from further keeping. And while they could, in the past, carry the name of one of the noble grape varieties, they may now be labeled only as 'seco' (dry), 'meio seco' (medium-dry), 'meio doce' (medium-sweet) or 'doce' (sweet).

Rainwater Madeira, though indicating no single grape variety on the label, is made to taste like a softer sort of Verdelho. A versatile and relatively inexpensive apéritif, it is extremely popular in the United States of America.

Whenever a Madeira bottle label stipulates one of the four noble grape varieties, the wine, although usually still a blend, must be vinified from 85% or more of that particular grape. Three general categories of such wines exist at present, graded according to the minimum maturation period.

The first category comprises Madeira aged for five years or more. Commonly bestowed titles for this category include 5 Year Old, Reserve and Old. From here, we progress to the ten year or older wines, entitled 10 Year Old, Special Reserve or Old Reserve. Finally, the fifteen to fifteen-plus year old wines go under names such as 15 Year Old and Extra Reserve. This and the preceding category are viewed by the Madeira houses as premium expressions within their normal product ranges; consequently, these wines will more often than not contain a small proportion of very old Madeira.

Vintage Madeira, made from grapes harvested in a single year, is akin to Vintage Port in terms of quality and longevity. However, whereas Vintage Port undergoes a bare two years of cask maturation prior to being bottled, Vintage Madeira may rest in wood for twenty years or more. In this respect, it is perhaps closer to a Colheita or Tawny Port.

Any casks set aside by the various houses for eventual bottling as Vintage Madeira bear seals from the Instituto do Vinho da Madeira. With very rare exceptions, Vintage Madeira is vinified exclusively from one of the noble grape varieties. It is usually quite expensive.

Solera Madeira is very similar to Solera Sherry from Spain's Jerez region. It comprises a mixture of wines dating back over the decades, or even beyond a century. The liquid content of the casks from which a 'Solera' Madeira is sourced is regularly topped up. These wines are drawn off at a rate of not more than 10% per annum. Bottles of Solera Madeira bear, on their labels, the year when the Solera was actually begun.

The Portuguese, upon their economic amalgamation with the other European nations, ran into difficulties with E.E.C. regulations governing usage of the term Solera, which had been legally confined to Spanish Sherries. Nonetheless, one can still come across the odd bottle of old Solera Madeira.

The addition of caramel to the wine as a coloring agent is a matter of heated contention, within the industry as well as amongst professional tasters and the public. There can be no doubt that much substandard Madeira has been overly 'doctored' in this fashion, and that its flavor has suffered as a result. Suffice it to say the more conscientious producers will use caramel sparingly, if at all, to color adjust their better wines.

The underlying citrus-laced oakiness of this Verdelho melds seemlessly with
the exotic wood nuances and spice of a Ramon Allones Minutos.

A glass of Madeira

Madeira, though not appropriate as a table wine, is a very versatile drink for just about any other time of the day or night. Most Madeira wines which do not specify one of the four noble grape varieties or a particular style (dry, medium or sweet) are either dry or semi-dry, and therefore make good apéritifs. Rainwater Madeira also falls into this class of drink. Whether you drink it as is or on-the-rocks is up to you. You may also wish to add a wedge of lemon or lime.

Sercial, with its characteristically refreshing dryness, is an aperitif par excellence. Start by serving it chilled, in the manner of a Fino Sherry, to highlight the tart fruitiness and crisp acidity. Then let it warm gradually in order to release subtler scents and flavor elements. With appetizers as an accompaniment, Sercial makes for a phenomenal pre-feast treat.

Verdelho, being a little more round and richly textured, is the perfect mid-day to late-afternoon beverage. Served along with biscuits or light cakes, it makes a fine restorative. Or you can simply sip it on its own.

A heavier Bual or Malmsey is more appropriately poured following dinner. As is the case with Vintage Port, Bual and Malmsey 'marry' extremely well with cheese as well as with nuts. They can also be sublime with chocolate or chocolate-based desserts, pies and rich cakes. Fresh fruits, in contrast, will tend to accentuate the underlying tannin and acidity of these wines, and should be served separately.

One of the major advantages of Madeira is its uncanny stability once the bottle has been opened. Having already experienced considerable heat and oxidation, Madeira will normally maintain its aroma and flavor for months on end after being broached.

The cost

Most fortified wines have experienced a rough ride in the marketplace over the last while, and Madeira has been hit especially hard in this respect. Some modest bargains can therefore as yet be found in the low to mid price range. It is only when you begin to search out the more esoteric bottles of Madeira that you will encounter painfully hefty pricetags.

At the lower end of the price scale, a fairly decent Rainwater or Reserve can usually be had for less than $25US, while a top-quality 10 or 15 year old from a noble grape variety will edge you closer to $40US, or a bit beyond. A more recent Vintage Madeira, say from the 1970s, generally takes you past the $40US mark, and might if the bottle is of notable provenance cost much, much more. Older vintages from the 1960s and 1950s, as well as renowned Solera issues, may cost anything from a tad less than $200US to a sizable amount more than $300US.

Madeira and cigars

What is it about Madeira that makes it such an ideal partner for a cigar? To begin with, this wine possesses, along with Port and Sherry, the added backbone of fortification with grape alcohol. This strength, along with a firm acidity and/or tannins, acts as an effective and refreshing palate-cleanser. Then there is the influence of the estufagem process, which imparts that inimitable 'baked' spectrum of flavors to the wine. Extended oak cask maturation lends further oxidation, mellowing and complexity.

The plethora of scents and tastes fine Madeira can exhibit seems destined to accompany a cigar. Figs, prunes, raisins, nuts, vanilla, tea leaves, toffee, tobacco and cigar box these elements and more can be discovered within a glass of the island wine.

Finally, there is a tinge of citrus be it subtle or not which emerges toward the finish of Madeira that enlivens the appreciation of a fine cigar. This is particularly true if the cigar itself displays a twist of flavor, as in that oft cited Cuban 'twang' effect.

Francisco Albuquerque, resident oenologist at the Madeira Wine Company, prefers a good Sercial alongside his cigar. He claims this kind of wine acquires very perfumed characteristics with age, thereby making it the perfect match.

I tend to be more eclectic in my choices, and enjoy most any Madeira with a vitola. However, I do attempt to match the taste spectrums of both. For instance, the pronounced chocolate, caramel or nut flavor aspects found in some cigars positively cry out for the softer, lush accompaniment of a fine Bual or Malmsey. In contrast, the more grassy, herbal, spicy and citrus-like thrusts of other cigars demand the bracing acidity only a good Sercial or drier Verdelho can provide. Spanning the middle ground between these two extremes, an earthy yet ellusively sweet vitola would seem best paired with either a Verdelho or Bual.

But as everyone's taste differs, and even then from one day to the next, you are your own best judge in this matter. I do hope you take up the challenge!

Books and articles consulted in the preparation of Madeira A Magical and Majestic Wine

Atkins, Susy. Some Enchanted Island, Decanter Magazine, November 1997
Broadbent, Michael. A Wine of Almost Indestructible Nature, Decanter Magazine, June 1984
Brook, Stephen. Hot and Bothered, Decanter Magazine, November 1996
Durant, Will. The Story of Civilization Volume III: Caesar and Christ, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1944
--- The Story of Civilization Volume VI: The Reformation, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1957
Ioacca, Pasquale. Those Mysterious Portuguese Table Wines, The Friends of Wine Magazine, February/March 1986
Johnson, Hugh. The World Atlas of Wine, Simon and Schuster, New York 1977
Lord, Tony. An Island Whos Who, Decanter Magazines Guide To Madeira, 2nd Edition, Decanter magazine, 1987
--- Burnt Wines From The Island That Burned, Decanter Magazine, June 1984
--- Marvellous Madeiras, Decanter magazine, December 1985
--- Ringing The Changes, Decanter Magazines Guide To Madeira, 2nd Edition, Decanter Magazine, 1987
Mayson, Richard. Does Anyone Know How to Make Madeira?, Decanter Magazine, May 1991
Pamment, David. An Intricate Art, Decanter Magazines Guide To Madeira, 2nd Edition, Decanter Magazine, 1987
Parnell, Colin. Madeira The Mysterious Wine, Decanter Magazine, February 1988
Pigott, Stuart. Too Many Cooks?, Decanter Magazine, November 1991
Read, Jan. The Wines of Portugal, Faber and Faber, London England, 1982
Simon, André. André Simons Wines of the World, 2nd Edition by Serena Sutcliffe, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1981
Thomas, Veronica. Madeira, Like Its Wine, Improves With Age, National Geographic Magazine, April 1973



Doug Kuebler (Jazznut) is an inveterate aficionado and collector of wines and whiskies from around the world. Doug has organized wine and food seminars, and written extensively on wines and liquors. His latest book set, The Tumbler's Guide to Single Malt Scotch Whisky: Desk Reference and Field Guide, is available from Topeda Hill Publishing.