Madeira is a fortified Portuguese wine made in the . is produced in a variety of styles ranging from dry wines which can be consumed on their own as an aperitif, to sweet wines more usually consumed with dessert.
Madeira was an important wine in the history of the . One of the major events on the road to revolution in which Madeira played a key role was the British seizure of John Hancock’s sloop the on May 9, 1768, after he had unloaded a cargo of , and a dispute over import duties arose. The seizure of the caused riots to erupt among the people of .
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 . Chief Justice John Marshall was also known to appreciate , as well as his cohorts on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The islands of Madeira have a long winemaking history dating back to the Age of Exploration when Madeira was a standard port of call for ships heading to the New World or . 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 flavor of the wine. producers found that aging the wine on long sea voyages was very costly, so 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 island sun would age the wine.
Today, is noted for its unique winemaking process which involves heating the wine up to temperatures as high as 60 °C (140 F) for an extended period of time and deliberately exposing the wine to some levels of oxidation. Because of this unique process, is a very robust wine that can be quite long lived even after being opened.
Vineyards, Grape varieties and Winemaking
The of 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 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 .
The terrain of the mountainous volcanic island is difficult to cultivate with vineyards planted on man-made terraces of red and basaltic bedrock. These terraces, known as poios, are very similar to the terraces of the 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.
The four major types of are named according to the grape variety used. Ranging from the sweetest to the driest style, they are: Malvasia (also known as Malmsey or Malvazia), Bual (or Boal), Verdelho, and Sercial.
The initial winemaking steps of start out like most other wines with the grapes being harvested, crushed, pressed and then fermented in either stainless steel or oak casks. The grape varieties destined for sweeter wines, Boal 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 Tinta 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.
What makes wine production unique is the estufagem aging process meant to duplicate the effect of a long sea voyage of the aging barrels through tropical climates. Three main methods are used to heat age the wine, used according to the quality and cost of the finished wine:
de Calor: bulk aging in low stainless steel or concrete tanks surrounded by either heat coils or piping that allow hot water to circulate around the container. The wine is heated to temperatures as high as 130 °F (55 °C) for a minimum of 90 days as regulated by the Madeira Wine Institute.
Armazém de Calor: storing the wine in large wooden casks in a specially designed rooms outfitted with steam-producing tanks or pipes that heat the room, creating a type of sauna. This process more gently exposes the wine to heat, and can last from six months to over a year.
Canteiro: Used for the highest quality , these wines are aged without the use of any artificial heat, being stored by the winery in warm rooms left to age by the heat of the sun. In cases such as vintage , this heating process can last from 20 years to 100 years.
Reserve (five years) - This is the minimum amount of aging a wine labeled with one of the noble varieties is permitted to have.
Special Reserve (10 years) - At this point, the wines are often aged naturally without any artificial heat source.
Extra Reserve (over 15 years) - This style is rare to produce, with many producers extending the aging to 20 years for a vintage or producing a colheita. It is richer in style than a Special Reserve Madeira.
Colheita or Harvest - This style includes wines from a single vintage, but aged for a shorter period than true Vintage Madeira. The wine can be labeled with a vintage date, but includes the word colheita on it.
Vintage or Frasquiera - This style must be aged at least 20 years.
Rainwater - this style is produced and usually shipped only to the . This style of wine is mild and similar to Verdelho, but can be expected to be made from Tinta Negra Mole, and is primarily used as an aperitif. Accounts conflict as to how this style was developed. The most common is the name derives from the vineyards on the steep hillsides, where irrigation was difficult, and the vines were dependent on the local rain water 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 , . Rather than dump the wines, the merchants tried to pass it off as a "new style" of and were surprised at its popularity among the Americans.