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Portugal’s Famed Madeira Likes It Hot

A tasting of Blandy's Madeira wines. Note the difference in colors, depending on the grape variety used and the age of the wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

A tasting of Blandy's Madeira wines. Note the difference in colors, depending on the grape variety used and the age of the wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

“Where are the vineyards?” I wondered aloud on a recent visit to Madeira, the small volcanic island belonging to Portugal, perched out in the Atlantic, about 400 miles off the coast of Morocco.

Wine has been the principal product of the island for more than 400 years. Its fame is such that you might reasonably expect on arrival to be greeted with wave upon wave of vitis vinifera, rather as you do when traveling through France’s Champagne region. On the contrary, what you mostly see planted on poios, centuries-old terraces stacked steeply up from the island’s coastal fringe, are verdant banana palms, their floppy green leaves rattled by the frequent winds that gust in off the Atlantic.

Hidden vineyards

Terraces planted with banana palms -- and a few vines -- above Camara de Lobos, Madeira. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Terraces planted with banana palms — and a few vines — above Camara de Lobos, Madeira. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

I did eventually spot some vines. The holdings are tiny and widely scattered, hanging on for dear life and threatened both by the bananas and the newly built houses and apartments that increasingly encroach on the available space. Trained in the traditional manner over wooden pergolas, the vines often have a crop of potatoes, cabbages, zucchini and beans planted at their feet to make full use of the scarce — and exceedingly fertile — ground.

Despite the near invisibility of its vineyards, Madeira’s wine remains one of the world’s leading fortified wines. Once highly fashionable and sought after, it was reputed to be George Washington’s favored tipple and was served at his presidential inauguration. The term “fortified” means the wine is bolstered by adding grape spirit, which raises its alcohol content (typically to 19% in the case of Madeira, as opposed to the usual 12% to 14% range for table wines), as well as giving it a longer life. Port, that other celebrated Portuguese fortified wine, gets a shot of grape spirit too, but there the similarity ends, because the grape varieties involved and — above all — the process employed in making Madeira differ in significant ways from those used in Port production.

A happy accident

Bottles of 1966 Madeira wine in Blandy's cellars. The grape variety (Bual), date of vintage and winemaker are stenciled in traditional style directly onto the bottles. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Bottles of 1966 Madeira wine in Blandy’s cellars. The grape variety (Bual), date of vintage and winemaker are stenciled in traditional style directly onto the bottles. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

The wine starts out life in the usual way, with the grapes picked in late summer, then crushed and fermented, and grape spirit added to arrest fermentation — so far, so familiar. From here, things start to get interesting. During its long journey to maturity, Madeira is exposed to the unlikely twin enemies of heat and air, to emerge not only unspoiled but with extraordinary added layers of flavor and complexity. As Richard Mayson puts it in his recently published book “Madeira: the Islands and Their Wines,” “Heat and air, both the sworn enemies of most wines and winemakers, conspire to turn madeira into one of the most enthralling of the world’s wines, as well as one of its most resilient.”

The discovery that wine could be heated and come to no harm — and even improved by it — was a happy accident. The island has always been strategically important for trans-Atlantic shipping, and over the centuries, countless vessels have paused here to restock with provisions before the long sea journey from Europe across the Atlantic to the Americas and beyond. Provisions always included casks of wine, which by the nature of things were exposed on board to great heat. When the ships berthed and the wine was found to be perfectly good — even better than when it departed — the shippers set about reproducing the same conditions in their cellars back home, placing the huge, wooden wine casks on the upper floors of their wineries to bask in the summer heat.

Worth the expense

Casks of Madeira wine maturing in the cellars of Blandy's, a leading Madeira producer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Casks of Madeira wine maturing in the cellars of Blandy’s, a leading Madeira producer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Nowadays, a faster (and cheaper) way to reproduce this step is to heat the wine artificially in large containers called estufas, but the finest Madeiras are still aged in wooden casks, heated only by the island’s year-round sunshine. This process, called the canteiro method, is lengthier and more gentle and gives the wines their characteristic, slightly caramelized, faintly smoky aromas with exotic hints of honey and dried fruits.

A premium bottle of Madeira is always expensive, because of the time and skill needed to nurse it to perfection. One consolation — and a considerable selling point — is that once the wines have survived the rigors of heating and oxidation, they are good to go for up to 100 years. Blandy’s, one of the top Madeira producers based in the capital, Funchal, still has a barrel of 1920 wine stored in its cellar, awaiting its moment.

Once bottled, Madeira can be opened and sampled, the cork replaced and the bottle stored upright in a dark place for weeks or months without the contents coming to any harm. “If ever there was a wine to take away with you to a desert island,” comments Mayson, “this is it.”

Today, the chief market for Madeira is France, followed by the island of Madeira itself. Portugal, surprisingly, consumes little Madeira, but the UK remains a big fan, with Japan, Germany and the U.S. not far behind. Check for your nearest supplier.

Top Madeira producers (commonly known as “shippers”) include Blandy’s, Henriques & Henriques, Barbeito and H.M. Borges.

Main photo: A tasting of Blandy’s Madeira wines. Note the difference in colors, depending on the grape variety used and the age of the wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Zester Daily contributor Sue Style lives in Alsace, France, close to the German and Swiss borders. She's the author of nine books on subjects ranging from Mexican food to the food and wines of Alsace and Switzerland. Her most recent, published in October 2011, is "Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture." Her website is

  • Carla Capalbo 1·21·16

    Really interesting article, Sue. Wouldn’t it be great if great wines like these and Marsala started trending again!

  • Ray Krause 1·21·16

    Swell article, Sue. Makes us want for more on Madiera wines and grapes.
    Perhaps we can send you a bottle of our Malmsey Dearest with a travelling Swiss friend who owns a winery here in California?

  • Sue Style 1·21·16

    Yes definitely Carla!! Think we should have a celebratory fortified wine tasting some time soon: Madeira, Marsala, Malaga – and maybe Maury for good measure. Would be fun to compare and contrast…

  • Sue Style 1·21·16

    So wait, Ray: do I understand you’re making Malmsey at your winery in California? Sounds interesting (great name!) and I’d be glad to learn more. Plus if your itinerant Swiss friend is over this way any time soon, I’d be delighted to taste it.

    • Ray Krause 1·22·16

      Yes, we started our fractional aging of fortified Madera County Malvasia Bianca in 2008.
      Think a thick custardy, caramelized earthy dry farmed pecan pie with a whiff of ripe
      Mandarin in a glass.

    • Ray Krause 1·22·16

      “3 Napa Valley Producers to Give Up Name ‘Port’ on Wine Labels”

      My divergent nature required that I pen a response to the above recent newsline.

      Curious that they would call “Port” a “place name” when it is actually an Anglican adaptation for a wine style not the Portuguese, “Oporto”. Just as “Sherry” (Jerez) is not a Spanish word or “Rhenish” (Rheine)or “Hock” (Hocheim), German. Colloquial usage notwithstanding, these words are from the English coined during their control the shipping lanes and wine trade.
      Burgundy, Claret, Champagne, Chianti, Napa and O’Neals are place names (duh) and certainly should be respected and protected. Just so you know, we will not be giving up our Malmsey Dearest any time soon…. BTW, “Malmsey” is also English.

  • Bob Rossi 1·22·16

    Very enjoyable article, and timely too; I just got a bottle of Madeira for my birthday! A Verdelho from Barbeito.

  • Sue Style 1·22·16

    Thanks Bob – what a great birthday present! Verdelho is my favourite too (how old?). Sercial is too dry, while Bual and even more so Malvasia/Malmsey are like a meal in a glass.

  • Sue Style 1·22·16

    Sounds irresistible, Ray!

  • Sue Style 1·23·16

    Ray: Glad to know you’re not abandoning Malmsey Dearest. Remind me, who was it who drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine?

    • Ray Krause 1·23·16

      Here are some odds and ends.
      How about we call a Special Bottling of our Malmsey “Clarence’s Butt” ? Maybe not…….

      George, Duke of Clarence, being allowed to choose by what death he would die, chose drowning in malmsey wine (1477). See the continuation of Monstrelet, 196; Fulgosus, ix. 12; Martin du Bellais’s Memoirs (year 1514).

      FEBRUARY 18th
      On this day in history in 1478, died George, Duke of Clarence.
      Clarence was a royal prince of the House of York who plotted with the Lancastrians against his brother, King Edward IV, and was assassinated by drowning in a butt of malmsey wine.
      George, Duke of Clarence , younger son of Richard, Duke of York, by his wife Cicely, daughter of Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland, was born in Dublin on the 21st of October 1449. Soon after his elder brother became king as Edward IV in March 1461, he was created duke of Clarence, and his youth was no bar to his appointment as lord-lieutenant of Ireland in the following year.

      Having been mentioned as a possible husband for Mary, daughter of Charles the Bold, afterwards Duke of Burgundy, Clarence came under the influence of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, and in July 1469 was married at Calais to the earl’s elder daughter Isabella. With his father-in-law he then acted in a disloyal manner towards the king. Both supported the rebels in the north of England, and when their treachery was discovered Clarence was deprived of his office as lord-lieutenant and fled to France.

      Returning to England with Warwick in September 1470, he witnessed the restoration of Henry VI, when the crown was settled upon himself in case the male line of Henry’s family became extinct. The good understanding, however, between Warwick and his son-in-law was not lasting, and Clarence was soon secretly reconciled with Edward. The public reconciliation between the brothers took place when the king was besieging Warwick in Coventry, and Clarence then fought for the Yorkists at Barnet and Tewkesbury. After Warwick’s death in April 1471 Clarence appears to have seized the whole of the vast estates of the earl, and in March 1472 was created by right of his wife Earl of Warwick and Salisbury.

      He was consequently greatly disturbed when he heard that his younger brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was seeking to marry Warwick’s younger daughter Anne, and was claiming some part of Warwick’s lands. A violent quarrel between the brothers ensued, but Clarence was unable to prevent Gloucester from marrying, and in 1474 the king interfered to settle the dispute, dividing the estates between his brothers. In 1477 Clarence was again a suitor for the hand of Mary, who had just become duchess of Burgundy. Edward objected to the match, and Clarence, jealous of Gloucester’s influence, left the court.

      At length Edward was convinced that Clarence was aiming at his throne. The duke was thrown into prison, and in January 1478 the king unfolded the charges against his brother to the parliament. He had slandered the king; had received oaths of allegiance to himself and his heirs; had prepared for a new rebellion; and was in short incorrigible. Both Houses of Parliament passed the bill of attainder, and the sentence of death which followed was carried out on the 17th or 18th of February 1478. It is uncertain what share Gloucester had in his brother’s death; but soon after the event the rumour gained ground that Clarence had been drowned in a butt of malmsey wine.

  • Sue Style 1·26·16

    WOW!! And as I’m sure you know, Blandys has a Malmsey labelled Duke of Clarence…