Why Madeira Wine Is Unique

madeira wine

Madeira wine is a sweet wine that, although it was immensely popular in Colonial America, is largely unknown today. It is a fortified wine – that is a wine to which brandy or other alcohol has been added. Because of this it does not need to be aged nor does it lose quality with age.

In order to keep the Madeira consistent from year to year the winemaker adds some of the previous years’ wines to the new batch. This is called the Solera method, mixing several different vintages in one batch of new wine.

Madeira Wine History

The island of Madeira is off the southwest coast of Portugal. It is here, in this temperate island climate, that Madeira has been made for hundreds of years.

The island was on the major shipping routes for the Atlantic, so the farmers found that it was an easy thing to sell wine to the sailors and merchants as they came through. The major problem was keeping the wine good during the long voyages and vast climate changes. In order to accomplish this winemakers began to add brandy to the wine as a preservative.

The merchants soon found that the wine was better after having been stored for months in the holds of the ships. Between the heat in the tropics and the constant agitation from the ocean waves the wine took on a rich, caramel character. This intensified the longer that the wines were on the ships. Casks that had been in the hold of a ship for a long journey could be sold for more than a cask that had come straight from Madeira to where it was to be sold.

Madeira was one of the primary wines enjoyed in the American colonies and therefore had a large part in the success of the wine. It was popular well into the Victorian era, both as an after dinner drink and as an ingredient in recipes.

The winemakers of Madeira were dealt a blow in 1852 with the mass destruction of their vineyards by a fungus, Oidium Tuckeri. Many vintners went out of business, refusing to replant the vines but choosing to grow sugarcane instead. Some hardy producers replanted and began again.

In 1873 Phylloxera devastated the grape vines in Madeira. Thought to originate in eastern North America, these microscopic aphid-like insects fed on the roots and leaves of the grapevines until nearly all of the vines died or were seriously impaired.

Today in Madeira there are only about 20% of the original grapevines remaining.

How Madeira Is Produced

Since there are no long voyages on small sailing vessels in the 21st century the winemakers of Madeira have had to find other ways to replicate the unique flavor and quality of the famous Madeira wine.

First the winemaker adds distilled alcohol, usually brandy, to the wine. This is done early in the fermentation process to stop the chemical reactions of the yeast on the sugar. Since the yeast no longer feeds upon the sugar after the brandy is added much of the sweetness of the wine is retained.

The wine is heated slowly and exposed to air for several months. Once the process is completed the wine will retain its quality for an indefinite period of time – literally hundreds of years if it is sealed.

You probably won’t find a good Madeira wine at your local grocery store or most liquor stores. Generally you will find the young Madeiras that are should be used mainly as cooking wines. While most people can’t afford a wine auction there are many online venues for Madeira and other specialty wines.

The Madeira that you choose will depend on several factors:

  • Availability
  • Budget
  • Menu
  • Personal taste

You will need to experiment with a variety of Madeiras to find the one that you, and your cusomers, like the best.

photo credit: Joanne Goldby via photopin cc

- Marye Audet

Marye Audet is an author, freelance writer, and editor. Cooking, baking, and recipe development have been a major part of her life since she baked her first loaf of bread at age 13. Luckily, with a husband, eight children, a son in law, and three grandchildren she has enough test-tasters to handle the steady stream of experiments that come from her kitchen.

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