Madeira is a Portuguese-owned archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, 600 miles (970km) southwest of Lisbon and 450 miles due west of the north African coast. It gives its name to one of the world's great fortified wines. Both the wine and the island hold unique places in the history of wine. All fortified wine from the island is now produced under the Madeira DOC, while the table wines are sold under the VR (Vinho Regional) title Terras Madeirenses.
The island of Madeira was discovered in 1419, by Portuguese mariners exploring the west coast of Africa (they also visited the Canary Islands). They encountered dense laurisilva forests – the reason for the name Ilha da Madeira "the island of wood" – much of which were cleared to make way for sugar plantations and vineyards (the remaining forests are now a World Heritage Site).
For almost two centuries, the wines made here remained relatively unknown, and were of little economic significance. Things changed dramatically in the mid-17th Century however, when the island became a key supply station for ships en route to India and the Portuguese colonies in Brazil. During this time demand for Madeira's wines boomed.
The early Madeira wines were produced in the image of those from the Portuguese mainland, and lacked the structure and stability required to survive long sea voyages. Over time, it was discovered that an addition of high-proof spirit solved this problem, and by the middle of the 18th Century such fortification had become the norm. A second discovery – that this new style of fortified Madeira acquired complex, desirable flavors on long, hot voyages – led to the Madeira wine style that exists today. Wines which had pitched and rolled in the subtropical heat were known as vinho do roda ("wine of the round trip"). The wine's very high acidity added to its appeal in hot climates.
Nowadays, the cheaper, more efficient estufagem method is used for large-scale production. Depending on context estufa can mean "kiln", "hothouse", or "incubator", but the common factor is clear: deliberate heat. An estufa, or cuba de calor ("heat box"), is a stainless steel tank with heated pipes running through it. This heats the wine to 120°F (50°C) for roughly three months – an accelerated imitation of what happened to Madeira barrels during tropical voyages. During this time, the wine ages to a point that would require five years or so using the more traditional canteiro method (see below). The advantage of the estufagem method is that it significantly reduces production costs, making Madeira accessible at relatively affordable prices. The tangible downside is that the intensive heating causes some of the sugar to caramelize, creating a slightly bitter, burnt-sugar flavor in the wine.
High-quality Madeira is aged in large barrels placed on trestles (canteiros in Portuguese). These are stored for anywhere from 20 years to a century, in rooms heated only by the sun (some producers have even installed large windows to let in as much sunshine as possible). A compromise between the two methods is to age the barrels for between six and 12 months in an armazem de calor – an artificially heated warehouse.
Although deliberate oxidation is pivotal to various wine styles around the world (notably oloroso Sherry from Jerez, vin jaune from the Jura and the rancio wines of Banyuls), the practice was so strongly associated with Madeira that it became known as "maderization". The term, when applied to lower alcohol wines, usually references a fault.
Madeira is an unlikely home for a famous, historic wine. It is small – less than 35 miles (55km) across at the widest point – remote, mountainous and extremely humid. The island has a subtropical/Mediterranean climate, which presents many viticultural issues, particularly fungal diseases, which thrive in this environment tropical heat and high rainfall. The reasons for the island’s success as a wine region lie not in its terroir, but in the pages of naval history.
The vines used to make Madeira have changed over the years, most notably after the devastation brought to the island's vineyards from the Americas in the form of powdery mildew and phylloxera. Ironically, the popularity of Madeira's remote, strategic location was also the reason why vine pests and diseases arrived so rapidly from the colonies. Today Tinta Negra Mole is easily the dominant grape variety used in Madeira wine production. Its name means "black soft", and perhaps derives from the belief that the variety is a crossing of "black" Grenache and "soft" Pinot Noir.
The original preferred varieties were Verdelho, Sercial, Terrantez (now officially renamed as Folgasao), Bual and Malvasia. The wines were often produced as varietals and labeled with the name of their respective grape variety. The word Malvasia was eventually corrupted to the English word Malmsey, and became a byword for Madeira wines. Terrantez almost became extinct on the island, although it, along with the more prestigious varieties, is now making a gradual comeback. Much Madeira is blended from a combination of Tinta Negra Mole and various other hybrids brought to the island as a remedy to the phylloxera epidemic, but the single-variety wines attract the most interest and can command higher prices.
Madeira wines come in various sweetness levels, from seco (dry) and meio seco (medium dry) to meio doce (medium sweet) and doce (sweet). Those wines labeled as finest are, illogically, those aged for the shortest amount of time (three years is the required minimum) and are usually put to culinary uses. The designations Reserve, Special Reserve and Extra Reserve denote five, 10 and 15 years of aging respectively, while, as with Tawny Port, Colheita ("harvest") is used to describe a wine from a single vintage. Vintage is the most expensive form of Madeira, and must be from a single vintage and aged for more than 20 years prior to commercial release. Rainwater Madeira is a lighter style, popular in the United States and typically made from Tinta Negra Mole.
The cost of making Madeira wine is very high, due to the island's remote location and rugged terrain, combined with tiny scales of production and extensive aging processes. This leaves it at a significant disadvantage on the world's increasingly competitive wine markets. This high cost, coupled with changes in wine fashion and consumer preference, have led to a dramatic decline Madeira's popularity over the past century. Fortified wines in general have now fallen from popularity all over the world, and while both Sherry and Port have received significant support from their respective governments and trade bodies, Madeira has not enjoyed this kind of attention, It is possible that this classic, historic wine will eventually disappear from sight. For now, though, a new generation of skilled, enthusiastic winemakers are working to increase both quality and efficiency, and to maintain Madeira's long winemaking traditions.