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Vintage Madeira
By Ed McCarthy
Apr 20, 2021
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Why am I writing about a wine that is quite rare nowadays, and no longer the great value that it was a few decades ago?  I am addressing this wine because, if you are a wine lover and have not experienced Vintage Madeira, you will want to try it.   Vintage Madeira is one of the greatest wines in the world, and still a value, considering its excellence and incredible longevity. 

Madeira wines are made in only one small place, the sub-tropical, mountainous island of Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean, south of Portugal and west of northern Africa.  Although separated by water, Madeira is part of the national territory of the nation-state of Portugal. 

A surprising fact about Madeira wine is that it was the favorite wine of the American colonists—dating back to the 1600s—and was still popular well into the 19th century.  The British discovered Madeira for the rest of the world; during one of its many wars with France, England was no longer able to buy French wine.  It turned to Portugal and found Madeira.  American colonists, all mainly of British background, continued the tradition of drinking Madeira.  Among the renowned colonists who were fans of Madeira were George Washington (a big fan), Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin—who expressed a desire to be buried in a Madeira cask.  Madeira was poured for the signing of the U.S.’s Declaration of Independence, its Constitution, and for several U.S.  Presidential inaugurations.

Although very inexpensive versions of Madeira have been used for cooking in the U.S., we are not talking about that wine here.  Instead, we are concentrating on the fortified varietal wines made mainly from four noble white grape varieties grown on the high slopes of Madeira: Sercial, Verdelho,  Bual, and Malmsey (a.k.a. Malvasia).  If these varieties are not familiar to you, that’s because you seldom see them outside of Madeira.  There was a fifth variety that’s not grown any more, Terrantez; you will only come across Terrantez in very old Madeira vintages; likewise, a sixth, a red variety called Bastardo, also is not being grown today.  If you search thoroughly, you might be able to find an old Bastardo or two.

During the second half of the 19th century, Madeira’s vineyards were devastated by two catastrophic occurrences: powdery mildew, followed by phylloxera.  Most of its vineyards were wiped out; it took over 50 years for them to recover, although none of the noble varieties fully recovered.

What is so special about Madeira, and why does it last so long—over 200 years—maybe more?  One of the reasons is the unique way that it is made.  Following fermentation, Madeira wine is actually baked in a heating room called an estufa, for a period of at least three months or longer; the better wines are exposed to the sun for as long as three years (Madeira’s weather stays warm all year), or are left in warm lofts for up to three years.  The three-year aging methods, called canteiro, are preferred for the better Madeira wines because the wines retain their acidity, amber color and extract by this process.  Any sugars in the wine become caramelized and the wines become what we call maderized—oxidized through heating.  Madeira’s amazing ability to age, while retaining its freshness and complexity, is the reason that Madeira stands out as arguably the greatest fortified wine in the world. 

Vintage Madeira, the best type, must spend at least 20 years aging in cask; older vintages spend a much longer time than that, aging in casts for 50 to 100 years.  The resulting aromas and flavors are amazing; they are tangy and unique; no wines have such delicious, spicy flavors.  And they seem to last forever; the oldest Vintage Madeira that I have tasted, about a decade ago, a 1799, was perfectly fine; I never would have come close to guessing the age of the wine.  The high acidity in Madeira wine nicely balances its spicy fruitiness.  Typical vintage Madeiras have about 16 per cent alcohol.  Perhaps the most remarkable part about drinking a vintage Madeira is the length of the finish on your palate, the longest-lasting finish of any type of wine that I have experienced.

Here’s a short summary of the five noble Madeira varietal wines, including Terrantez (no longer grown):

Sercial:  The Sercial grape grows at the highest altitudes of all the five noble varieties, and makes the driest Madeiras, which I would call “Fairly Dry” because no Madeiras are actually bone dry.  Sercials are high in acidity and have a definite spiciness.  They are excellent as apéritif wines.  Almonds, olives, and light cheeses go well with Sercial Madeiras.  True Sercial is quite rare today. 

Verdelho:  The Verdelho grape makes “Medium Dry” Madeiras.  Its flavors tend to be nutty and peachy, and they are quite high in acidity.  Verdelhos are also good as apéritif wines and go well with light soups, such as consommé.

Bual (a.k.a Boal):  Bual, dark amber in color, is rich, “Medium  Sweet,” with spicy flavors of almonds and raisins, and has a long, tangy finish.  Bual is best to drink after dinner.  Like Sercial, true Bual is rare today.

Malmsey:  Made from Malvasia grapes, Malmsey is very dark amber in color, “Sweet,” and intensely concentrated, with a very long finish.  Drink it after dinner.

Terrantez:  Terrantez is “Medium Sweet,” between Verdelho and Bual in sweetness.  It is a powerful, fragrant Madeira with lots of acidity.  For some Madeira lovers, Terrantez is the greatest Madeira variety of all.  Sadly, very little Terrantez is available today, and only in older vintages.  Drink after dinner—if you own it or can find it.

In truth, the less noble Tinta Negra Mole variety is the dominant variety in today’s Madeira production; it is used in more than 85% of today’s Madeira wines, because it grows more prolifically than the five noble varieties (listed above), without the vine diseases to which the noble varieties are prone.  And Tinta Negra Mole is less site-specific; it can grow anywhere on the island of Madeira.  The four noble varieties (not counting Terrantez, which is no longer grown) can only grow in vineyards close to the sea where the urban sprawl of Funchal, Madeira’s capital city, impinges on them.  Therefore, Tinta Negra Mole plays a larger role than ever in producing today’s Madeiras.

Once, there were about 70 companies producing Madeira wines.  Today, there are only about 4 or 5.  The dominant one is The Madeira Wine Company, which has five brands: Blandy’s, Cossart Gordon, Leacock’s, Miles, and Atlantis.  Blandy’s is the largest brand, and the Madeira with the biggest presence in the U.S.  Other blended Madeira wines are available, often labled “10 Years Old” or “15 Years Old.”  They are relatively inexpensive, and are decent wines, but they do not compare to the noble varietal Madeiras above.  Most Madeiras begin to drink well when they are at least 20 years old. 

You can buy a fine Madeira from one of the four noble varieties, 20 to 25 years old, for about $50.  Older vintages are more expensive.  Really old Madeiras from the 1800s can be over $1,000.  If you find any Madeiras considerably less than $50, don’t expect the greatness I have been mentioning about Vintage Madeiras.  Remember that all Noble Varietal Vintage Madeiras must have aged a minimum of 20 years in cask.  Another less expensive Madeira available today, called Colheita Madeira, also is vintage-dated.  It differs from true Vintage Madeiras in that it can be aged for a minimum of five years.  Colheita Madeiras can be priced as low as $15 up to about $60.

I have managed to secure 13 Vintage Madeiras over the years, including my two favorite styles of Madeira, three Sercials and two Terrantez wines.  The three Sercials will shortly be down to two, because I have opened my 1890 Sercial, which has been resting in my fridge for about a month.  I’m in no hurry to drink it, because Madeiras age so well; even after opening, they will last for several months.  You don’t have to refrigerate them; you can store them at room temperature—but standing up, because Madeira will eat its way through corks when horizontal.  The reason I am refrigerating my open Madeira is that it is summertime as I am writing, and I don’t like to drink warm wines.  I hesitate to open my two Terrantez wines, an 1832 and an 1842, because they are most likely irreplaceable.  But since I am not getting any younger, I do plan to open them soon. 

More wine columns:     Ed McCarthy