My thoughts on the Ports and Sherries and how we should all be drinking more of it extend to Madeiras. Greatly underappreciated and poorly understood, Madeiras languish on bar shelves like the kid who does not have many friends but those that know her know she is the best.
Madeiras are fortified wines just like Ports and Sherries. Madeira is named after the island if hails from – a little island several hundred miles south west of mainland Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean. The island belongs to Portugal.
Madeiras were transported on long journeys in casks across the seas in tropical heat, got tossed around in the rolling seas, and as a result, acquired a distinctive taste and was ‘toughened’ by this. They did not spoil easily as a result. Initially, the sailors thought the wine was spoiled but as more people tried it, many of them liked it.
To this day, Madeiras retained that distinctive taste although the battering the casks take in seafaring is simulated artificially. Madeiras remain the hardiest of wines with a long life, including after the cork is popped. It is the best wine to take on a long trip in the wild for instance without worrying about spoilage.
Classic Madeira is made from and named after the white grapes of Madeira are Sercial, Verdelho, Bual (Malvasia Fina), and Malmsey (Malvasia Candida). There is another varietal called Tinta Negra Mole, while not highly ‘respected’ actually accounts for over 80% of the production. While fine Madeira is typically made from one of the four ‘noble’ varietals above, most of the unlabeled Madeiras are made from TNM.
The driest Madeiras are the Sercials, the Verdelho’s being slightly higher on the sweetness scale, Bual being slightly sweeter, and Malmsey being the sweetest. The fortification is carried out in similar ways (though slightly different in its nuances) to Port and Sherry in that spirits are added to the wine to ‘fortify’ it. Depending on the style of the Madeira, the fortification is carried out before all the sugars are consumed by the yeast – to make sweeter Madeiras, or after – to make drier Madeiras. By law, Madeiras should have a minimum of 17% alcohol after fortification.
The distinctiveness of quality Madeiras really comes from the process alluded to earlier by which the wines are heated. This is done by heating the wine in steel tanks (estufas) for 2 – 3 months at temperatures as high as 1200 F. In case of high quality Madeiras, the wines matured using the Canteiro method, where they are transferred to casks and stored in attics where they are exposed to the elements for up to two years. This is considered the more delicate way of maturing the wine since the heating (and cooling) is not as rapid and severe as in an estufa. There is an intermediate method used, which is to store these wines in steam rooms for a period of time.
Madeiras can have a range of flavors and be aromatic and can posses toasty, smoky, nutty, and caramel flavors. They are typically acidic though the sugars can conceal the acid in the sweeter wines. Thus the food pairings can range from aperitifs and fish for the drier more acidic Madeiras to desserts for the sweeter Madeiras and almost anything in between. I just pop open Madeiras regardless of the food I am eating but that’s just me!
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