A Guide to Madeira Wine

Are you interested in the different dessert wines available? One of the more popular dessert wines, and also a terrific cooking wine, is Madeira wine from the Madeira Islands of Portugal.

Madeira Production

Wine-making is a delicate process, as the type of grape, the container used for the fermentation process and temperature will all affect the characteristics of the resulting wine. To hinder evaporation to retain the fruity aromas, fermentation tanks are usually cooled and carefully monitored.

The production of Madeira wine is distinctly different in that the wine is actually cooked. Most wines die a flaming death when exposed to heat, particularly for long periods of time. Madeira wine is heated to between 100 degrees to 140 degrees F for several months. Madeira is also allowed to oxidize, a certain kiss of death for other wines. Yet the resulting product is delightful.

Madeira History

During the days when ships were used to transport goods in the 1500s, Madeira was transported to India around the Cape of Good Hope in the bowels of boats and was treated to heat and the rocking of the seas. The fact that the wine tasted better when it ended up in India than it tasted before it left Portugal was very confusing to winemakers of the time.

People tried to figure out why the wine tasted so good for more than 100 years. It was not until 1794 that a method was developed to cook Madeira in ovens, or estufias, that mimicked the conditions of being transported via ships in hot climates.

Interestingly, Madeira has a place in the history of the American Revolution. In 1655 England legislated that wine exports from Europe could only be shipped to British colonies using English ports and ships, with the exception of Madeira. Since grapes of good quality could not be grown in the original 13 colonies of the New World, the colonists ended up consuming almost one quarter of all of the Madeira produced. Five years before the Boston Tea Party, a dispute over import duties resulted in the Liberty, a sloop owned by John Hancock, to be seized by British officials. Rioters hit the streets of Boston over the loss of the Madeira wine.

Types of Madeira Wines

There are four major types of Madeira produced, all of which are named after the type of grape used to make the wine. The types of Madeira are Malmsey, Bual, Sercial and Verdelho, with Sercial being the driest of the four types of Madeira wines and Malmsey being the sweetest.

In addition to types, Madeira wine is also available in different levels of quality.

  • Finest: Three-year-old wines
  • Reserve: Five-year-old wines
  • Special Reserve: Aged for at least 10 years
  • Extra Reserved: Aged for at least 15 years
  • Vintage: Aged for at least 20 years with an additional 2-year aging in the bottle

Interesting Madeira Facts

  • Madeira is a fortified wine. Fortified wines have additional alcohol content in them. Madeira wine was originally not fortified. The addition of grape brandy helped to preserve the wine on its long ocean journey at a time when refrigeration was not possible.
  • Madeira boasts the longest lifespan. Normally when a bottle of wine is opened and exposed to the air, it immediately begins to deteriorate. Because Madeira has been exposed to high heat and oxidation during its fermentation process, an opened bottle of Madeira can last up to a year without a noticeable difference in taste. Unopened bottles are one of the longest-lasting wines.
  • Madeira wines need to be opened ahead of time. Unlike other wines that need only a short time to oxidize to release aromas, Madeira wines should be opened at least 24 hours, if not 48 hours or more, to breathe before serving.
  • Serving Madeira wines. Always serve Madeira wines at room temperature to allow the aromas to evaporate to heighten your wine-drinking experience. wine tours in willamette valley

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