Madeira: where the rules of wine are turned on their head

The mystery of Madeira wine lies in its ability to defy all ideal winemaking conditions and ageing practices to produce complex bottles offering depth, maturity and value for money, says David Kermode

Words by David Kermode

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If nectar is the drink of divinity, then Madeira must surely be the manifestation of a miracle. Everything you have ever learnt about wine is turned on its head.

Stepping off the plane at Funchal’s notoriously nerve-jangling airport (Google it, unless you are about to fly there, in which case definitely do not), breathing in the warm, moist, sub-tropical sea breeze, glancing the lush landscape ablaze with bananas, the climate suggests all manner of temptations… but not wine.

Madeira lies between Portugal and Morocco and its peak reaches over 1,800 metres

Almost a thousand kilometres from mainland Portugal, closer to Morocco, the island – more than 1,800 metres at its peak – stands proud in the Atlantic Ocean, the verdant summit of a mountain piercing the clouds from the ocean depths. With the exception of the airport runway that extends on pillars into the sea – think Southend pier with a 737 haring down it – virtually everything on Madeira happens vertically. If you’re not walking upwards, or downwards, then you must either be standing still, or asleep.

Carved from volcanic bedrock, vertiginous terraces march towards the clouds, the vines on low-level pergolas to keep the damp at bay, with the elevation resulting in seven different microclimates. The odds are stacked against viticulture here, but the effects of the altitude, combined with volcanic soils and ocean winds, imbue the grapes with a defining, gently persistent acidity that’s one of the many wonders of the island’s idiosyncratic fortified wine.

maderia vertical vineyards
Some of the volcanic island's vertiginous, terraced vineyards

Madeira is an historic port of call for mariners who inadvertently helped to establish a new and unlikely form of maturation. Departing with casks of wine, mostly for en-route-refreshment but also as ballast, it soon became apparent that their tincture tasted much better at the end of the crossing after several weeks tossed around on the high seas in equatorial temperatures that topped 40 degrees. Thus began a bizarre trend, in the late 19th century, for ‘vinho da roda’, denoting wines that had taken a return journey. Fashion and practicality are rarely bedfellows and this particular process was as useful to commercial winemaking as chocolate is to teapots, so alternative methods were soon developed.

Conventional wine wisdom tells us that the attic is truly the last place we should store our treasure trove, yet the lofts of Funchal contribute much to the magic of Madeira. The finest wines are kept in seasoned oak barrels in the ‘canteiro’, where they bathe in the natural warmth of the sun. Just to give wine lore another bout of bottle shock, the casks are never full, so gentle oxidation is encouraged, resulting in the loss of around three percent to ‘the angels’, or evaporation. The resulting high-toned, nutty character is another marvel of Madeira.

The minimum age for anything labelled Madeira is a mere three years. It’s a wonder they don’t just bottle the company accountant’s tears

There’s an old adage, ‘if you want make a million in wine, start with ten million’ – and that must surely ring true for producers of Madeira, because lengthy ageing, the arch enemy of cash flow, is deemed essential to its trademark tertiary charm. To be a vintage Madeira, known as ‘frasqueira’, a wine must be aged in cask for at least twenty years. A compromise is ‘colheita’, which spends between five and 18 years in barrel. The minimum age for anything labelled Madeira is a mere three years. It’s a wonder they don’t just bottle the company accountant’s tears.

There are only so many lofts in Funchal, so to meet demand and expedite the process, the ‘estufa’ system was created, entailing the heating of the wines to around 45 degrees in steel tanks, wrapped in jackets, resembling the hot water cylinders in our homes. This process lacks the romance of sticking it in the attic, but is nonetheless useful, accounting for around 85 percent of production.

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Madeira wine can be made from a variety of grapes including Sercial, which produces the driest style of the fortified wine

Madeira can be bewildering, as anyone who has undertaken a wine exam can testify. There is a dictionary’s worth of different names, relating to grape variety, level of sweetness, age, or merely an historic style, such as the delicious ‘rainwater’ – a lighter, off-dry version so named because a shipment to the United States was supposedly diluted in wet weather en route.

The wines were traditionally named after the ‘noble’ white grapes from which they derived, all grown at different altitudes: the driest, Sercial, then medium-dry Verdelho, followed by medium-sweet Boal, with Malmsey, or Malvasia, as the richest, sweetest wine. These varieties still represent the upper echelons of Madeira, though most wines are now made from a red variety, Tinta Negra, once considered a Cinderella grape, nowadays a fellow belle of the ball.

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These days, Tinta Negra grapes are the most commonly used in Madeira wine production

Even at the entry level, Madeira offers such incredible complexity and depth, not to mention value for money, it is little wonder that cocktail culture has embraced it, but I am neither shaken nor stirred because it really deserves to be drunk on its own, representing as it does a compendium of wine styles that can easily pair an entire meal.

Having just celebrated a milestone birthday, I also find myself appreciating its extraordinary ability to age with grace. Visiting Henriques & Henriques, one of the island’s celebrated producers, I was invited to try wines ranging from a youthful 50-year-old Tinta Negra, to a vintage Malmsey from 1900. My favourite, a 1932 Verdelho, prompted me, without thinking, to write ‘fresh’ in my tasting note… for something that is ninety years old.

Maybe immortality is the true miracle of Madeira.

What David has been drinking…

  • Altemasi 2017 Millesimato Trentodoc (£18), from the steep slopes of Trentino, Trento DOC, known as ‘Trentodoc’, is a relatively new breed of delicious, ‘traditional method’ sparkling wine. 100% Chardonnay, fresh citrus combines with  toasty brioche to make the most satisfying of sparklers at an incredible price.
  • Ramon Bilbao Edición Limitada Rioja 2018 (£15), from an innovative winery that fuses tradition with the latest thinking, a thoroughly modern altitude Rioja, bursting with fresh blackberry, cherry, silky, balsamic character and peppery spice.
  • Hartford Family Winery, Russian River Pinot Noir 2018 (£39), assertive for Pinot, there’s crunchy red berry fruit, well integrated gently spicy oak and a silky sleek character that makes this the most wonderfully satisfying fireside wine.
David Kermode 2021
By David Kermode

David Kermode is a journalist and broadcaster, with two decades of experience across TV, radio and print media, and a lifelong love of wine and spirits. Don’t miss his weekly podcast, The Drinking Hour.