Fashions come and go in the world of wine, just as in any other, but Madeira can perhaps lay claim to being the most resolutely unfashionable. It could be argued that its heyday was in 1796, when it was used by Jefferson to toast the Declaration of Independence in the US. Since then, it has never really troubled trendsetter lists.
And yet, and yet… so many in the wine trade adore Madeira and wax lyrical behind closed doors on its many charms, not least the fact that it is practically immortal and drinking old Madeira feels like touching history; it’s like a special wine-trade secret that’s only kept for those in the know.
I’m fortunate to have tasted some truly remarkable Madeira this year. For my money, it makes a more exciting, more delicious and more versatile choice than the port so many of us wheel out (though it’s worth considering the more unusual option of white port) as the traditional accompaniment to the festive cheeseboard.
Madeira is a unique wine, made in a unique way. The volcanic island of Madeira rises steeply from the Atlantic about 400 miles due west of Casablanca. It was discovered in 1412 by the Portuguese, who realised its potential as a strategic spot in the path of beneficial trade winds on voyages heading both west towards the Americas and south, round the Cape of Good Hope to lucrative markets to the east. Also blessed with a sub-tropical climate and fertile volcanic soils, the island was planted with sugar cane and vines, among many other things (it’s the only place in the world where potatoes, bananas and grapes all grow). By the seafaring heyday of the 16th and 17th centuries, Madeira had become an important victualling stopover for ships heading to the great beyond.
In the early days, barrels of wine were more often taken aboard as ballast rather than for the quality of the liquid they contained. They were exposed to fluctuating temperatures as they crisscrossed the tropics, as well as oxidation as evaporation was accelerated by the extreme heat; usually sworn enemies of wine (with the term ‘Madeirisation’ generally being used to denote a fault), these processes resulted in something rather magical. Madeira soon became among the most highly prized wines in the world.
By the mid-18th century, producers simply imitated this process by ageing the wines in barrels on the hot island, moving them around their humid bodegas, known as lodges, to mimic the fluctuating temperatures, and re-using barrels over and over to allow for micro-oxidisation and concentration to influence the wines, rather than clunky new-oak flavours, as they slowly aged. Known as the canteiro method, this process, along with the fortification (originally with sugar-cane rum but now with grape spirit), rendered the wines entirely stable.
These days, most wines are heated by the estufagum process, whereby they are artificially heated and cooled in tank, then put in barrels for ageing for a minimum of three years. The highest quality wines deemed to have the most ageing potential are still made with the traditional canteiro method in lofty lodges stacked floor-to-ceiling with ageing barrels, known as pipas. Very old wine may then be transferred to glass demijohns where it remains unchanged indefinitely; I have drunk Madeira from the 19th century that still has incredible life and verve, and it’s a profoundly moving experience.
Categorisation can be a bit tricky. The traditional ‘noble’ grapes are Sercial, Verdhelo, Boal (also known as Bual) and Malvasia (or Malmsey), which are always made in dry, medium-dry, medium-rich and rich (sweet styles) respectively. Terrantez and Bastardo (aka Trousseau) are much rarer and can be made in all these styles. However, Tinta Negra is by far the most widely planted grape – red-skinned, robust and generally higher yielding, it was historically rather scorned as a mere workhorse, and indeed is used for the vast majority of the entry-level Madeiras, but in recent years producers (most notably Barbeito) have been championing it as capable of making just as spectacular wines, in all styles, as its more widely revered cousins.
Since 2016, it is permitted to use Tinta Negra’s name on labels. Age-indicated wines are blends of different vintages, often containing some very old wine, either labelled as single varietals or, (pre-2016), according to the level of sweetness. Single-harvest, canteiro-aged wines are known as Colheitas (the term ’vintage’ may only be used for port) and must be aged for a minimum of five years in barrel and one in bottle, while ‘Frasqueira’ refers to Colheita wines aged for at least 20 years in barrel before bottling – these are the most revered wines that command the highest prices.
What distinguishes Madeira is its characteristic, thrilling seam of acidity that gives freshness and vitality to all the wines, no matter what their style or their age. Drier styles are lovely as chilled aperitifs or with rich, salty food – smoked salmon, patés, terrines, nuts and the like – while sweeter styles are very happy partners with the wintry flavours found in mince pies, Christmas pudding, panettone and anything with chocolate. All are also very good with a cheeseboard and would perk up jaded palates alongside the Boxing Day buffet.
Six of the best Madeiras to seek out
Blandy’s Duke of Clarence
A good entry-level, gateway Madeira for newcomers to the wine. Made from Tinta Negra grapes and heated by estufagem before being aged in barrel for three years, this is the rich (malvasia) style with 126g/l of residual sugar. Affordable enough to be used in cooking (add a splash to the Christmas turkey gravy), it also goes well with Christmas pudding or mince pies and is a good all-rounder with a cheeseboard. I could be tempted to slug a bit into coffee or hot chocolate too.
Best for: beginners and bargain hunters
Henriques & Henriques 10 y/o Sercial
Henriques & Henriques’ range of ten-year-old Madeiras offer great value for money and are an excellent introduction to the different noble grape varietals. This classic Sercial is best served chilled to enhance the saline breeziness that sings along with its walnut nuttiness and orange-zest tang.
Best for: aperitifs
Justino’s Colheita 1999
Justino’s was a family business, established in 1870, that was restructured into a limited company in 1953. With large stocks of high quality, old wines, Justino’s wines are characterised by a savoury minerality that runs through all their bottlings, and which cuts through the sweetness in this lovely medium-sweet tinta negra giving an almost salted caramel finish to its powerful prune and coffee notes. Classy sipping with cheese, a mince pie or hard-to-match chocolate.
Best for: the Christmas cheeseboard
£29 (half bottle), The Wine Society
Barbeito Sercial Curtimenta 2014
Barbeito is the newest producer on the island, established in 1946. Once mainly making bulk wines for blending, it’s now known for dazzling modern Madeiras, including single-cask and single-vineyard iterations, which all have incredible elegance and finesse.
This skin-contact sercial is typical of Barbeito’s forward-thinking approach – might it be the Madeira to finally pique the interest of the hipsters? Foot-trodden grapes are left to ferment leaving some bunches intact, then the wine is re-trodden, fortified and kept in contact with the skins for a further three months before being left alone to age. Appetising layers of roast quince, candied tangerine, gingerbread, a kind of yuzu-like acidity and a very gentle tannic grip.
Best for: a leftfield choice
£55, Corks of Bristol
Blandy’s Single Harvest Colheita Bual 2010
English shippers moved to the island in the 17th century and soon controlled the wine trade there. Blandy’s, founded 1811, is the only producer still remaining in family ownership and has just released a smart set of 2010 colheitas in the four noble grape styles. This is really thrilling, with an almost herbaceous freshness that lifts its caramelised nuts, candied citrus and dried-fruit sweetness along with a little peppery spice and incredible length.
Best for: the connoisseur
£70, The Wine Society
D’Oliveiras 1984 Verdelho
Pereira D’Oliveiras has the largest stocks of old wines on the island and are imported into the UK by Bovey Wines, champions of Madeira wines since Geoff and Pam Bovey started importing them in 1984 following a holiday there the previous year. The company has an excellent range of age-indicated wines, helping them to win two trophies at this year’s IWSC. For me, their very old Fresqueiras are the stars of the show and this is the first-ever release of the 1984 Verdhelo; intense and concentrated with seemingly endless layers of tropical fruits, candied nuts, toffee, wood smoke and bitter marmalade. A brilliant (and very generous) present for a 40th birthday or anniversary in 2024.
Best for: a lavish 40th birthday present
£TBC, Vintage Wine and Port