Madeira 101: History in a Bottle

One of the great promises of a fine wine is its ability to age, providing collectors the opportunity to observe its journey from infancy to peak drinkability to maturity. There are age-worthy wines – Bordeaux , Barolo , and Napa Valley Cabernet, to name a few – and then there’s Madeira , which acts as a seemingly impenetrable time capsule. Developing at such a glacial pace, it’s impossible to observe the full life of a great Madeira, as this fortified Portuguese wine will outlive any of its drinkers, sometimes by several centuries. Emerging from the Age of Exploration and reaching its height of fashion in Colonial America , Madeira’s story is deeply intertwined with the history of humankind over the last six centuries. A Brief History The volcanic island of Madeira surfaces from the Atlantic Ocean about three hundred and sixty miles west of the Moroccan Coast, north of Spain’s Canary Islands . The Portuguese reached Madeira in 1419, establishing the island as a port of call for traders en route to the East Indies. What they found was a densely forested landscape, and to clear agricultural space, the settlers set fire to the woods. According to legend, those fires burned for seven years, and the ashes brought further fertility to Madeira’s soils. It didn’t take long for the Portuguese to introduce viticulture to Madeira, and by the end of the 16th century, the island’s wine industry was in full swing. Madeira’s earliest wines, however, bear little semblance to the immortal treasures that have since made the appellation famous. The pioneering wines were unstable, and would often spoil when transported to mainland Europe and elsewhere. Vintners soon learned to fortify their wines with alcohol, likely derived from cane sugar, to act as a preservative. Over the ensuing centuries, Madeira wine became a common commodity purchased by tradesman voyaging to India. They discovered that the wines magically improved upon arrival, after months of heating and rolling back and forth in the bottoms of ships, as they sailed through the tropics around the near entirety of Africa. Wines that traveled to Asia and back, deemed “vinho da roda” or those making a “round trip,” earned particular acclaim above those aged on the island itself. Being an established port on English trade routes, Madeira came into fashion in Britain as well as in North American colonies. By the time of the Revolutionary War, one fourth of the island’s output was being exported to colonial America, and three-fourths of the colonists’ imported wine consumption was Madeira. Southern cities preferred Madeira’s drier styles (Sercial, Verdelho, Terrantez), while Northerners showed a greater affinity for the sweeter wines (Bual and Malmsey). So engrained was Madeira within America’s cultural landscape that the Founding Fathers toasted with it after signing the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. They celebrated with Madeira again upon signing the Constitution and once more at the inauguration of George Washington. The 19th and 20th centuries brought with them a string of setbacks for Madeira’s wine industry. First, powdery mildew and then phylloxera decimated the island’s vineyards in the mid-1800s. The Russian Revolution and American Prohibition subsequently put strain on Madeira’s export market, and today the blossoming tourism industry continues to encroach upon vineyard space. Andrew Jones, a renowned collector of Madeira, writes in his notes to a recent Wine & Food Society tasting of old and rare wines from his cellar, “At the end of the 19th century, there were over 150 wine producers on the island of Madeira, many of whom owned their own vineyards. Today, there are just eight firms left, of which only six are described as ‘shippers’, meaning that they export wine.” Nonetheless, Madeira’s wines continue to count among the most coveted and seemingly indestructible in the world. The Making of Madeira The vineyards of Madeira ring around the island’s perimeter, descending from dramatic mountainsides into the Atlantic. The incline is so steep that mechanical harvesting is impossible and terraces are required to safely cultivate grapes. While historically the ship’s hull effectively served as Madeira’s ageing cellar, today vintners rely on technology to mimic those long, hot trips to India. The modern Madeira industry utilizes the “estufagem” process, in which Madeira wines are heated, as if passing through the tropics. There are several variations of the estufagem technique. Some producers age the wines in stainless steel tanks, equipped with a coiled pipe either inside or around the tank’s jacket. Hot water flows through the pipes for ninety days, elevating the wine’s temperature as high as 130° F. Another production method involves lining a series of wooden Madeira-filled casks into what is effectively a steam room heated by water-filled tanks or pipes for six months to one year or longer. While this gentler tactic is considered to produce more refined wines, the best modern Madeiras use no technology at all in what is called the “canteiro” method. Wines produced in this fashion are aged for a minimum of three years, but often longer than two decades, in the naturally sun-warmed attics of Madeira lodges. The sweetness of a Madeira is determined by the time at which the wine is fortified during the fermentation process. Today, fortification is performed with a neutral grape spirit whose addition kills off the yeasts and halts fermentation. The earlier this practice is carried out, the more residual sugar will remain and the sweeter the wines will be. The Grapes and the Wines Madeira’s finest wines are vinified from one of five noble grape varieties – Sercial, Verdelho, Terrantez, Bual, and Malmsey – each of which is associated with a certain degree of sweetness. Sercial is made into the driest wines, grown at cool, high elevations where the grape yields an electrifyingly sharp acidity. Along with Verdelho, Sercial is the last of Madeira’s grapes to be harvested. Verdelho wines move one notch up on the sweetness spectrum, offering juicier wines with a distinctive smokiness. Andrew Jones writes, “Before the onslaught of the phylloxerya, Verdelho was the most widely planted variety in Madeira.” Typically fermented to a similar degree of sweetness and the rarest of the noble varieties, Terrantez neared extinction on the island. Those with the good fortune of finding a Terrantez in their glass will experience the grape’s mesmerizing aromatics and prized concentration. The penultimate wine on Madeira’s sugar scale, Bual thrives in the warm south-facing vineyards on the southern side of the island. Also written as “Boal,” these wines are darker in color than Verdelho and Sercial, with nuttier, more raisin-like flavors. Malmsey , an Anglicization of the Malvasia family of grapes from which these wines are born, is the sweetest of Madeira wines. According to Andrew Jones, “It produces high levels of both acidity and sugar, being ideal for making the sweetest styles of Madeira.” It coats the palate with round, viscous notes of toffee, butterscotch and jam. While the noble varieties are responsible for much of Madeira’s acclaim, roughly 80-85% of the island’s vineyards are dedicated to Tinta Negra. This vigorous, black-skinned grape creates delicious, while not quite as long-lived “Rainwater” Madeiras, recalling the wines diluted by precipitation while traveling by ship to North America. Madeira’s entry-level wines are made from a blend of several vintages. The most commonly observed are the three-year-old “Seleccionado” or “Finest,” five-year-old “Reserve” or “Reserva,” and ten-year-old “Special Reserve” or “Reserva Especial” Madeiras. Older multi-vintage blends exist, but are rarely bottled, as producers would rather opt for the more lucrative vintage-dated wines. The highest quality Madeiras carry a vintage date. Wines aged for a minimum of five years before bottling are deemed “Colheita” or “Harvest,” while those aged for two decades or longer qualify as “Frasqueira.” These long-aged wines, made of the noble varieties, represent the pinnacle of achievement for Madeira, yielding wines of profound concentration and complexity. Frasqueira Madeiras are prized as the world’s most age-worthy wines, with examples from the 18th and 19th centuries still captivating drinkers today with their perplexing freshness. Amazingly, nearly 250 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it’s still possible to drink and enjoy the same vintages of this Portuguese delicacy that the Founding Fathers were pouring to celebrate the establishment of the United States. — Bryce Wiatrak Have you ever tasted Madeira? We can’t wait to see what you think! Scan the label and add your tasting notes on Delectable.

Cossart Gordon & Co.

Colheita Single Harvest Madeira Bual 2005

Last up at the Food & Wine Society, New York, was this "off list" item. From 2005, the purpose was to demonstrate that decent Madeira doesn't have to break the bank. Clearly it's nothing compared to some of the grandees tasted earlier but it is lively, fresh, good depth, and enough complexity to make it interesting. Not bad, in a pinch. — 5 years ago

Neil, Trixie and 18 others liked this


Madeira Bual 1920

I loved this one. Blandy's 1920 Bual was just gorgeous. Dark brown. Very rich, and viscous in texture. Orange peel comes through in abundance. Incredible length, complexity. Slightly bitter at the end of the finish. Gorgeous. (One of the reasons why I like tastings like this one from the FWS is that I'm not going to race out to drop $1100 on a bottle like this. But it's such a thrill to have a taste. Maybe I'll split one with 20 friends and we'd have a 1920s themed dinner... now that's an idea.) — 5 years ago

Dick, Trixie and 24 others liked this


10 Years Old Madeira Boal

Burnt toffee, molasses, that nutty, lemony dry nose and round palette. Happy to report, this may linger for the rest of the evening. — 5 years ago

Matt and A liked this


Vintage Madeira Boal 1977

Upon opening there's wonderful raisin on the nose. Great whiskey or brandy smell to it. Very smooth with a long finish, complex raisin and citrus, like pineapple and lemon. Definite acidity. Had never tried a Madeira before, and was expecting a sherry or port experience, but this was more complex and more alcoholic than expected. Very nice! — 5 years ago

James, Matt and 1 other liked this


Reserva Madeira Boal 1968

Next up was the 1968 from Periera D'Oliveira, which was bottled in 1996. And wow. Dark amber. Spice cake on the nose with dried apricots too, which carry on in the flavors on the palate. Initially spices are most distinct, but through the long finish the pitted fruit elements emerge. It is midweight and beautifully balanced. The orange peel at the end of the finish adds freshness, and the acidity gives a youthfulness to it. I think this wine is still in the market. If not too expensive, I might pick up a bottle and start my Madeira collection... — 5 years ago

Trixie, P and 20 others liked this

Joao Romao Teixeira

JRT Boal Madeira 1870

The 1870 Boal from Joao Romao Teixeira was a contender for wine of the night. Brown with amber rim. Almonds on the nose. Unsurprising then that marzipan is on the palate with spices, licorice and nutmeg. Great freshness and a touch of menthol and more acidity than the other wines in the lineup. Just stunning. Andrew Jones of the Food & Wine Society did a great job bagging this from Christie's back in the day. — 5 years ago

Severn, Dick and 18 others liked this

Shortridge Lawton

Madeira Boal 1861

Back in February I went along to a Madeira tasting hosted by The Food & Wine Society, New York. Entitled Two Centuries of Boal, the wines were from the cellar of Andrew Jones, who is quite the authority when it comes to Madeira.

We kicked off with the 1861 Boal from Shortridge Lawton & Co (which became part of the Madeira Wine Association). With Madeira, the key thing is how long it aged in barrel. Once it is in the bottle, the aging stops. So had the 1861 been bottled in 1871, it would still be a 10 year old Madiera. This wasn't the case here. Instead Jones tracked its bottling to sometime after 1965.

Such long aging did well for this wine. While 1861 was considered a poor vintage at the time, this Madeira was stunning:

Brown with yellow rims. Rich on the nose with caramel and raisins. Incredible richness on the palate, with an intense burst that sustains. Faded sweetness with dried fruits and sandalwood, and especially dry on the finish, that seems to go on forever with evolving complexity. Gorgeous. A beyond rare treat.
— 5 years ago

James, Severn and 19 others liked this
Hugh O'Riordan

Hugh O'Riordan

Janes, I’ve been to Madeira to bird watch. I visited some bodegas . It is a beautiful island with lots of wine. Hugh

Henriques & Henriques

Madeira Bual 1954

The 1954 Bual from Henriques & Henriques was one of the weaker ones of the night. Mahogany and fairly dark. Very floral on the nose. Dried apricots on the palate. Mid length finish. Not especially complex. Enjoyable by any standards, but fell short here. — 5 years ago

Trixie, P and 16 others liked this

Cossart Gordon & Co.

Madeira Bual Solera 1845

The Madeira that had the lowest number on the label was the 1845 Solera from Cossart. The last top up was apparently 1953, so this really wasn't nearly as old on average as some of the others. Dark brown with copper edges. Soapy on the nose. Quite short but attractive orange peel and spices. It might not be the oldest of the bunch, but it is rather past it. — 5 years ago

Trixie, Hugh and 13 others liked this

Welsh Brothers

Madeira Boal 1863

Next up in this extraordinary Food & Wine Society, New York tasting was the 1863 Welsh Brothers Boal, which was bottled in 1978. This producer was also acquired by the Madeira Wine Company.

Mahogany with a golden rim. Not much on the nose. Some imperfections on the nose. Super concentrated on the palate, with treacle notes. Sweet turning bitter. Alcohol comes through quite aggressively.
— 5 years ago

Severn, Trixie and 15 others liked this
James Forsyth

James Forsyth Influencer Badge

Hi Sharon - such a good question. There's quite a lot of general detail in the Madiera 101 that was just posted in the Featured section - well worth a look. I actually took notes about the dates for this particular wine: 1863 the grapes are picked and the very young wine is put into barrels and left there to age. In 1913 this wine was put into demijohns, which are large glass vats. When in glass the wine isn't really aging much at all. Then in 1978, the wines were taken out of demijohns and bottled. For this wine, the 50 years in cask was when it was aging. After that it wouldn't really change.
Sharon B

Sharon B Influencer Badge

@James Forsyth thank you James! I appreciate you taking the time to explain! That makes total sense now. 😊
john danza

john danza

James, that's a great point about the movement of the wines from cask to demijohn to bottle. I recently had an 1863 Sercial by D'Olivier's that had been bottled just a couple of years ago. It was a monster of a wine. The pre-Phylloxera Madeiras are amazing.