Madeira is the world’s eighth wonder.
Created pretty much by accident, it is the longest living of all wines, even outlasting elephants and turtles. What makes Madeira so special is not just its mountain terroir, but also the process by which it is made.
Let me explain. Because of its location — 1,000 miles off the coast of Portugal — the island of Madeira was a frequent stop for European ships on their way to Asia, Africa and the new world, where, among other things, wine was picked up for the journey. During the voyage, the wine would heat up, creating a unique character that became popular enough to generate a new style of winemaking on the island. By the 1700s, fortification was introduced to Madeira, helping to stabilize the wine.
A favorite in the 13 colonies, what became the United States was one of the largest Madeira consumers in the world. Its popularity declined in the latter part of the 19th century, partly because the vineyards were plagued with a phylloxera. With port being all the rage during the 20th century, Madeira was considered, according to expert Mannie Berk, “something your grandparents would drink.” In other words, not at all cool.
As a result, it was pretty darn cheap until the mid-1990s, when word got out.
“Today,” Berk said, “it’s cool.”
Madeira is made from several grapes. The four noble varietals are sercial, verdelho, bual and malmsey, aka malvasia. Terrantez can also make sensational wines. Tinta negra mole is the workhorse grape that is used to make rainwater and generally younger wines.
It has often been considered an alternative to port or just lumped in with other dessert wines but many are in fact dry and make terrific aperitifs as well as accompaniments to a meal. Sercial makes the driest followed by verdelho.
With the holidays coming up I encourage all to grab a bottle to share with your mates.
Vinhos Barbeito Medium Dry Reserva
Lot 2: Since taking over the reins in 1991, Ricardo Freitas has transformed Barbeito from being a house that just had stocks of very old wines to one that also makes top younger wines. A blend of 10-year-old bual and 8-year-old verdelho casks, this is a youthful, fresh Madeira that has an array of orange peel, almond toffee, chamomile flowers and spice. Suggested retail: $40
Rare Wine Company Charleston Sercial
Mannie Berk conceived the Rare Wine Company series in 1998. The idea was to create high-quality, reasonably priced Madeiras and name them after American cities where there was a large Madeira trade during colonial times. Made from 85 percent sercial and 15 percent old-vine tinta negra mole, this is a superb Madeira with dried apricots, tea, brazil nuts and a finish that just keeps on going. Suggested retail: $47
Henriques & Henriques Sercial 10 Anos
The Henriques family owned the land where the first vines were grown to make Madeira in 1425. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Henriques’ ownership bounced around a little in the family and has since become a fairly large company, though the family is still involved. Aged for 10 years in oak barrels, it offers dried fruits, orange peel, toasted almonds, toffee and once again, a terrific long finish. Suggested retail: $52
Pamela S. Busch is the owner of Skrewcap.com, founder of CAV Wine Bar and a Bay Area wine consultant. Please submit your questions to Pamela@Skrewcap.com.