Madeira wines have a sweet and scientific side

In last week’s column on Madeira, I didn’t mention much about the way it was aged — and didn’t really mention much about the way Madeira was aged in last week’s column and that is an integral part of the story, even with younger wines.

Gone are the days when Madeira casks make six-month voyages on warm ships. Today, estufagem, which is the process of deliberately heating wine, is employed.

There are three methods used, with canteiro being the one preferred for the highest-quality wines. It’s really the simplest of all, just aging the casks in rooms that are heated by sunlight. No steam pipes or coils.

With the exception of vintage Madeira, the casks are blends from many years. For example, a 10-year malmsey comes from a number of vintages, with the youngest spending at least 10 years in wood. However, solera-dated Madeiras are a little bit more complicated.

Let’s say you come across a Madeira that says it is 1900 solera. That means the first wine is from 1900. In 1901, some wine from that vintage may have been added to the 1900, with the rest being used for possibly an older solera — or to start a new one that would then be dated 1901. Come 1902, the same might happen. So, the 1900 solera has many, many vintages in it, all of which would have been aged together in casks.

The beauty of Madeira that’s destined to become either vintage or solera is that it must spend a minimum of 20 years in wood and another two in bottle. You may also see some colheita Madeiras, which are vintage dated but spend less time in casks and are generally meant for short term (that being relative) aging.

A young — say, 1985 — vintage Madeira will seem young when compared to older wines. If you are ever so lucky as to try one that has five decades until its belt, you will feel the magic. And, yes, they can age for centuries.

Sadly, many of these older wines are not exactly priced for the current economy. However, there are others to choose from that offer plenty of quality. Here are a couple for those who have a sweet tooth.


Broadbent 10 Year Malmsey

Renowned port and Madeira expert Michael Broadbent inspired son Bartholomew to add Broadbent Madeira to his import business after the initial success of Broadbent Ports. Made from 85 percent malvasia and 15 percent tinta negra mole, this malmsey has an odd combination of black currants and citrus contrasting the more typical dried stone fruit and nutlike flavors, making for a delicious — and certainly not typical — wine. Suggested retail: $40


Rare Wine Company Boston Bual

As Boston was one of the major ports for the Madeira trade during colonial times, it is only fitting it would have a Madeira named after it. A blend of 85 percent bual and 15 percent old-vine tinta negra mole, this stuff is so, so good with caramel, hazelnuts, vanilla bean, spice and a long, semisweet finish. Suggested retail: $46.50


Barbeito 20 Year Old Malvasia Old Lot 10292

Chosen from the best lots available, this is a special small-production bottling from one of Madeira’s top producers. With interplay of hot buttered nuts, toffee and vanilla leaving a matrix of everlasting flavor on the palate, this is a great substitution for vintage Madeira. Suggested retail: $75

Pamela S. Busch is the owner of, founder of CAV Wine Bar and a Bay Area wine consultant. Please submit your questions to

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