An introduction to one of civilization’s finest and most storied wines, from its extraordinary beginnings to the grapes that dictate its range of sweet and dry styles
Madeira wine was once considerably more popular than it is today, especially in North America. After the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776, it is said that the jubilant signatories toasted the occasion with a glass of Madeira. Quite possibly a rather large one: George Washington is reported to have advised, ‘Drink a pint of Madeira daily’, and is believed to have consumed three to five glasses every evening. Perhaps not surprisingly, he would order wine from his London agent by the ‘pipe’ — equivalent to approximately 126 gallons, or 572 litres.
Today Madeira is undergoing something of a renaissance and, thanks to its exceptional longevity, it is possible to enjoy wine produced from vines that grew during George Washington’s lifetime — in our Geneva sale in November 2016, for example, we offered wines bottled in 1820, 1825 and 1830.
Madeira takes its name from the island of Madeira, which sits in the Atlantic about 380 miles west of Morocco. It was discovered in 1419 by the Portuguese mariner João Gonçalves Zarco in the service of Prince Henry the Navigator. Malvasia vines were planted around 1453, and as ships stopped at the island on their way to the New World in subsequent decades, they invariably loaded barrels of wine as ballast for their voyages.
Rather charmingly, the unique method for producing the Madeira wine we know today was discovered by chance some time during the 16th century. After the barrels of wine had been exposed to the rolling movement of the ships and heat on their way through the tropics, the flavour of the wine within was found to have improved. A system for heating the wine up to temperatures between 40C and 50C over a period of three months, known as estufagem, was devised to replicate this happy accident.
Currently only about 440 hectares of small terraces are planted with vineyards on Madeira — compared to 120,000 in Bordeaux — and so production remains relatively small. Of this, only 20 per cent is covered by the major white grape varieties — Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malvasia — which give their names to the four major styles of wine. Two other grape varieties, Terrantez and Bastardo, are much more rare, and usually only seen in voluminous and comprehensive Madeira collections such as those offered by Christie’s.
Red Tinta Negra Mole accounts for the remaining 80 per cent of grapes grown on the island, and is valued for its ability to acquire the different characteristics of other varietals according to the altitude at which it is planted.
Sercial: The Sercial grape grows at the highest altitudes and gives rise to the driest style of Madeira. The grapes ripen late and have high natural acidity, which needs to soften with age — the best Sercials therefore spend a long time in the cask. These tangy wines make a superb aperitif with olives, almonds or light cheeses.
Verdelho: Mostly grown on the north side of the island where the climate is slightly cooler and the grapes ripen later, Verdelho usually produces a medium-dry wine with hints of smokiness as it ages. It can also have nutty, peachy flavours.
Bual (or Boal): Dark amber in colour, Bual is a rich, semi-sweet Madeira with raisin and almond flavours and a long, tangy finish. The grapes are grown on the south side of the island at low altitudes.
Malvasia (or Malmsey): The sweetest style of Madeira. Malvasia vineyards are located all around the island, planted at lower elevations towards the ocean. The wines are dark, rich and concentrated, with coffee-caramel flavours. Malmsey production has always been small, and as a result vintage Malmseys are very sought after.
Terrantez: In style Terrantez wines tend to fall between Verdelho and Bual, offering a fragrant balance between dry and sweet. Some of the most legendary Madeira wines are made from Terrantez, but the current harvest is very small, and old Terrantez wines are hard to find.
Bastardo: Low-yielding and vulnerable to disease, Bastardo is produced in even smaller quantities then Terrantez. Old Bastardos are rich and mahogany-coloured, yet not as rich as Terrantez. Extremely rare and much-prized.