Friday, October 29, 2021

Wines of Portugal Madeira Part I: An Overview

The roots of Madeira's wine industry dates back to the Age of Exploration when Madeira was a regular port of call for ships traveling to the New World and East Indies. By the 16th century, records indicate that a well-established wine industry on the island was able to supply these ships with wine for the long voyages across the sea. The earliest examples of Madeira, like port, were unfortified and had the habit of spoiling at sea. Following the example of port, a small amount of distilled alcohol made from cane sugar was added to stabilize the wine by boosting the alcohol content. (The modern process of fortification using brandy did not become widespread till the 18th century). The Dutch East India Company became a regular customer, picking up large (112 gal/423 l) casks of wine known as pipes for their voyages to India. The intense heat and constant movement of the ships had a transforming effect on the wine, as discovered by Madeira producers when one shipment returned back to the island after a long trip. It was found that customers preferred the taste of this style of wine, and Madeira labeled as vinho da roda (wines that have made a round trip) became very popular. Madeira producers found that aging the wine on long sea voyages was very costly and began to develop methods on the island to produce the same aged and heated style - typically by storing the wines in special rooms known as estufas where the heat of island sun would age the wine. -- Vintage Madeira

Situated in the North Atlantic, at the same latitude as Casablanca, Madeira is a small island – less than 35 miles (55km) across at its widest point. It is also mountainous and although it benefits from a temperate and markedly Atlantic climate, it can be very humid with instances of tropical heat and high rainfall. The volcanic soils are fertile and rich in organic and acidic matter.  Vines are trained on pergolas and are usually harvested before reaching full maturation which provides wines with very high acidity levels.  

Tinta Negra Mole is the dominant grape variety used in Madeira wine production. Its name means "black soft", and 'perhaps derives from the belief that the variety is a crossing of "black" Grenache and "soft" Pinot Noir'. The grape was brought to the island after the phylloxera epidemic. Verdelho, Sercial, Terrantez (now officially renamed as Folgasao), Bual and Malvasia. The wines were often produced as varietals and labeled with the name of their respective grape variety. The word Malvasia was eventually corrupted to the English word Malmsey, and became a byword for Madeira wines. Terrantez almost became extinct on the island, although it, along with the more prestigious varieties, is now making a gradual comeback. (

Yet, the reasons for the island’s success as a wine region lie not in its terroir and grapes, but in the seafaring tradition described above. Regulations and traditions to emulate the sea voyage are encapsulated in the Madeira DOC.  The Estufagem process of making Madeira wine is used to produce the majority of Madeira wine today. This method involves applying deliberate heat to the wine in order to mimic the oxidation and aging that occurred during these historical sea voyages. An estufa is a stainless steel tank with heated pipes running through it and the wine is heated to 120°F (50°C) for approximately three months. At this point in the Estufagem process, the wine has aged to a similar point five years into the more traditional Canteiro method.

The Canteiro method involves aging the Madeira wine in large barrels placed on trestles (canteiros) that are stored in warehouses heated only by the sun (some producers have even installed large windows to let in as much sunshine as possible). A third method that splits the Estufagem and Canteiro methods consists of aging the barrels for between six and 12 months in an artificially heated warehouse ("armazem de calor").

Madeira wines are produced with various sweetness levels, from seco (dry) and meio seco (medium dry) to meio doce (medium sweet) and doce (sweet). The designations Reserve, Special Reserve, and Extra Reserve denote five, 10, and 15 years of aging respectively, while the Colheita ("harvest") is used to describe a wine from a single vintage. Vintage is the most expensive form of Madeira and must be from a single vintage and aged for more than 20 years prior to commercial release. Rainwater Madeira is a lighter style, popular in the United States and typically made from Tinta Negra Mole. 

Several importers poured a range of Madeira wines at a recent Wines of Portugal tasting.  Two wines that I particularly enjoyed were from Cossart Gordon & Co, established in 1745 and, according to their website, the oldest company in the Madeira wine trade. Under the name Newton, Gordon, Murdoch & Co., the company supplied the ferocious appetites of colonial Americans for Madeira. The Cossart family joined the firm in the early 19th century and with the passing of time slowly changed to the current name. Today the company operates under the umbrella of the Madeira Wine Company along with the popular Blandy's brand. 

After fermentation and fortification, the Cossart Gordon Bual 10 Years Old was aged in American oak casks in the traditional Canteiro system. "Over the years the wine is transferred from the top floors to the middle floors and eventually to the ground floor where it is cooler".  The acidity is still prevalent as it meanders through the complex composition of dried fruits, nuts, spices, and toffee. Wow. 

The Baul grape is also the single variety in the 2005 Cossart Gordon Colheita Baul. This is a single vintage wine that was produced using the Canteiro method described above for nine years in American oak. Interestingly the Baul grape is the same as Malvasia Fina, however, it is distinct from the Malvasia family of grapes used for Malvasia Madeira (Malmsey).  Bual grapes also require more heat to ripen than the other Madeira varieties, so the bulk of Bual vineyards are located in Madeira's warmer locations. This wine shows dense figs and prunes followed by vanilla and toffee then a sweetness offset of the abundant acidity. Excellent. 

Check back often as we cover more styles in detail with Rainwater Madeira in the queue. 

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