Madeiras are some of the most age worthy, stable wines produced in the world. A fortified style, aged uniquely under heat, it has dipped somewhat out of fashion since its rise to international popularity in the 1600s. But we and many other savvy collectors know just how magical these unique island wines can be (and below you will find two spectacular examples which demonstrate exactly this). However, if you aren’t yet familiar here is our guide to all things Madeira .

 

What is Madeira Wine?

A fortified wine made on the Portuguese island of Madeira, around 600 miles from Lisbon and 300 miles off the coast of Morocco. Madeira is produced in a variety of styles ranging from dry to sweet, and can be consumed alone, as an aperitif or with dessert. Unique in the addition of heat into the winemaking process, Madeira wines are remarkably long-lived.

 

History of Madeira

During the fifteenth century, the island of Madeira played a key role in global expansion as a crucial location in the transatlantic trade route. With passing ships stopping to collect fresh supplies, often in the form of barrels of wine, these barrels would then go on to make trips around the world, sometimes passing the equator four times. Upon returning to the island after one such trip, a producer found that the wine had improved considerably. Thus ‘Vinho da Roda’ or ‘round trip wines’ were born, a method practiced well into the 19th century.

 

The Climate

Due to the steep topography, many vineyards are relatively small in size and are planted on terraces known as “poios”. Vineyards can even be found at an altitude of up to 800m! To maximise the use of land, historically many grapes were planted in a pergola trellising system, or “latada”, with vegetables planted at ground level below. Today, many vineyards have converted to more modern trellising systems that improve maturation of the grapes by increased sun exposure, whilst also allowing an increase of planting density.

 

The Noble Grape Varieties

Madeira is best known for its varietal wines, which over time have come to define the style and richness of the wine. The most common single varietal grape varieties found are Sercial (producing a dry wine), Verdelho (medium dry), Bual (medium rich) and Malvasia (or Malmsey, creating a rich and sweet style).

Sercial
Sercial is grown across the island, often in medium sized bunches, with thin skins that are prone to rot. Late ripening, Sercial grapes are slow to mature and rarely achieve more than 11% alcohol before fortification. Used to produce dry wines, Sercial is best known for being light-bodied and exceptionally fresh with intense, vibrant aromas. While it begins its life as a wine pale in colour, it often darkens to amber over time.

Verdelho
Today, Verdelho makes up the largest planting on the island (47 hectares). Requiring deep soils and as one of the earlier ripening varietals, they have low yields and produce gold-coloured, medium-dry and elegant wines which have a tropical and exotic character.

Bual
Grown mainly in the southern coast of the island, Bual is planted to no more than 20 hectares. This varietal is rather vigorous but does not perform so well on the cooler, damper northern vineyards. Moderately susceptible to botrytis bunch rot, and thanks to its natural acidity to balance sweetness, Bual produces medium sweet wines that are intensely perfumed, rich in spice and dried fruit, and possess fantastic aging potential.

Malvasia (Malmsey)
A late-ripening grape variety, with naturally high levels of acidity, Malvasia produces sweet, full-bodied wines that are dark in colour and well-balanced. Rich, smooth and luscious on the palate, Malvasia single varietal wines often show great complexity with notes of dried fruit and honey, butterscotch, caramelised nuts, tropical fruits and marmalade. A young Malvasia will typically be light golden in colour and develop deep, amber tones with age.

 

The Ageing Process

The heating of wine during its unique aging process is what contributes to the magic of Madeira. While the aforementioned barrels of ‘Vinho da Roda’ embarked on round the world trips, naturally heating as they crossed the equator, producers began developing a more modern process that would replicate the heating process without leaving the island.

The Canteiro Method
The term ‘Canteiro’ derives from the name of the traditional supporting beams in the lofts of Maderia lodges where barrels were left to age. Stored in casks according to grape varietal and vintage year, wines are matured in small 550L American oak (a historic by-product of the transatlantic trade route) for a minimum of four years and are naturally heated by Madeira’s sub-tropical climate. A slow and soft process that exposes the wines to oxidation and evaporation, the Canteiro process is used to create wines of superior quality. The natural heating of the barrels over time leads to the concentration of the wine, and although this method means losing 7% of the volume per year due to evaporation, the resulting wines display the classical and desired Madeira bouquet of spices, roasted nuts, and dried fruits among others.

The Estufagem Method
Introduced in response to increased market demand, this method allows the winemaker greater control over the heating process. After fortification, wines are placed in large tanks called ‘Estufas’ and gently warmed to 45 degrees over a four-month period using a system of hot water jackets around the tanks. After the fourth month, the wines are gradually cooled before being left to age for two years in larger vats.

 

Labelling Terms

Wines with a minimum of 85% single varietal from the four noble grapes are typically labelled based on the number of years they have been aged for:
Reserve – aged for a minimum of five years.
Special Reserve – aged for minimum ten years.
Extra Reserve – aged for over fifteen years, although many producers extend this to twenty years.
Colheita or Harvest – wines from a single vintage, aged for a minimum of five years.
Vintage or Frasqueira – minimum of nineteen years in barrel and one year in bottle.

 

Two Top Picks

MCDXIX ‘The Winemakers Selection’ Magnum, in a hand-crafted wooden case with certification
£4,160 IB | CELEBRATING 600 YEARS OF HISTORY


To celebrate 600 years since the discovery of the Madeira archipelago, Blandy’s have crafted a wine that too can stand the test of time. With just 600 magnums bottled, and integrating some of the best and oldest vintages from the family holdings, it’s a truly unique chance to own a little piece of history in your cellar.

Specially created from wines spanning three centuries, MCDXIX ‘The Winemakers Selection’ is as memorable as it is delicious. A medium-sweet style, MCDXIX is complex and sensory; deep amber in hue with pronounced notes of Brazil nuts and rich caramel on the nose, there is a balance between the concentration of age with the freshness of youth. A natural steely acidity and touch of salinity from the ocean influence in the vineyards gives the wine wonderful poise, this multi-layered wine has come together seamlessly.

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1920 Bual ‘Heritage Collection’ (2020 bottling)
£1,514 IB | 100 YEARS OF AGEING, JUST 1,199 BOTTLES RELEASED

The 1920 Bual is one of the family’s most iconic wines. Crafted in a world reeling from war and other uncertainties, it is a testament to the hard work of Madeirans working on the island at the time. Over the last century, various bottlings of the 1920 Bual have been released, each with their own unique bottling style naturally evolved by heat, humidity, cask size and location within the Blandy’s Funchal Lodge. The 2020 bottling sets a landmark for Blandy’s, aged for 100-years in American oak casks, followed by time in glass demijohns.

Only 1,199 individually numbered bottles were released of this centennial wine which offers great complexity and depth. Intensity on the nose reveals a dry fruit bouquet, exotic spices, vanilla and smoked notes mixed with cedar oil and balsams. On the palate it’s concentrated and powerful, medium sweet, very balanced and soft, with an incredible finish that goes on and on.

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