Madeira is a
small, mountainous island in the Atlantic Ocean. Lying 350 miles from
the coast of Morocco, the island is warm and temperate the whole year
round, and has fertile, volcanic soil.
Due to its
location, Madeira was once a port of call for sailing ships bound for
the Americas. Even today, North America is still an important market.
The Madeira vines cling to steep, terraced vineyards in coastal settings
at high altitude. Since 1993, it has been compulsory for the best
Madeiras, labelled Sercial, Verdelho, Bual or Malmsey, to be made from a
minimum of 85 per cent of the named variety. Those called seco (dry),
meio seco (medium dry), meio doce (medium rich) or doce (rich/sweet),
are made from the chameleon Tinta Negra Mole grape, which has the knack
of imitating the four 'classic' varieties.
be made in the same method as port (by stopping fermentation) or, to
produce the sweeter wines, by blending in the same manner applied to
sherry. The young wine is then put through a process unique to Madeira,
called 'Estufagem'. In the days of sailing ships, casks of Madeira were
shipped as ballast. During the slow voyage to the Indies and back, the
wine was gradually warmed up and then cooled down. The character of the
wine would change, developing a softness and toffee-like texture.
('estufas') system recreates those conditions, by slowing heating and
cooling the wines in a hot store. After Estufagem, the wines mature,
before being blended, sometimes in a solera system. Portugal's Madeira
is a hidden gem of a wine, capable of ageing fantastically. Even when
opened, the sweet styles will not really change, allowing the consumer
to enjoy the drink over a period of time, if the bottle lasts that long!