Madeira's dizzying slopes are not the traditional setting for wine planting. The orography of the island does not allow great explorations, which forces producers to focus on quality rather than quantity: "they are few, but good", as popular wisdom says. Madeira Wine has a checkered and fascinating history and a promising future.
First, a little history lesson. The island of Madeira was discovered in 1419 by Portuguese navigators in the middle of the Golden Age of Discovery. Land until then practically intact by civilization, the first crops introduced into Madeiran soil were wheat, sugar cane, and vines. According to historical accounts, the first grape variety planted in Madeira was Malvasia Candida, imported from the Greek island of Crete at the request of Prince Henry the Navigator. Later other grape varieties were introduced, such as Sercial, Boal, Verdelho, and Terrantez.
By the sixteenth century, Madeira's wine industry began to gain notoriety, supplying wine to the American colonies and taking advantage of Madeira's geographical location as a stopover on long sea voyages between Europe and America. To prevent the product from deteriorating during the trip, distilled cane alcohol was added to the wine, stabilizing it. However, maritime transport had another side effect: the high temperatures at which the barrels were stored in the holds of the ships transformed the wine, giving it unique characteristics. This aging process is what distinguishes Madeira wine and makes it so appreciated.
Madeira comes from steep basaltic and volcanic soils, rich in acids and minerals such as iron and magnesium, which together with the proximity of the sea produce wines of great acidity and salinity. Most Madeiran wines these days are made from the Tinta Negra grape variety, while the white grapes used – the so-called "nobles" – are Malvasía, Bual, Verdelho, and Sercial. The Terrantez grape variety is also used, although less frequently. The harvest is carried out almost exclusively by hand, with traditional methods.
After fermentation, Madeira enters an aging process called Estufagem. The wine is exposed to heat and air to recreate the tropical climate of the sea trips of yesteryear. There are several methods of estufagem. The most traditional and time-consuming, reserved for the finest Madeira, is the Canteiro. This method consists of storing the wine in wooden barrels exposed to the heat of the sun, aging the wine naturally for many years. This process gives the wine legendary stability. Even an open bottle retains its properties unchanged for several decades. It is a wine that is said to be "indestructible".
Madeira is largely produced with Tinta Negra, the most widely grown grape variety in Madeira. However, this used to be associated with inferior quality, being relegated to a second class behind the so-called "noble" varieties. Tinta Negra in Madeira was used in secret, and its reference on labels was prohibited. In recent years the popularity of this variety for more sophisticated wines has grown. Today the Tinta Negra is accepted at the same level as the so-called "nobles" and already appears in a prominent place on labels, such as the Barbeito Single Harvest Tinta Negra 2007. The traditional styles of Madeira are homonymous with the 4 "noble" grape varieties that compose them: Sercial (dry), Verdelho (half-dry), Bual (half sweet), Malvasia (sweet). The Terrantez, with a degree of sweetness between the Verdelho and the Bual, is less frequent because this variety was about to become extinct on the island.
It is also important to mention the Rainwater, a style highly appreciated especially in North America. Rainwater is lighter than traditional Madeira wine, half dry, and is usually a mixture of Tinta Negra and Verdelho. Legend has it that it is named for an incident involving a shipment of Madeira wine destined for the American colonies that were improperly stored on a dock and diluted by rain. The merchants, realizing what happened, sold the cargo as a "new style" of Madeira wine and were surprised at its great popularity. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Madeira wine is usually considered an aperitif and/or a digestive and is consumed as such. Even so, its different styles, which mix sweetness and high acidity, go very well with sweet desserts, cheeses, and hot dishes, even citrus or balsamic. For a unique time travel experience, look for a Madeira Frasqueira aged 20, 30, 40, or over.