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Marvellous Madeira

Richard Wilson

Posted on December 02 2015

The perfect wine to sip by a crackling fire over the festive season, Madeira is also a small island in the Atlantic which, although nearly 1000km from the mainland, is part of Portugal. It gives its name to the fortified wine produced there which is unique in a variety of ways. 

Historically, wine has been cultivated on Madeira for nearly 500 years, and for the first half of that, it was fairly average unfortified wine. Being a convenient port for European traders, particularly British, ships stocked up on the wine in the 17th century and took it to India as it was probably the last stop where wine could be obtained. It was found that the wine which spent months cooking in tropical temperatures, swilling around in the hold somehow tasted much better than when it was fresh. So the winemakers started to mature it on the island over long periods in the roasting hot eaves of their lodges; giving it rich, baked fruit aromas. This simulated the lengthy, hot journeys and also made the wine extremely resilient, as anything that could happen to it, had happened.

Marvellous Madeira

Styles of Madeira don’t vary hugely in the same way Sherry does. There are drier and sweeter styles, but they all have a little bit of sweetness to counter the brisk acidity. The quality however varies a lot; there is a lot of bulk Madeira made in huge tanks which is usually used in cooking. At the next level are the three year old Madeiras, which have a minimal maturation and are perfectly good quaffing wines. After that there are the five year old reserves, of which we stock the dry, sweet and medium styles. The D’Oliveiras ones we stock are aged traditionally in wooden casks and show plenty of complexity and richness. Next up, the 10 year old reserves; these are fully aged in cask, have a deep brown colour and have very warming baked fruit flavours and aromas.

The Colheita/harvest Madeiras are single varietal wines which are either aged for more than 20 years, or have the concentration to do so. They have to come from one of the ‘noble’ grape varieties, all of which have their own characteristics, usually tied to acidity and sweetness. Madeiras which have any of the following varietal names on are generally the best the island has to offer:

Verdelho: Generally makes a medium-dry style, aromatic Madeira. Equally good starting a meal off or finishing it, Verdelho Madeiras are some of the most versatile. Try the sublime 1994 vintage.

Marvellous Madeira

Malmsey/Malvazia: Tends to make the sweeter, pudding wine styles, but retains a decent acidity. We have a lovely 1996 vintage.

Boal/Bual: Medium sweet and sweet styles are made with the slightly unfortunate sounding Boal (pron. Bowel)

Sercial: The highest acidity variety which makes a distinctive, fresh, dry style apéritif wine. Treat yourself to the 1971 vintage

Terrantez & Bastardo: Both varieties are really quite rare and only produced in tiny amounts. The nature of Madeira being basically indestructible means that there are a fair amount of bottles made over the last couple of centuries that exist still and are quite drinkable. Both tend to be medium dry. We stock a great 1988 Terrantez.

There are Madeiras for all occasions and many go well with food if not in food, such as Madeira cake. All of our shops will have a selection of styles and ages open to try in the run up to Christmas so do come in and discover the marvels of Madeira!

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