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Madeira: One of the world’s great fortified wines

One of the great fortified wines of the world, Madeira has been disappearing from view but is positioning itself to make a comeback.

A fortified wine from Portuguese Madeira Islands

Madeira comes from the eponymous subtropical, volcanic Atlantic island, world-famous for its diversity of flora and fauna, which was appropriated by Portugal in 1419 as part of the country’s colonial project. Madeira is one of the world’s three great fortified wines, alongside Port (from Douro Valley, Portugal) and Sherry (from Jerez, Spain) and, just like them, is a unique product impossible to reproduce elsewhere. Near-perfect growing conditions deliver high-quality grapes, the vines imparted with ephemeral ocean influences. Madeira wine has a long (and disrupted) history spanning six centuries and today finds itself, as with other traditional drinks, trying to reassert itself in contemporary gastronomic culture.

Madeira’s capital city Funchal

The Portuguese introduced the vine to the island, and there is evidence of wine being exported, though sugar cane was the most important crop. However, from 1570 onwards, the Portuguese colony of Brazil became a much cheaper source of sugar cane, and vines became Madeira’s principal crop. Madeira’s capital city, Funchal, served as a convenient stopping-off point for ships before they crossed the Atlantic. Wine was included in the ship rations as well as for trading opportunities, and the barrels that were loaded onto ships served also as ballasts. But something unexpected was to happen. It was discovered that the pitching and rolling on the ocean, in conjunction with the heat of the sun, transformed the wine into something quite special. From then on, casks were deliberately shipped out to the tropics and then back to Madeira, whereby the wine became known as vinho da roda or tornaviagem (“return journey wine”).

Barrel aged Canteiro method 

Experimentation into fortification and amelioration of table wine on dry land began, and in 1794 the first estufa was created. This process of controlled heating allowed for the creation of something close to the taste of the Madeira of the high seas, but now achieved in a more consistent manner. However, higher-quality wine is produced according to the canteiro method, whereby wine is aged for at least two years in barrels stacked in the warmest rooms at the top of the lodge.

Madeira red, white and sweet

Today, a dynamic tourism market is important for interest in and sales of Madeira, and there are many opportunities to visit Madeira lodges and attend tastings in downtown Funchal. Júlio Fernandes (of Madeira producer Justino’s) adds that the demographic is moving from tourists in their sixties staying in hotels to a more vibrant cohort of thirty- or forty-year-olds enjoying a more dynamic Airbnb-style experience. He adds that technological innovation in Madeira production – while not reinventing it – can serve to, for example, preserve fresh fruit aromas and even “improve” Madeira and attract a younger audience. There’s also a move towards the production of table wine, which Dr Jamie Goode founder of influential, believes is a way to make interesting wine “without the cashflow issue of ageing a wine for twenty years”. Certainly, producers Barbeito and Justino’s have been experimenting with high-quality (white) table wine, perhaps riding on the mounting success of volcanic wines such as those of Sicily. Nelson Calado of Madeira Wine Company says that his firm’s first foray into table wine was 1992, and he believes that the table wine movement serves as a wonderful affirmation of Madeira as a wine region “par excellence”.

Notes about availability

The Madeira Wine Company, an association which incorporates Blandy’s, is represented in Hong Kong by Fine Vintage, and in Macau by Vino Veritas.

Text Annabel Jackson / Photos WESSIELING