A Rich Pour - Column No. 2: Madeira - A Magical and Majestic Wine (Part 1)

As a vinous accompaniment to the smoking of tobacco, the fortified wine of Madeira presently lives very much in the shadow of its more widely appreciated Portuguese 'cousin' from Oporto. Yet the unique qualities of Madeira actually make it ideal for pairing with fine cigars.

Madeira represents one of the world's longest-lived viticultural products. With the potential to remain vibrant and enjoyably drinkable well beyond 100 years or more of age, it has few if any vinous challengers in terms of longevity. Given the intricacies of its history and vinification, it is little wonder that some count Madeira amongst the most complex of fortified wines.

Forged from the ocean floor

The remote outpost of Madeira comprises part of the Madeira archipelago, a group of islands that also includes Porto Santo as well as the uninhabited, and appropriately named, Desertas Islands. Madeira lies 435 miles off the North African coastline, roughly due west of Casablanca.

The Ilha da Madeira, or 'island of wood', lies 435 miles off the North African coastline.

Volcanic in origin, Madeira rose 20,000 feet upward from the bed of the Atlantic Ocean some 20 million years ago. Once the eruptions had subsided and the molten lava had cooled, a precipitous land mass, approximately 35 miles long and 13 miles wide, remained. The island's highest point, later to be named the Pico Ruivo, or 'Purple Peak', scaled over sixty-one hundred feet above the seas waves.


Despite its isolated location out in the Atlantic, Madeira had long been known and charted by seafaring venturers. During the 3rd Century B.C., the Carthaginian empire sphere of influence extended westward to include the island. Spanish as well as African travelers came upon both Madeira and the Canary Islands during the 1st Century A.D. And Italian and Arab explorers knew of Madeiras existence some time afterward. Genoese voyagers viewed the Atlantic archipelago from their vessels in the mid 1300s, while Arabs of that era often referred to the principal island of the group as djazirat al Ghanam, or 'island of sheep'.

In the early 15th Century, two expeditionary Portuguese men, Joao Goncalves Zarco and Tristao Vaz Teixera, set foot on the eastern shoreline of Madeira at Machico with their crew, and laid claim to the island in honor of Prince Henry the Navigator and the Crown of Portugal. They and their men encountered one vast, steep forest rising from the waters up into the cloudy mists, so it is not surprising they christened this place Ilha da Madeira, or 'island of wood'.


Madeira's remoteness made it the perfect site for sequestering undesirables. Prince Henry therefore promptly proceeded to send refugees, slaves and even condemned criminals to settle the island. These outcasts of Portuguese society carried sugar cane from Sicily and Malvoisie (later to be known as Malvasia or Malmsey) grapevines, as well as vines from Monomvasia in Crete and from Cyprus, in their ships' holds.

On landing and constructing living quarters, the new arrivals faced monumental tasks. They went about deforesting large portions of the island through the setting of localized fires in order to free up arable land. But the cleared areas remained too steep for easy cultivation, and the settlers were thus forced to build countless thousands of poios, or terraces, by hand. These terraces were in turn fed by an ingeniously installed system of levadas, or irrigation channels. The levadas, besides bringing water down from the mountainous heights above, provided the only pathways to the upper reaches of the island.

After being planted, crops soon flourished in Madeira's rich volcanic soils and benign climate. With the arrival of more settlers during the 15th Century, the city of Funchal on the south side of the island came into existence. Funchal is, today, the capital of Madeira.

Grapevines and wines

The first wines produced on Madeira were un-fortified and rather coarse. Yet by 1460, they were well known in Europe, and the earliest documentation on the continent mentioning Madeira wines dates from 1485.

By the 1500s, three other noble grape varietals had been introduced to the island - most likely by Jesuits from the mainland - and planted alongside the Malvasia, or Malmsey. These three were the Cercal, or Sercial, of Germany (known in its homeland today as the Riesling), the Verdia, or Verdelho (possibly related to the Pedro Ximénez of Jerez, or perhaps from Tuscany), and the Boal, or Bual.

During this period, the Negra Mole - thought by some to be the Pinot Noir of Burgundy, and an early forerunner of the contemporary Tinta Negra Mole - was also introduced. Other legendary and now almost extinct vines brought to the island were the Terrantez, Moscatel - famous in Portugal's Setubal region - and Bastardo.

The British influence

It was during the 1600s, and largely because of the British, that Madeira really rose to prominence in the wine world. In 1654, as part of the peace treaty which marked the cessation of war between England and Portugal, Portugal was compelled by Cromwell to extend special privileges to the English citizenry of the island. This measure almost immediately led to the establishment of a group of Madeira 'houses', or centralized cellars, many of which survive to this very day.

In 1663, Charles II decreed that all European produce destined for the Colonies in the Americas and West Indies must be carried on English ships sailing from English ports. This decree resulted in an economic windfall for Madeira and its populace, as many European merchants diverted their shipping operations to the island in order to circumvent the logistical and financial constraints of the English edict.
A Madeira such as this 5 Year Old Bual offers
a rich taste experience at an affordable price.

An accidental advantage

The 17th Century Madeira shipping boom saw innumerable boats heading out to sea, bound for the New World. Along with their primary cargo, these ships carried casks upon casks of the tiny island's wine, often used simply as ballast. The wines were exposed not only to severe heat, but also to considerable oxidation and continuous motion, as they crossed the equator on their way to the Americas.

Surprisingly, the Madeira wine so 'abused' was discovered to taste more mellow and of better quality than it had prior to commencing its journey. Colonists soon developed an insatiable taste for the wine, and took to drinking it in copious quantities. The Americans, in particular, delighted in this 'baked' Madeira, and even began to export it back to Europe.

Other ships which had embarked on return voyages to the West Indies also toted casks of Madeira along for the 'ride'. Once the Europeans discerned that this 'vinho da roda', or wine which had crossed the equator twice, was the finest of all, the fame of Madeira was guaranteed.

Fortification and the hot house effect

The 18th Century represented an era of vigorous competition, volatility and even open conflict amongst the nations of Europe. From the time of Queen Anne's reign in England, this was a dangerous period for commercial shippers.

The Madeira wine merchants, their numbers augmented by a further influx of British companies and their vineyard yields swollen as a result of sugar cane crops having been abandoned in favor of grapevines, became saddled with rapidly growing stocks of wine. As a matter of necessity, they took to distilling a portion and using it to fortify and preserve the remainder. This step simultaneously helped to stabilize the wine so that it might better endure long seas voyages. However, Napoleon's naval blockade of the late 1700s rendered return trans-Atlantic crossings virtually impossible.

Madeira vintners worried that lack of access to the traditional ship payload process might seriously endanger the critical heating and oxidation which had become so entwined in the making of the wine. As well, they ruefully noted the approximately 15% volume loss of wine so transported due to ullage and pilfering - ships' crews were not beyond drinking their 'fair share'!

It therefore seemed entirely natural to seek an alternative method of mellowing the Madeira. Some credit an anonymous Portuguese abbot who decided to stash his casks in a glasshouse in 1794, while others cite Pantaleo Fernandes, a merchant who began to force-heating the buildings in which his wine rested. Either way, the vintners of Madeira discovered a practical, land-based manner in which to mimic the trans-equator shipping effect.
A rare Late 18th Century bottle of Madeira and an old rendition of an
estufa, where casks of the island's wine were stored in warm conditions

Prosperity and prominence

At last, the island of Madeira seemed destined to achieve prolonged prosperity and renown. Its wine was now being enjoyed by many, including the American founding fathers. Indeed, the signing of the Declaration of Independence was toasted with goblets filled with Madeira. George Washington consumed a pint with his dinner practically every evening. And Napoleon carried casks of the famous 1792 vintage with him when exiled to the island of Santa Helena. Strangely enough, those casks which remained untapped by Napoleon eventually found their way back to Funchal, and were bottled by Blandy in 1840.

As in the mainland region of Porto in the Douro valley, the Portuguese-British connection continued to flourish, thereby assuring a burgeoning export trade and greater financial security for the people of Madeira. In fact, as the 1700s came to a close, the wine of Madeira eclipsed Port in popularity amongst the British.

Tiny vineyards and tight markets

Despite ready markets, a benign climate and rich soils, Madeira still struggled to attain viticultural paradise through to the 20th Century. Its total vineyard area barely covered 5,000 acres. And of this, some 90% was divided into small, scattered plots. Many of these vineyards had been planted with the substandard Tinta Negra Mole following the disastrous spread of phylloxera during the 1870s. The juice of this grape variety provided for the majority of the islands lesser quality wine, most of this being bottled for immediate consumption or else shipped off in bulk to western European restaurant kitchens.

The island also lagged well behind the Douro valley in terms of vineyard ownership, with it being extraordinarily rare to find one of the major Madeira houses actually growing its own grapes. Instead, the Madeira firms operated under contractual arrangements with more than 8,000 local farmers. Moreover, rising labor costs, as well as Portugals transitional entry into the European Economic Community during the late 1980s and early 1990s, created further difficulties.

These factors, combined with the inescapable reality that planting, maintaining and harvesting noble grape varieties in the terraced vineyards of Madeira was far more expensive to carry out than in either the Douro (Port) or Jerez (Sherry) regions, had a dampening effect on the local wine industry. Between 1972 and 1985, the islands wine exports declined by approximately 40%.

Meeting the challenge

In spite of the 'doom and gloom' aspects of Madeira wine production over the latter portion of the 20th Century, some positive measures did take place.

On the practical front, great progress was made - largely owing to an aid program set in motion by the Portuguese government in 1972 - in planting new, more disease-resistant and higher-quality grafted vines. The total quantity of grape must pressed from these 'noble' European grafted vines then began to increase. And the completion of a massive bottling complex on the island enabled more wine to be bottled at source, rather than being shipped off-island in bulk.

In addition, nine firms banded together to form the Madeira Wine Company, an umbrella organization accounting for over half of all wine exported from the island. Acting in concert with the Instituto do Vinho da Madeira, an effective monitor of the quality of the island's wines, the Madeira Wine Company managed to promote the image of Madeira as a worthy alternative to other fortified wines from around the globe.

Some of the better-known firms producing Madeira on the island include Blandy brothers, Cossart Gordon, Henriques & Henriques (also supplying to Harveys), Leacock, Lomelino, Rutherford & Miles, and Shortridge Lawton.

Climate and soil

Most of Madeira's territory basks beneath an even climate, with temperatures usually registering between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Only the northern portion of the island evidences wider, though by no means excessive, fluctuations, with hotter and drier spells from July to September, and cooler, wetter Januarys and Februarys.

The fact that true winter weather never occurs can, however, lead to problems. The grapevines, prone to premature shooting, often require extra pruning. And the humid conditions which frequently prevail necessitate year-round spraying to combat mildew as well as various other fungal and viral diseases.

Nonetheless, the land itself is tremendously fertile. Tufa, a mixture of broken-down lava and ancient vegetative matter interspersed with dense, dark volcanic stones, covers much of the soil base. As tufa is able to retain enormous quantities of water sourced from the moist atmosphere which often shrouds the island's heights, it acts like an immense reservoir.

Vegetation and vehicles

On Madeira, plants and trees are almost everywhere. At high altitudes, one can find pine, heather, mimosa and acacia. From approximately 1,000 feet to some 2,500 feet of altitude, there are grapevines, plums, apples, maize, wheat, oats and barley. Lower down, vines, bananas, lemons, avocados, mangoes, figs and custard apples thrive. Passion fruit and sugar cane are even planted as windbreaks! However, grapes, bananas and sugar cane comprise the primary agricultural crops.

Traditionally, the only way to traverse the island's severely undulating topography was by foot or on horseback. However, since the mid 1950s, construction of a series of twisting mountain roads has facilitated transportation around Madeira. Slowly but surely, Madeira has entered the modern era.

Tinta Negra Mole and Terrantez

The ubiquitous, darkly hued Tinta Negra Mole grape is responsible for the contents of many of the less pricey bottles of Madeira which have been available in the marketplace. However, the wine it produces has a limited capacity for improving with further maturation, and is nowhere near as nuanced as the finer wines vinified from the noble grape varieties. Madeira made from the Tinta Negra Mole is therefore normally released at a relatively young age.

As labor expenses on the island have spiraled upward, growers have been persuaded by both the Portuguese government and the Madeira houses to replant their Tinta Negra Mole vines with the costlier to maintain, but more noble, varieties.

A few other dark-skinned grape varieties occasionally encountered on the island are the Bastardo, Terrantez Preto, Tinta da Madeira and Malvasia Roxa.

At the opposite end of the quality spectrum from the Tinta Negra Mole, the pale Terrantez produces an incredibly substantial and aromatic wine. But owing to the fact that its vine and grapes are very prone to diseases, the Terrantez now exists in only a few isolated plots on the island. Old bottles of Vintage Terrantez demand huge sums of money whenever they appear at auction.
Malmsey... The sweetest of Madeiras

The four noble grape varieties

Today, four principal varieties of grapes provide must (juice) for the better Madeira wines. All of these are 'white' grapes. The wines they produce range in flavor from very dry to lusciously sweet.

The Sercial grape, related to the Riesling of German and Alsatian fame, displays a yellow-green hue, is quite small and, as cultivated in Madeira, possesses a pronounced, bitter, lingering taste. Planted on the higher slopes at between 2,000 and 3,300 feet of elevation, where the ambient temperature is cooler, the Sercial requires a long growing season to fully ripen. It is therefore normally ready to pick only in late September or early October, making it the last of the noble varieties to be harvested.

Costs involved in cultivating the Sercial are substantial - roughly 30% greater than for the other noble varieties, and fully 50% more than for the Tinta Negra Mole. Accounting for barely 10% of the islands wine grape harvest, the Sercial makes a very dry and crisp style of Madeira.

The Verdelho grape seems to thrive at a slightly lower level than the Sercial, and is generally found at between 1,300 and 2,600 feet of altitude. Like Sercial, Verdelho only makes up about 10% of the total harvest. The Madeira it produces may be a tad sweeter and fuller, yet remains quite dry overall.

The Bual and Malmsey grapes flourish further down the mountain slopes, from some 1,300 feet of altitude descending right to sea level. Most of the Malmsey grapevines are sited on the southern side of the island, where a warmer microclimate exists.

Bual Madeira is the top seller amongst wines made from the four noble varieties. Though even richer and riper in taste than a typical Verdelho wine, it nonetheless tends to dryness at the finish, owing to a strong acidic backbone. Malmsey grapes produce the most concentrated as well as the sweetest Madeira readily available today.

No matter the grape, however, the vines are trained to rise up and over the heads of the growers, in arbors. This method assures greater exposure to sunlight as well as freeing up the space underneath for other fruits and vegetables.

Books and articles consulted in the preparation of Madeira - A Magical and Majestic Wine

Atkins, Susy. "Some Enchanted Island", Decanter Magazine, November 1997
Broadbent, Michael. "A Wine of Almost Indestructible Nature", Decanter Magazine, June 1984
Brook, Stephen. "Hot and Bothered", Decanter Magazine, November 1996
Durant, Will. "The Story of Civilization - Volume III: Caesar and Christ", Simon and Schuster, New York, 1944
-- "The Story of Civilization - Volume VI: The Reformation", Simon and Schuster, New York, 1957
Ioacca, Pasquale. "Those Mysterious Portuguese Table Wines", The Friends of Wine Magazine, February/March 1986
Johnson, Hugh. "The World Atlas of Wine", Simon and Schuster, New York 1977
Lord, Tony. "An Island Who's Who", Decanter Magazines Guide To Madeira, 2nd Edition, Decanter magazine, 1987
-- "Burnt Wines From The Island That Burned", Decanter Magazine, June 1984
-- "Marvellous Madeiras", Decanter magazine, December 1985
-- "Ringing The Changes", Decanter Magazines Guide To Madeira, 2nd Edition, Decanter Magazine, 1987
Mayson, Richard. "Does Anyone Know How to Make Madeira?", Decanter Magazine, May 1991
Pamment, David. "An Intricate Art", Decanter Magazines Guide To Madeira, 2nd Edition, Decanter Magazine, 1987
Parnell, Colin. Madeira - "The Mysterious Wine", Decanter Magazine, February 1988
Pigott, Stuart. "Too Many Cooks?", Decanter Magazine, November 1991
Read, Jan. "The Wines of Portugal", Faber and Faber, London England, 1982
Simon, André. "André Simon's Wines of the World", 2nd Edition by Serena Sutcliffe, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1981
Thomas, Veronica. "Madeira, Like Its Wine, Improves With Age", National Geographic Magazine, April 1973

In his next and concluding installment, Madeira - A Magical and majestic Wine (Part 2), Doug focuses on the vinification, maturation, styles and consumption of Madeira, as well as on how ideally it complements the smoking of a fine cigar.



Doug Kuebler (Jazznut) is an inveterate aficionado and collector of wines and whiskies from around the world. Doug has organized wine and food seminars, and written extensively on wines and liquors. His latest book set, The Tumbler's Guide to Single Malt Scotch Whisky: Desk Reference and Field Guide, is available from Topeda Hill Publishing.