What Is Madeira Wine?

Glass of madeira wine and bottle

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Madeira is a long-lasting fortified wine that is made on a small Portuguese island of the same name. It is often served as an aperitif or dessert wine depending on the level of sweetness and is used in cooking, especially for making sauces. Madeira tends to have a rich flavor with nutty and caramel notes. Since it is fortified with brandy, it is a high alcohol wine. Madeira is classified according to a number of designations, including vintage, grapes used, and sweetness. There are a few variations on the production method, but Madeira must be oxidized and heated (a process called "maderization," named after the wine). This makes for a fortified wine that can last for centuries.

Fast Facts

  • Regions: Madeira
  • Origin: Madeira, Portugal
  • Sweetness: Dry to sweet
  • Color: Dark caramel to deep amber
  • ABV: 19% 

Madeira vs. Marsala

Madeira and Marsala wine are frequently mistaken for each other thanks to their similar names, flavor profiles, and uses. Marsala is a fortified wine made in Sicily that is subject to similarly strict regulations to ensure quality and is also classified by its sweetness, grapes, and vintage. Marsala is not, however, subjected to forced oxidization like Madeira, and an open bottle will last about a month rather than a year. The two can often be substituted for each other in cooking as well as when served as an aperitif or dessert wine. Select a similar quality Marsala that has the same level of sweetness.

Taste and Flavor Profile

Madeira wine is available in varying levels of sweetness: seco (dry), meio seco (medium dry), meio doce (medium sweet), and doce (sweet). Most Madeiras have at least some sweet notes thanks to the maderization process. All Madeira is subjected to heat to develop its signature caramel notes and extend its shelf life. Mass-produced Madeiras use estufa, large tanks that heat the wine consistently for three months. This simulates a longer process but can produce a burnt flavor. High-end Madeiras are aged in oak barrels in a heated room for several years, with some makers using only solar heat.

In addition to rich notes of caramel, honey, and brown sugar, Madeira is often nutty, herby, spicy, earthy, with flavors of orange peel, coffee, and dried fruit. Thanks to much of the ocean side location of many vineyards, the wine also has hints of salinity. The nose tends to carry caramelized notes at the forefront. The medium-bodied wine is medium to low in tannins, depending on the grapes used and its hue.

Grapes and Wine Regions

Authentic Madeira is only made on the small Portuguese island of Madeira. The grapes come from the island and from mainland Portugal and vary in growing conditions and harvest seasons. The island of Madeira is incredibly hilly, creating steep, rugged vineyards with volcanic soil. Some Madeiras use a blend of grapes, while others are considered single varietal. The most common include:

  • Tinta Negra: A red grape widely planted on the island, Tinta Negra produces citrus and nutty notes. It is the most common grape but is not considered as high quality as the other varieties.
  • Malmsey: A white grape that produces a rich, sweet Madeira with burnt sugar and savory notes, Malmsey is best serve with dessert.
  • Bual: A white grape that enjoys warmer weather, Bual makes a medium sweet wine with raisin, caramel, and vanilla flavors. It pairs well with a dessert cheese plate.
  • Verdelho: A white grape that commonly produces medium-dry to medium-sweet Madeira, Verdelho retains some acidity and has a mellow lemon and honey palette with hay aromas.
  • Sercial: A white grape that produces the driest Madeira, Sercial grapes grow at high elevation. The resulting wine is pale, dry, and acidic with flavors of peach and walnut.

Madeira also comes in varying quality classifications:

  • Good for Cooking: Use "rainwater," a medium-dry and light Madeira made with Tinta Negra grapes that are aged three years, or "finest," aged three years using the estufa method, for cooking.
  • Good for Drinking: When serving Madeira for sipping, select "reserve," which must be aged at least five years and can be used as an aperitif or cooking, or "special reserve," which is aged 10 years and is often single-varietal. "Extra reserve" is aged at least 15 years using traditional methods and is also good for sipping.
  • Special: If you're looking for top shelf, "Colheita" is a single vintage that is cask-aged 12-18 years. "Frasqueira" is the highest valued Madeira made entirely from one vintage year, 100 percent single grape variety, and aged a minimum of 20 years (but often much longer).

Food Pairings

Madeira food pairings depend greatly on the type and sweetness of the wine. Dry Madeira makes a good aperitif and pairs nicely with creamy soups like lobster bisque, rich sheep's milk cheeses, and fatty meat like duck confit. Sweet Madeira makes a lovely dessert wine similar to port, and pairs well with desserts like a rich chocolate tart or spice cake with caramel frosting.

Serve Madeira in a port glass or a standard white wine glass. Dry Madeira should be served chilled while sweet varieties should be served at room temperature.

Key Producers, Brands, and Buying Tips

Madeira is available at high-end liquor stores and wine shops. If you don't find it in your local store, ask them to order you a bottle, specifying the sweetness, vintage, and grape you would like. Higher-end bottles can be harder to find in stores but are available online. If you can't find Madeira, try a Marsala or sherry with similar sweetness.

  • Blandy's
  • Broadbent
  • The Rare Wine Co.
  • Justino Henriques
  • D’Oliveira
  • Barbeito
  • Cossart
  • Henriques & Henriques