Madeira is a fortified white wine that is available in several different styles of dry/sweet variations. There are four principle grape varietals that are recruited to make the best Madeira wines (Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, Malmsey). The base white wine is fortified with neutral grape spirits at differing points of fermentation, depending on the level of sweetness the maker is going for (the sweeter the Madeira, the earlier in fermentation the base wine was fortified).
Madeira is unique because it is not only fortified but oxidized and “cooked,” (technically referred to as "estufagem") making for a fairly indestructible wine option. In fact, the term “maderization” refers to the process of oxidizing and heating wine. Madeira is typically an amber colored gem with caramel, nutty flavors.
Grapes and Styles of Madeira Wine
- Sercial – Sercial is a white wine grape that is used to produce a dry style of Madeira. Serve this style of Madeira as an aperitif with salty foods, almonds, walnuts, assorted olives, soups that are heavy on broth and the like.
- Verdelho – Verdelho is a white wine grape used to make a semi-dry variation of Madeira. Serve a Verdelho with richer appetizers like prosciutto, fancy mushroom dishes or caviar.
- Bual - Bual is a white grape that makes a semi-sweet Madeira. Consider serving Bual as a dessert wine with fruit-based or caramel desserts.
- Malmsey – Malmsey is a white grape that typically registers sweet when made into Madeira. A Malmsey Madeira is the richest, most full-bodied Madeira style and makes for an excellent dessert wine on many fronts. Consider pairing a Malmsey Madeira with cheesecake, tiramisu, crème brulee or dark chocolate-based desserts.
- Madeira - A "generic" Madeira labeling basically denotes that the wine is not made from one of the four key noble grape varietals. It will also typically come with a label "hint" as to whether you can expect it to be sweet (doce), dry (seco) or somewhere in between (meio doce — "medium sweet").
Madeira Wine Aging Classifications
- Finest - aged for a mere three years.
- Reserve - aged for five years.
- 10 and 15 year - as the name implies — aged for 10 or 15 years.
- Vintage - dated for a specific year.
The History of Madeira Wine
Madeira has a fascinating history and is well known for being a favorite wine “toasting” option for America's Founding Fathers. To begin with, the island of Madeira served as a well-known port for various shipping routes going to and from the New World.
England had specific legislation (“The British Navigation Act”) in place that ultimately prevented the exportation of wine (and other goods) to British colonies in the New World unless it came on a British vessel and originated from a British port of call. The island of Madeira was exempt from this pesky law and Madeira became a “staple” wine on the vessels bound for the American colonies.
Madeira was soon to become one of the Founding Father’s favorite wines to toast such monumental occasions as the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s inauguration, the celebration of establishing Washington D.C. as the nation’s capital and so on. What is really fascinating about Madeira, is that for a price, you can still acquire a Madeira that has a vintage date back to the colonial era!