Madeira's wine-making process is very unique
Although the volcanic Madeira Islands are closer to Marrakech than to Lisbon, Madeira’s wine-making culture is very much Portuguese. Madeira makes two types of wine. The most famous, their fortified wine, is the one this article will address. Production of unfortified wine (table wine) has sky-rocketed 500% in the last decade and these table wines are rapidly improving in quality. Table wines from Madeira, however, will be handled on this Blog separately in a future article.
The Islands of Madeira have a long and illustrious wine-making history, dating back to the Age of Exploration when Madeira was a standard port of call for ships heading from Portugal or Spain to the New World or East Indies. Madeira wines, as well as the island’s tropical fruits, were loaded on ships for trade. The wine we know today as Madeira was an accident.
The sea voyage was long, arduous, and hot. To prevent wine from spoiling winemakers copied the practice of Port producers and added a little brandy to prevent spoilage. On one of the trips, however, a wine shipment went unsold so the kegs returned to Madeira after several months of a round-trip journey. What was in the barrels was very different. Months of tropical heat had transformed the wine’s flavor. Locals very much enjoyed the new tasting beverage…and the rest is history.
Today Madeira is noted for its unique wine-making process which involves heating the wine. What also makes Madeira production unique is the aging process, meant to duplicate the effect of a long sea voyage through tropical climates. There are three main methods used to heat and age the wine.
- Cuba de Calor: Used for inexpensive Madeira, this process is for bulk aging done in stainless steel or concrete vats. The tanks are heated to temperatures of 115-130 degrees Farenheit for a minimum of 90 days.
- Armazem de Calor: The second process more gently exposes the wine to heat and can last from six months to > one year. Think sauna. Large wooden casks are placed in a specially designed room outfitted with steam pipes.
- Canteiro: This method is used for the highest quality Madeiras. Wines are aged without the use of artificial heat. Instead, wine is stored in warm rooms and left to age by the natural heat of the sun. This heating process can last from 20-100 years.
Because of its unique production process, Madeira is a very robust wine that can be quite long lived…even after opening. With the holiday season just around the corner, the following are suggestions for pairing the wine with foods. Madeira’s powerful acidity cuts through fat, making it a noble companion to a creamy soup, fatty meat or game, custard, soufflé, and a rich cheese. A holiday dinner with foie gras, roasted duck or goose, a velvety mushroom soup, or a decadent English trifle are all grand possibilities for the upcoming season to showcase Madeira.