Aerial view of some Madeira in a glass

Not Just For The Dowager Duchess

“This is as crazy and monstrous as Madeira wine can be,” exclaims wine writer Rui Falcão, leading a tutored tasting in London organised by the Madeira Wine Institute.

In our glasses is a vintage Madeira from 1977, made by one of the island’s handful of producers, Pereira d’Oliveira, from the rarely-grown Terrantez grape.

Instantly, all my perceptions of Madeira as a genteel, old-fashioned tipple fly out the window. This is simply thrilling. Like hearing the Sex Pistols for the first time after listening to the Osmonds.

Empty bottle of vintage Madeira fortified wine

It has a funky, acetone smell at first sniff (volatile acidity in geek-speak) followed by mandarin peel, sweat and toffee. An odd combination, I know, and one that could be considered faulty. But somehow it all works. It tastes of sugar-grilled white grapefuit, walnuts, chicory, caramel. There’s a kind of umami thing going on. Then there is the slap-in-the-mouth finish of piercing acidity, a characteristic of Madeira and here turned up to 11.

“This is wild,” says Rui. “Either you like bottled electricity or you don’t.” I do, oh I do.

For premium Madeira, this 30-something Terrantez is a youngster. It’s spent the best part of its life in a barrel, only making it to bottle in 2009. But some high-end Madeira spends decades longer in their barrels, picking up yet more complexity along the way.

Age Becomes It

However, it’s what happens before all this that makes this fortified wine so intriguing.

It is heated for at least three months after fermentation and fortification, which effectively cooks and oxidises the wine. At the everyday end, this usually involves hot water pipes in tanks, though heated rooms are also used.

At the finer end, the wine is put in casks first. It is heated for a much longer period of time (i.e. years) using the ambient natural warmth from the sun, on the top floor of a wine lodge warehouse or cellar.

Barrels for Madeira wine

This extended exposure to heat and oxygen (two of wine’s biggest enemies) is what makes Madeira so special, giving it a longevity that no other fortified wine enjoys.

“It becomes indestructible in time because you are doing all the harm at the beginning,” explains Rui. So, if you are lucky enough to pop open a bottle of 200-year-old Madeira, it should taste as good as it did back in the day, although probably hard to prove if the wine is 100 years old or more…

You can also leave the top off a bottle of Madeira for weeks – months even – without it fading. Though a portion may evaporate. And Rui claims he’s drunk bottles that were opened five or six years before which were fine.

So when he calls Madeira “unique ” this is not hyperbole.

I would add another word. Heroic.

Henriques & Henriques 15-year-old Verdelho in a glass

The industry has survived two major vine catastrophes and political crises in its key markets. It has a damp, limpid sub-tropical climate which is a magnet for mildew and rot in grapes and the vines only thrive at high altitude on steep inclines that have to be harvested manually.

As a result, a number of players have been weeded out. Today, there are just six companies who export and two more who don’t.

Acid Trip

Madeira also comes in a number of different guises. Something to suit all tastes.

First there are the different grapes, red and white. Tinta Negra Mole is the most common, though there is also Complexa and Bastardo – sniggers all round next year then, when varietal labelling is allowed for these more humble grapes.

Currently, it’s the “noble” grapes that hog the spotlight. In ascending sweetness, they are Sercial (known on the Portuguese mainland as “dog strangler” for its massive acidity), Verdelho, Bual and Malvasia (Malsmey). Terrantez is making a comeback.

Then there are different styles. Blends (of grapes and years), varietals, vintage (Frasqueira), single harvest (Colheita), different types of Reserva or even Rainwater. It’s quite exhausting.

But the common thread is Madiera’s trademark acidity. Rui says that volcanic soils are one of the contributors, though the fact that vines are planted at height, and surrounded by fog at times must be a key factor. It’s cool up there and most grapes in Madeira don’t fully ripen.

Island of Madeira, vines, fog

Finally, you don’t have to have access to a super old Madeira (or pay a fortune) to get a kick from it.

I introduced Mr. SipSwoosh to Henriques & Henriques‘ enlivening 10-year-old Sercial over Christmas. THAT was a bottle that disappeared quickly. An eye-opener for a man who usually uses a sweeter-style Madeira to posh up a gravy. I love the 15-year-old too. A perfect sharpner on a lazy afternoon.

Sadly, though, Madeira is now a hard sell to many drinkers. They see it like I did. Something best left gathering dust on grandad’s sideboard. Or best left to the fictional characters in Downton Abbey.

And everyone who thinks that is missing a treat.








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3 thoughts on “Not Just For The Dowager Duchess

  1. I adore Madeira. On one trip to Porto, I was offered a taste of a Madeira from the 19th century -unbelievable! I’d love to visit the island one day. Thanks for the primer!

  2. Sou neto de um dos antigos sócios da antiga Companhia Vinicola da Madeira e guardo em minha casa várias garrafas de vinho com mais de 100 anos.
    Tenho imenso interesse em saber coisas sobre este vinho tão especial, assim como gostaria de conhecer alguém que pudesse estar interessado em algumas destas garrafas.

  3. I too used to think of Madeira wine as a fogey’s drink – mainly because my mum liked it! – but was converted on a visit to the island itself – beautiful place, underrated tipple!

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