Heat and air, the sworn enemies of most wines and winemakers, conspire to turn Madeira into one of the most enthralling of the world’s wines as well as the most resilient.
Deputy Head Sommelier, Emmanuel Cadieu and Senior Sommelier Zsofi Kiss recently came back from Madeira. Here’s the story of their trip…
The Madeira archipelago is located in the North Atlantic Ocean, South West of Portugal, and just under 250 miles North of Tenerife, Canary Islands. The first Portuguese settlement occurred in the 15th century.
The island of Madeira is at the top of a massive shield volcano that rises about 20,000ft from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. It just looks like a big rock sitting in the middle of the ocean, with some of Europe’s tallest and most impressive cliffs. Madeira is relatively small, and you can do a driving tour of the island in roughly 5 hours, as the roads and tunnels snake through the mountains.
The climate is rather subtropical and humid with multiple micro-climates. It was very surprising to notice such differences in the climates around the islands. A 10min drive from a cloudy, misty and rainy area can then lead to a clear blue sky with high temperatures and plenty of sunshine. When visiting the mountains of Madeira (1,862 for the highest, Pico Ruivo), the temperatures were dropping by several degrees.
The island is wet in the Northwest but dry in the Southeast, hence why Portuguese started to build Levadas in the 16th century. The Levadas are a local system of irrigation bringing water from the mountains to the South coast. Nowadays, there are approximately 2,500kms of irrigation channels.
Sugarcane production was at the time the major part of the local economy, until wine production replaced it in the 17th century. Nowadays, tourism also plays a big part of the local economy.
In order to prevent any spoilage, spirit (originally based on sugar cane, aguardiente de cana, then neutral grape spirit at 96%) was added to the wine when it was shipped.
Somehow, people discovered that after a long trip around the ocean the wine was even better than when it departed. During a long voyage, the wine would be exposed to excessive heat and would mature and develop faster, increasing its complexity. Those wines that had been shipped were called Vinho da Roda.
Today, there are 490 hectares of vines planted on the volcanic soils of Madeira, distributed between approximately 2,000 owners. Most of the vineyards are traditionally trained in a pergola system known as Latada, in order to combat the dangers of fungal disease and rot in the humid climate. The vines are usually planted on Poios – traditional terraces made on the slopes of the island.
Mechanisation is almost impossible, and the 8 producers of the islands are purchasing grapes from historical owners (Henriques & Henriques owns some vineyards though).
There are four noble grape varieties:
Verdelho (medium dry)
Bual (medium sweet)
In addition, Tinta Negra (representing 85% of the production and able to produce wines from dry to sweet), Terrantez (medium dry or medium sweet, very rare, only 2.5ha planted on the island) or Bastardo (from dry to sweet) and other grapes such as Complexa, Moscatel, Listrão and so on.
Today the original maturation process is replicated via the Estufagem or the Canteiro process.
The Estufagem process, a rapid heating method, is mostly used for entry level Madeiras. The wine is heated in stainless steel tanks with the help of hot water coils during a period 3 months ranging in temperature from around to 45-50C.
The second process is called Canteiro, a slow heating process, which takes its name from the traditional supporting beams on which the oak casks are placed.
The wines age for a minimum of 2 years but often spend much more time (5 years for Colheita and 20 years minimum by law for wines labelled as Frasqueira). The oak used varies from Brazilian satinwood, American oak or French oak according to the producers.
Sotolon, a chemical component found also in Sherry, Vin Jaune and mature Madeiras, appears during this slow oxidation process. The barrels, which are sealed by the Madeira Wine Institute (IVBAM) are not topped up during the minimum ageing period, and therefore loose a part of the wine, the angel’s share, by evaporation.
During both processes the heat caramelises the sugar and in the meantime, the colour precipitates.
Emmanuel and Zsofi visited 5 of the 8 producers remaining on the island (there was 60 Madeira shippers after WWII).
• H.M. Borges (founded 1877)
• Henriques & Henriques (founded 1850)
• Pereira D’Oliveira (founded 1850 as a partidista)
• Vinhos Barbeito (founded 1946)
• Madeira Wine Company / Blandy’s (originally formed in 1913 as the Madeira Wine Association, the MWC formally changed its title in 1981)
The others producers are Justino’s (biggest producer of the island), Faria & Filhos and Madeira Vintners, a project started in 2013.
Madeira wine is currently experiencing a renaissance, and in being an incredibly historical wine too, and it was a brilliant experience to delve into its roots first hand…