The Madeira Islands, despite being a part of Portugal, are found closer to Africa due west of Morocco. They have a vinicultural history similar to other islands with a tradition of wine making as a stop-off for resupplying ships.

In the 15th to 18th centuries as ships would travel from western Europe to India and back again the Canaries and Madeira were frequent stop offs. Because what’s a trip around the continent of Africa without a couple of barrels of wine on board?

To make the wine better suited for travel, fortified spirits were added to the barrels to stabilize them and travelers found that after a trip from Madeira to India, and back again, that wine remaining in the barrels that had been subjected to heat and oxidation had a most unique and appealing flavor.

Even though heat and oxidation are usually enemies of wine, in the case of Madeira these elements are part of the production process. Because of this, once you open a bottle of Madeira it has a shelf life literally of years. This makes it indispensable to have on hand for drinking by itself, mixing into cocktails, or cooking with.

The styles range from fairly dry with Sercial and Verdelho to sweet with Bual and Malvasia, and the apocryphally named Rainwater style plays a nice middle ground in terms of sweetness.

Madeira is an excellent alternative to tawny port, and in my mind they are easy to appreciate if you happen to be an enthusiast of whiskey. To dip your toes in the water to find out what this stuff is all about, try some of the entry level wines referred to as “Rainwater” or “Fine Rich” from producers like Henriques & Henriques, Broadbent, or Blandy’s.

– Joe Buchter, Import Wine Buyer

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