Madeira: A Unique Wine Born of Heat and Time


Madeira and cheese tasting at SD26 in Manhattan

Imagine drinking a fortified wine whose origins centuries ago on lengthy sea voyages through tropical temperatures and high humidity resulted in a nectar with intense and complex aromas of burned sugar, toasted nuts, and dried fruits. And then imagine pairing that uniquely conceived wine with an array of artisanally crafted Portuguese and British cheeses.

I had the pleasure of doing this recently at the Madeira Wine & Artisanal Cheese Pairing presented at SD26 by the Madeira Institute and the Dunn/Robbins Group, with expert instruction from Candela Prol, certified wine educator with a specialty in Iberian wines, and Max McCalman, maître fromager and award-winning author of Mastering Cheese, from the Artisanal Premium Cheese Center. Candela conducted the wine tasting, and Max the cheese, and then together they guided us in the art of pairing Madeira and cheese.

Candela began with a history of the origins of Madeira . . .

A Wine with the Name of an Island; an Island with the Name of a Wine

Just a short 1.5-hour flight from Lisbon, the subtropical, mountainous island of Madeira lies in the Atlantic Ocean some 325 miles from the coast of North Africa. The island’s distinctive and beautifully aromatic wine, also called Madeira, began to be exported only 25 years after Portuguese explorers discovered the island in 1419. Over the ensuing centuries, Madeira wines traveled by sea through the West and East Indies to reach Europe and the Americas, where they became particular favorites of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. In 1773 Franklin wrote that rather than “an ordinary death,” he would prefer “being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira.” The signers of the Declaration of Independence toasted the 1776 occasion with a glass of Madeira. 

A Fortunate Outcome

To prevent the wine from spoiling during its long sea voyages along the trade routes, a small amount of distilled alcohol was added to it, which acted as a natural preservative and stabilizer. Barrels of this fortified wine traveled as ballast in the holds of ships through the Tropics, where temperatures and humidity levels were very high.

When a ship returned to Madeira with a cargo of unsold wine still on board, an unexpected discovery was made. Tasting the wine revealed that the long sea journey, intense temperatures, and slow oxidation that occurred through the pores and staves of the barrels had transformed the wine, essentially cooking it, caramelizing the sugars, and imparting complex and concentrated aromas and flavors of burned caramel, toffee, roasted nuts, and dried fruits.  

Customers preferred the taste of this vinha da roda or “round-trip wine,” but because it was expensive and impractical to age wine by sending it on round-trip voyages to India, Brazil, or North America, two alternative techniques were developed In the eighteenth century, canteiro and estufagem, to emulate the effects of the sea voyages on the wine. 

Modern-Day Aging

The best-quality Madeiras are aged in American or French oak barrels placed high on wooden support beams (canteiros) in the hot, open-windowed lofts of wine merchants’ lodges for a minimum of two years. In this way, the wine’s temperature rises naturally over time, and the slow, deliberate oxidation makes the wine more concentrated and complex. Many Madeiras age in canteiros for five, ten, fifteen, or more years. 

Less expensive wines are mechanically heated to temperatures of between 113°F and 122°F through an estufagem process. An estufa (hot house, stove) can be either a large concrete or stainless steel tank with a heating coil or a heated room into which casks of wine are placed. Wines age in this estufagem process for a minimum of three months. 

Grape Varieties and Viticulture

Four noble grape varieties, all white, are used to make the best Madeiras: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malvasia (also known as Malmsey). Sercial and Verdelho are dry; Bual and Malvasia are sweet. A fifth white variety, Terrantez, is now nearly extinct.

The nonnoble red grape variety Tinta Negra Mole is a workhorse grape used in less expensive wines.

Besides the grapes used, the level of sweetness in the wine depends on the point at which the winemaker stops fermentation by adding neutral grape spirit. 

The percentage of alcohol by volume ranges from 17 to 22 percent.

All of the noble grape varieties are naturally high in acidity, which balances the residual sugar in the wines. If the grape name is on the label, then the wine must be made from a minimum of 85 percent of that grape variety. Wines are labeled based on the amount of time they were aged, and wines made with any of the noble grape varieties must be aged for a minimum of five years. 

On the island’s steep, terraced slopes, vineyards are planted in the acidic soil with the vines’ canopies raised off the ground on trellises to combat fungal diseases and rot from high humidity. Channeled troughs called lavadas carry rainwater from the high ground for irrigation throughout the rest of the island. Grape harvesting is done by hand. 

An Enduring Wine

The highest-quality Madeiras have no upper limit on aging. Because the wine is heated at such high temperatures, it has been almost pasteurized and is practically indestructible. Deliberate exposure to oxygen also contributes to its stability. An opened bottle will not deteriorate and will last indefinitely. Just be sure to store the bottle upright, because otherwise the high acidity in the wine will erode the cork.

Serving and Pairing Madeira

Serve the sweeter Madeiras at about 62°F. The drier wines are best served at 55-58°F to suppress their high acidity.

Madeira’s high acidity makes it a terrific pairing partner with food, particularly fish and shellfish, as well as cheeses and chocolate.

The Wines, from Driest to Sweetest

Henriques & Henriques Sercial, 10 Year Old. Off-dry style from grapes grown on the highest, cooler part of the island on north-facing slopes. Beautiful amber color. Orange peel, figs, dried fruit, and burned sugar on the nose. Attacks with a bit of sweetness, finishes dry with a burned orange note. Sercial is similar to wines made from Savagnin, in that both are oxidized. Perfect as an aperitif and also a great match with seafood.

Vinhos Barbeito Verdelho, Historic Series “Savannah” Special Reserve. Medium-dry style. Aged in French oak. The color bears the antique green-gold rim typical of Madeira. Verdelho is lower in acidity than Sercial, with stone fruit aromas. Grapes are grown on the lower slopes, at medium altitudes.

Blandy’s Bual, 5 Year Old. With a color similar to Verdelho, and sultanas, dates, and tropical fruits on the nose. Medium sweet with a dry finish. Aged in American oak. Grapes grown on the southern part of the island.

Pereira D’Oliveiras Terrantez 1988. From a family-owned lodge established in 1850; one of the most traditional producers. Terrantez is the rarest of the grape varieties, and the 1988 is the current release. With a maritime flavor and a searing acidity that really carries the finish through. Terrific paired with salted nuts or salty, fatty cheeses.

Justino’s Malvasia, 10 Year Old. The sweetest style. Sultanas, white raisins, and toasted nuts on the nose. Grapes grown at the island’s lower altitudes. Fortified for five to six days before going into the canteiro. Pair with dark chocolate or any savory food with tropical fruits, such as grilled pineapple.

Next, Max McCalman presented the lineup of seven Portuguese and British cheeses that he chose to accompany the Madeiras. Max included British cheeses because Madeira was at one time a British Crown Colony.   

The Cheeses, from Mildest to Strongest

Cheeses arranged from mildest to strongest, starting at the 6 o’clock position on the plate and moving clockwise

Devon Oke. A pressed cow’s milk cheese from southern England with a firm texture and a mild, milky flavor.

Amarelo da Beira Baixa. This especially nutritious peasant cheese is made in eastern Portugal from a blend of unpasteurized goat and sheep milk. The texture is firm but moist, the flavor is robust and a bit salty, and the finish is long.

Berkswell. Made in western England from unpasteurized sheep’s milk, this pressed farmstead cheese is savory with a firm texture and a slightly sweet finish. It is similar to Pecorino and Manchego.

Serpa. Crafted from raw sheep’s milk and vegetable rennet extracted from plants of the thistle family, this cheese from southeast Portugal has a texture that ranges from soft to firm, depending on the season and the age of the cheese.

Kirkham’s Lancashire. This quintessential British traditional cow’s milk cheese with the melts-in-your-mouth “butter crumble” texture is made in northwest England from unpasteurized cow’s milk.

Keen’s Cheddar. With a hard granular texture, a bit of tang, and a warm, meaty finish, this venerable cheese is made from raw milk in England’s Somerset region. When a Brit thinks of cheddar, Keen’s is the one that comes to mind.

Shropshire Blue. Virtually identical to England’s most famous cheese, Stilton, with a moist fudgy texture and flavor. 

When pairing cheese with Madeira, Max advised us to think about contrasting salty with sweet and balancing acidities and textures. In his opinion, it’s better to go for contrast in your pairings.

We tried all the cheeses with all the wines and discussed our favorite pairings. Some audience favorites were

  • Sercial with Berkswell
  • Serpa with Malvasia
  • Shropshire Blue with Malvasia

Try these Madeiras and cheeses and let me know what your favorite pairings are!

Max and C

Max McCalman and Candela Prol

Copyright © 2014 by Carol Hartland