Madeira, wood and warmth for a wine for sailors

Madeira is an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Morocco. It means wood in Portuguese: it has been so called since 1419, when its surface was mostly covered by thick forest. Ocean currents and high subtropical pressure give it a mild and stable weather throughout the year, making its waters always warm. The island is known for its dizzying cliffs, wild nature and, above all, unique wine.

The territory morphology

Madeira’s volcanic soils emerge from the waters of the sea, providing the ideal growing conditions for a wide range of different crops. The relief is steep and a mountain range runs the entire length of the island, dividing it into two halves with their own microclimates. Acidic soils, rich in minerals, iron and phosphorus and low in potassium, give acidity to the wine, so that it remains fresh even after many years. The irrigation of the slopes is provided by an ancient canal system called levadas, which brings water from the mountains to the agricultural plots all the way to the ocean. On the terraces, the vineyards are exposed to the ocean breeze and grapes from vineyards planted below have saline and iodine notes.

View of the vineyards, Madeira Island
A view of the vineyards of Madeira Island

How the wine production started in Madeira

Wine production in Madeira has ancient roots, dating back to the 15th century when the Portuguese, following the ocean route, discovered the islands of the Atlantic Ocean and Africa. The sailors brought the first vines to the island and, defying its steep slopes, started their cultivation. At first, it was only intended for local consumption but, shortly after, it became appreciated and highly requested throughout the Portuguese empire.

Once harvested from the terraces, the grapes were crushed and the must fermented in steel or wooden vats for about three days. The fortified wine was then aged in oak barrels for at least three years in extreme temperature and wet conditions, such as those that of the long routes from Madeira to other destinations.
This aging process gave the drink a sweetish flavor and made it an excellent “preservative” thanks to a series of chemical reactions that boosted the oxidation of the wine and increased its resistance to bacterial growth.

Madeira Wine Company
Traditional bottling process (ph. courtesy of Madeira Wine Company)

The evolution of wine production process

Over the centuries, the wine production process has evolved with new winemaking techniques and different grape varieties. However, the production still employs similar traditional techniques and a controlled thermal heating process. After fermentation, the wine is fortified by adding alcohol and then transferred to 500-liter oak barrels called pipas. At this point, the thermal aging process begins in barrels placed in rooms called estufas, with temperatures between 45°C and 50°C for several weeks or months.

During this period of time, the Madeira undergoes a series of chemical reactions, which give it the characteristic flavor and aroma of toasted nuts, caramel and dried fruit. The wine can then be left in smaller oak barrels until it reaches the desired ripeness and the process can be repeated several times to produce wines of higher quality and complexity.
Madeira aging process is particularly complex, demands great patience and care, which give the product unique features, including a toasty aroma, intense flavor and long shelf life. The intense and persistent flavor is ideal for the complexity of aged cheeses, the richness of roasted or braised meat, the earthy flavor of mushrooms, and the delicate taste of chocolate and nut desserts. It is also used in cooking as a base for sauces or an ingredient for marinating meat and flavoring soups and desserts.

wine Madeira
Bottles of Madeira aged over a century

The island’s different types of wine

The island’s wineries produce wines of different types, including Seco (dry), Meio Seco (semi-dry), Meio Doce (semi-sweet) and Doce (sweet), depending on the level of sweetness. Due to the high quality of the products, these varieties are known all over the world.

Blandy’s Wine Lodge, created by John Blandy in 1811, is one of the oldest and most prestigious local wineries. Still owned by the founder’s family, it is located in the city of Funchal, on Madeira’s southern coast, for tours and tastings.
Not far from there, in Câmara de Lobos, the story of Henriques & Henriques initially began in 1850 with dry wine production. Over the years, four generations of the Henriques family have continued to develop and improve the quality of their wines. Today, the winery produces a wide range of Madeiras, from dry to sweet, young to old, many of which have become international icons.

Madeira Wine Company

Since 1913, the combination of several wineries has created the Madeira Wine Company, one of the largest wineries in the area, to manage production and maximize the global exposure of local wines, while maintaining the independence and uniqueness of each winery. Today, the fortified texture of Madeira wines still tells the world about the wits of Portuguese sailors, ancient seafaring explorations and great trade routes.

Madeira Henriques & Henriques
Madeira Century Malmesey, Henriques & Henriques (ph. courtesy of Henriques & Henriques)

Opening image: a view of Madeira’s coastline (ph. Colin Watts on Unsplash)


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