Carrying A Torch For Madeira

Roberto Viernes
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Wednesday - April 14, 2006
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Over the past weekend while grilling some ribs for a party, I was reminded of this past New Year’s holiday weekend when I attended a fun bonfire at the beach. While entranced by the flames, I was reminded of one of my favorite yet not-so-well known wines - Madeira.

How does a fire remind me of a wine, you may ask? Well, the island of Madeira was discovered in 1418 by a Portuguese explorer by the name of Gonslaves Zarco, aka “The Squinter.” He found the island so wooded he called it “forest” or “woods” - Madeira in Portuguese. The flora was so impenetrable that colonization was next to impossible until it was ordered that the island be set ablaze. Accounts say that the island burned for seven years!

This fire, together with volcanic soil, created some of the most productive and fertile earth for vine growth to be found. In Madeira there are four “noble” varieties. These are the most highly prized for the production of “great” and “classic” Madeira. One of the reasons I love them so is that they range from bone dry to liqueur sweet, so there is a style for everyone and every mood.

The driest style is called Sercial - this is also the name of the grape. It is also known as Esgana Cao, which actually means “dog strangler” for its searingly high acidity levels. Don’t worry, dogs are much faster than any vine.

Verdelho is the next variety, being off-dry with a tremendously nutty character. This variety is also found on the mainland of Portugal in the wines of Vinho Verde.

Climbing the ladder of sweetness we reach Bual. This is certainly sweet, but not as sweet as most Ports.

And at the top of the hill there is Malmsey. Made from Malvasia grapes, this is as luxurious and decadent a wine as one can find. It is dessert in itself, and is strikingly good with a cigar.

There are other styles and varieties used in Madeira, but they are looked upon as less interesting, such as Tinta Negra Mole, much used in the production of cheaper Madeira. Muscat and Terrantez are both rare and most often sweet, but are in decline on the island.

Madeira is fortified in the same fashion as Port. Once the wine reaches whatever dryness the winemaker has in mind, grape spirit is added to stop the fermentation, killing the yeast, leaving whatever residual sugar is left and increasing the alcohol content to about 20 percent.

But what sets the wine apart from any other and gives it its unique aroma and flavor is the “cooking” process or “estufagem.” There are three different methods by which Madeira is “cooked.” The best and most expensive is to leave the barrel full of wine and stored under the eaves of lodges on the island. These barrels are naturally baked and cooled by the temperatures of the seasons. In the next method, the barrels are stored in an enclosed room where hot steam is run through pipes in or on the walls, basically baking the wine. The cheapest Madeira is left in a vat or concrete tub, and tubes filled with hot air are circulated throughout the liquid, thereby cooking it in the process.

Wait a second, you say, I thought people are supposed to store wine at cool temperatures? Wouldn’t that destroy the wine? How did this come about?

Well, before this the wines of Madeira were shipped all over the world without the estufagem process. On one occasion barrels of some wine destined for a customer were declined. The barrels were brought back to Madeira and were supposed to be thrown away. One lucky crew member decided to try the wine before dumping it and discovered that over the voyage, the wine had actually gotten better. The modern cooking process imitates the changes of temperature a barrel would have gone through in the storage of a boat that traveled from Madeira to North America and back.

It also renders the wine almost indestructible and eternal. I’ve been lucky enough to taste some examples as far back as ‘95 - that’s 1795. Vintage Madeira is one of the most complex and compelling treats one could possibly imagine. It must be aged a minimum of 20 years before being bottled and another two years before release. It is the summit of Madeira. They are expensive, but compared to other classic wines of the world, they are a bargain. Other classifications include Finest, Reserve, Special Reserve and Extra Reserve, which must be aged three, five, 10 and 15 years respectively. Another great thing is that once you open the bottle, they do not deteriorate. They are just as good from the first glass to the last drop.

For me, Madeira is like a message in a bottle. They are a part of history, an anachronism. They are supremely complex and the ultimate way to end a great dinner or party.

Madeira is also a sensational conversation piece, especially when really old. In the least when I drink it, it warms my insides. Just like that fire on the beach.


NV Rare Wine Company, New York Malmsey ($35)

This is a non-vintage wine because it is a blend of wines up to 50 years old. It is stunning with roasted and glacee almonds, poached figs, medjool dates, raisins and Christmas cake. It is sweet and luscious, terrific for dessert and with cheeses.

1929 Vinhos Barbeito Verdelho ($199)

A classic vintage in Madeira. This dry Madeira has notes of coffee, mocha, candied cherries, caramel and vanilla custard. It is refined and great with pate, salami and olives.

1900 Pereira D’Oliveira Moscatel ($399)

Think about what you’d pay for a vintage 1900 anything else? That said, this is one of the rarest jewels that comes from perhaps the finest producer of Madeira. This is a wine that boggles the mind for descriptors: sweet, layered and interminable. You will never forget this experience.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. E-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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