Asked to name some of the world’s great dessert wines, casual wine drinkers would probably have a hard time remembering Madeira. Sauternes, sure, plus a handful of other French specialties. Port, almost certainly, and probably Sherry. Maybe even trockenbeerenauslese Rieslings. But that lonely little island in the deeps of the Atlantic, a few hundred miles off the coast of Morocco,
where they speak Portuguese and grow Portuguese varieties and age their wines forever? That is more often than not forgotten. Which is a plain shame, since well-aged Madeira is almost certainly the greatest dessert wine of them all. Certainly, it is the longest lived of all wines.
A few weeks back, Rui Falcão of the Madeira Institute presented a seminar in New York on Madeira. It was a fascinating event, filled with the kind of information and lore that we winos love. Falcão started by saying simply that everything that kills every other kind of wine is exactly what makes Madeira great. After that, things started to get interesting.
It turns out he wasn’t joking. The two great enemies of most wines are heat and oxygen. Madeira couldn’t begin to exist without prolonged exposure to both of them. When we describe another wine as maderized, we mean it’s dead – oxidized, perhaps even cooked-tasting. That’s where Madeira’s distinctiveness starts. All Madeira, of whatever type (more about that later), Falcão said, is kept for years before it’s bottled, sometimes for decades, in large barrels in above-ground storage without temperature controls.
This on an island off the coast of Morocco. Granted, the Atlantic moderates the temperatures somewhat – but still we’re in the tropics, where the first wonder is that they can make wine at all, and the second is how they treat it.
Throw out the rule book: Madeira plays a different game. Its wines are driven neither by variety nor terroir: like Champagne, Madeiras are wines that are shaped by the process of their making more than by any other factor. Even fermentation does not proceed “naturally.” It is always stopped, at the moment of the maker’s choosing (according to the grapes he’s working with and the degree of sweetness he wants in the wine), by the addition of neutral alcohol (originally derived from grapes).
In the days of sailing ships, Madeira producers used to send their wines on trips around the world in barrels stored below decks in unheated, uncooled holds, in order to expose them to the kind of temperature extremes and the kind of motion that would turn other wines into undrinkable bilge. Now makers accomplish the same thing more quickly and more economically by repeatedly heating the wines and allowing them to cool down over a period of months. After that, the wines selected for the best grade of Madeira are stored in casks stacked on the warmest level of the winery for any number of years. Literally so: they lie there for minimally three years, with no maximum other than the maker’s hopes.
Madeira can take it: Falcão told us that he once tasted a 300-year-old Madeira. “Was it OK?” he asked rhetorically. “No: It was great.” I can’t affirm or dispute that from my own experience, but I’ve been lucky enough to have several times tasted 75-year old Bual, and I can assure you that that wine was nectar – probably the most elegant, complex, fortified wine I have ever drunk. It had so much acidity, and so many different flavor elements playing through it, that I hardly noticed that it was lightly sweet. In its evolution, the sugars had become very minor players in the wine’s character.
Bual is one of the grape varieties used in Madeira, and each is associated with a sweetness level. Sercial is the driest, then Verdelho, then Bual (sometimes Boal), and Malvasia – Shakespeare’s Malmsey – always the sweetest. These are all white grapes: They are the most prized and are always mentioned on the label. Tinta negra, the only red grape used, can be produced at any sweetness level – the label will say – and until recently was never named.
There are between six and eight producers; the number is unclear because some consolidation may be taking place. But there are 1,200 growers, who own a total of 1,200 hectares, and each of them has long-standing, sometimes generation-spanning, ties to a specific producer. Falcão said that the smallest grower was a lady who cultivated three vines, and every year sold their grapes to the same house. That kind of quirky charm seems almost to epitomize Madeira.