If you’re a fan of fortified wines, you’ve probably tried Madeira. It has a unique flavor that has gone unchanged since it first gained popularity over 300 years ago. Madeira has a fascinating history and is available at a wide range of quality levels.
Let’s go over what Madeira is, the history of the wine, and give you some recommendations for our favorite bottles.
What is Madeira Wine?
Madeira is a fortified wine that is available in a range of styles, from dry to sweet. Suppose you aren’t familiar with fortified wines. In that case, they have a distilled spirit added during the winemaking process to boost the alcohol content. Madeira wine gets its name from the small Portuguese island of Madeira, located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
The unique thing about Madeira is its flavors that come from repeatedly heating the wine. This usually creates flavors of roasted nuts, stewed fruit, caramel, and toffee. Madeira can have a wide variety of different styles, ranging from dry to sweet.
There are two main types of Madeira wine: Blended Madeira and single-varietal Madeira. Blended Madeira is cheaper and is usually of average quality, with a few higher-quality aged styles. Single-varietal Madeira is the higher quality of the two and is made primarily of four different varieties.
Blended Madeira is usually fairly inexpensive and is considered to be the lower quality of the two types. That said, there are several higher-end Blended Maderias that made lovely sipping wines. These higher-end versions are usually aged for several years. There are a few different varieties of Blended Madeira, which include:
- Finest Madeira: This is a blended style of Madeira made from Tinta Negra grapes and is aged for three years.
- Rainwater Madeira: Made from Tinta Negra grapes and other young blends, Rainwater Madeira is a fruity blend that must age for at least three years before being sold. Rainwater Madeira is an inexpensive style that is good for cooking, blending into cocktails, or sipping on its own.
- Reserve Madeira: Reserve Madeira wines must age between five and ten years before being sold. Special Reserve must age between 10 and 15 years and undergo a higher quality winemaking process. Extra Reserve ages for 15 to 20 years.
- 20-Year-Old Madeira: This is a multi-vintage blend that uses wines from multiple different years and has been certified by a panel to taste at least 20 years old. You can also get 30-year-old and 40-year-old Maderias of similar distinction.
This type of Madeira is of the highest quality and is wonderful as a dessert wine or an aperitif. They can be from both non-vintage blends and single vintage wines. Due to Madeira’s unique winemaking process, these wines can age for centuries.
- Sercial: This is the brightest, crispest style of Madeira. Sercial has lemony, spicy, and herbaceous notes and often displays mineral characteristics on the palate. It has a slight sweetness that is usually offset by its acidity.
- Verdelho: Verdelho is smoky and slightly more concentrated and richer than Sercial. It is dry and very intense, making it versatile for pairing with foods of varying richness. Verdelho displays notes of spice, smoke, and light caramel.
- Boal: A sweet variety of Madeira, Boal is incredibly complex and aromatic. It has aromas and flavors of roasted coffee, salted caramel, bitter cocoa, dates, and golden raisins.
- Malmsey: This is the richest, sweetest style of Madeira. It makes an excellent dessert wine, displaying notes of chocolate, fruit, and roasted nuts. Both Boal and Malmsey can age for decades, and sometimes, even centuries.
History of Madeira Wine
Madeira has a very interesting history, as it has gone relatively unchanged since its invention in the fifteenth century. During the 1600s and 1700s, wine was often spoiled during long sea journeys, and fortification was necessary to help the wine stay fresh. The island of Madeira was a vital port on the journey from Europe to the Americas, and thus, Madeira wine became incredibly popular on boats sailing to and from the New World.
It was common to fortify the wine with brandy to keep it from spoiling at sea. Casks of Madeira wine often heated and cooled as ships passed through the tropics. This repeated heating and cooling, along with the jostling movement of the ship, would oxidize the wine and affect it negatively. However, once the wine had been fortified, sailors noticed how this deepened the wine’s flavor, and this process became known as sea-aging or Vinho da Roda.
Today, makers of Madeira intentionally recreate these conditions to develop deeper flavors in their wines. It is intentionally oxidized, as well as heated and cooled repeatedly during the winemaking process. This creates flavors of nuts, bruised apple, and dried fruit notes, along with interesting sweetness and spice notes.
The best bottles of Madeira Wine
There is a huge range when it comes to the quality and price point of Madeira wines. However, you don’t necessarily need to break the bank to get your hands on a great bottle. Here are some of our favorites at a variety of price points that can suit any budget.
Blandy’s Madeira Malmsey 15 Year
Blandy’s Madeira Malmsey 15 Year is a clear, dark golden brown color with incredible harmony and intensity. It is sweet and smooth while still being full-bodied and complex. Along with its sweetness, there is a contrasting burnt quality to the molasses, caramel, and walnut flavors. It is very balanced, with a long finish of nuts, chocolate, and burnt caramel. Bottles sell for around $45 and can be enjoyed as an aperitif or a dessert.
Broadbent Madeira Malmsey 10 Year
A full-bodied, rich Madeira wine with sweet, chocolatey flavors and a concentrated bouquet, Broadbent Madeira Malmsey 10 Year is aged in oak casks for at least ten years.
This wine offers a rich, figgy aroma of dried dates, demerara sugar, pecans, and sultanas. On the palate, it is very sweet, with a voluptuous profile and a core with grape-like flavors. The finish is long and intense, with flavors of liquid honey. Broadbent Madeira Malmsey 10 Year is around $45 and is best enjoyed with desserts or as a dessert itself.
Sandeman Madeira Rainwater
Sandeman Madeira Rainwater is light in body but full of flavor. It has a light amber color with golden highlights, as well as clean, nutty aromas. Its flavor is nutty and lightly complex, with a clean finish. This Madeira makes a wonderful accompaniment to a variety of foods and is also a fabulous cooking wine that can be used in various traditional dishes. Bottles sell for around $16.
Justino Henriques Madeira Full Rich
Justino Henriques Madeira Full Rich is just as the name describes: rich, full, and incredibly balanced. Don’t let the affordable price fool you; this is a high-quality Madeira. It has a dark brown, hazel-like color and a tart aroma with a mild nuttiness. It is semi-sweet, with jammy flavors and notes of figs, dates, dark fruit, maple, and molasses. It is overall soft, warm, and versatile, as it can accompany a variety of savory or sweet dishes or be sipped on its own. Bottles sell for around $18.
1989 D’Oliveiras Sercial Vintage Madeira
An especially good vintage, the 1989 D’Oliveiras Sercial Vintage Madeira is a drier style of Madeira, made from 100% Sercial grapes. It is cask-aged and has aromas of dried fruit, nuts, and baking spices. On the palate, it is sharply acidic and has excellent tension, precision, and definition. This Madeira pairs wonderfully with savory dishes, especially ones with mushrooms.
At around $150 a bottle, it is a splurge, but totally worth it.
Henriques & Henriques 15 Year Old Bual
The Henriques & Henriques 15-Year-Old Bual is a deep ruby/tawny color, with intense aromas of figs and fruit that you’ll notice as soon as you open the bottle. It has a medium sweetness and a rich palette of dried fruit, like apricot and plum. You’ll also notice a chocolatey richness, which adds another layer of complexity. It has an incredibly strong finish, with acidic notes of orange and burnt caramel.
At around $40 a bottle, this is a cost-effective choice for a high-quality Madeira.
Madeira wine is incredibly unique and complex and has gone unchanged since being invented in the 1500s. It has a unique winemaking process that involves intentional oxidation through heating and cooling, which helps develop nutty, fruity, delightfully complex flavors. There are a wide variety of Madeira wines available in various styles and at a range of prices. You’ll definitely be able to find one that fits your tastes, and your budget, from the list above.
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