Wine 101: Spain: Madeira

This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by Taylor. Taking note from Madeira, Portugal, a tiny island located off the coast of both Portugal and Morocco, Taylor New York Madeira adopts the same unique heating process as its inspiration, resulting in a distinctive nutty flavor. Though it makes an excellent dessert wine, I like it best with some stinky blue cheese. To each their own.

On this episode of “Wine 101,” host Keith Beavers breaks down the complex tradition of the fortified wines of the island of Madeira. Tune in for more.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers and I just found out that Charlie Brown’s father was a barber. I’m just going to let that sit there for a second.

What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair podcasting network, this is the “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. What’s going on?

We’re sticking with the fortified wine thing. Today we’re going to an island off the coast of Portugal called Madeira. It also has some crazy stuff going on here. If you think sherry was wild, Madeira says, “Hold my Madeira.”

OK. I need to focus because last episode we were doing sherry and towards the end of that episode, I talked about how confusing it can be and how it actually confuses me. Well this place, Madeira, is also a place that can be confusing. I’m trying to figure out why this stuff is so confusing. I think it’s because of these wines — sherry and Madeira — which we’re about to talk about.

They were so popular so long ago and they’re still on the market today. Their popularity was so intense because still wine just couldn’t travel like these wines could travel. Therefore the market for these wines was intense. You’re going to see that a lot with early Madeira and the American colonies. It feels like there was a fever pitch of capitalism in trade happening with these wines near these port towns being fortified so they could travel across oceans. With that fervent capitalism, trade things would change and adapt to different trends within that trend. That’s what it feels like because a lot of the stuff from sherry and Madeira is just no longer practiced anymore. There’s even terminology that no longer exists. If it does exist today, sometimes that terminology doesn’t necessarily line up with the original idea of that term, which we’ll hear about soon.

Because of the changes, because of all these words flying around within one style or category, it can be very confusing. If you’ve tried Madeira or tried sherry and you’ve been confused, it makes complete sense because this wine geek here was also very confused at one time about these things. Once you really get a sense of what they’re doing with the product and how they’re just trying to take variations of one thing and one scientific thing, it helps a little bit.

Let’s get into Madeira. I’m not going to get into a lot of history because, again, it’ll take too long. We’re going to get nice in Madeira, so by the time this episode is done you’re going to understand everything. I’ll start here. The oldest wine I’ve ever had was from the year 1865. Somebody said, “Hey man, do you want to try a wine from when Abraham Lincoln was president?” I’m like, “Yes.” It was a Madeira 1865 and it was stunning. Hundreds of miles off the coast of Portugal and, actually, the coast of Morocco is a group of archipelago islands in a region of the sea called the Micronesia region.

These archipelagos are going well from north to south. You have the Azores. Then, just south of that, you have Madeira, and just south of that you have the Canary Islands. The Azores and Madeira are part of Portugal and the Canary Islands are part of Spain. The Madeira archipelago is made up of three islands. You have Madeira, then you have a smaller island just north of Madeira called Porto Santo. Then south of Madeira, you have this long, skinny island called Desertas.

What’s really fascinating is, these are islands, but they’re islands on top of what are called seamounts. These are volcanoes that started on the floor of the ocean and went all the way up, so far that they went out of the ocean. Not all of them made it out. Seamounts aren’t always out of the ocean, but as far as Madeira is concerned — the big island of the Madeira archipelago — this is an island on top of a sea mount. I find that just massively crazy awesome. The island itself is called a “shield” island. Imagine a shield laying down. That is what the island looks like. It’s not completely round or anything, but it’s just the way it’s flattened out.

There is a mountain range that goes through the Madeira island and it goes east and west. That’s the shape of the island. Because of that mountain range, you have a northern part of the island and a southern part of the island which get different climate results. Generally, this island is in the same parallel as Bermuda. The amount of rain that happens here is intense — about an average of 110 inches a year in a volcanic mountainous region island. The peak of this mountain range is what they call a rain shadow, which attracts precipitation, drawing rain to the island. It was uninhabited until the 15th century, and it was first colonized by the Portuguese.

The capital of the island is in the southeastern part of the island. It’s a big port town called Funchal. Madeira is actually considered the first territorial discovery during the Age of Discovery. This is how vines got to Madeira, which today is about an hour-and-a half flight from Lisbon. The way the history goes in a general sense is that the first crop that was a big deal on the island of Madeira was sugar cane. As that was happening, vines were also being brought over and made into wine.

The primary varieties that were on the island were high-acid white wines — a grape called Sercial, a grape called Verdelho, a grape called Bual, and also Malvasia, which was corrupted by the British to be known as Malmsey. Then there’s one red wine grape called Tinta Negra, but here they call it Negra Mole. There’s also a grape called Terrantez. It’s not Torrontés. It has nothing to do with that. It’s actually the Jura grape Trousseau, but that’s very rare. We’ve got an island with people on it, we got a sugar cane industry going on, and we have some wine being made. They’re high-acid white wines. It’s a thing.

When the Age of Discovery kicks in, a.k.a. colonization, the Azores, Madeira, and the Canary Islands — these are all of these archipelagos in the Northern Atlantic that were port towns or launching pads to the New World. It makes sense. If you’re in a port town and wines are being made, then you might as well take the wine and bring it to the new place. The thing is still white wine, as we know now — because you listen to “Wine 101” — is very fragile, especially high-acid whites. On a ship across the ocean, they just don’t last.

Because of the cane sugar thing happening on the island, they would distill some of the cane sugar into a spirit and they would fortify the white wine, put it into a barrel so that it could survive the ship journey across an ocean. These wines would go into a barrel and they would lull their way through this journey. By the time they got to where they were supposed to go, they had changed. They had oxidized. They had a little bit of a nutty flavor. It was really savory and caramelized and I believe — this is my personal theory — this is the moment I think humans realized, “Oh, barrels. That makes sense.”

What happened was, as colonization ramped up, sugar cane production left Madeira primarily and went to other islands, I think, in the Caribbean. The sugar cane industry was still there, but this made a lot of room for the wine industry to thrive, and it thrived. This new wine idea started in the 17th century. By the 18th century, it was in full swing. What happened was the way the industry developed was that the varieties that I mentioned — the white wine varieties — were grown at certain elevations on the island so that they would thrive.

There were these irrigation systems that they built called levadas. The way it worked out is you had Bual and Malvasia, or Malmsey, that was grown towards sea level. Then, as you go up the island, you would have Verdelho just a little bit higher up in the elevation. Then, Sercial was as far up the slope as they could get it. This island, just so you know, rises to about 6,000 feet above sea level. This is a high-acid white region. They did this because Sercial was a little bit dry. Verdelho, they called medium-dry. Bual, they would call medium or medium-rich. Then Malvasia, or Malmsey, is a sweet or rich wine.

We’re going to talk about the way this wine is made. That also is a testament to the varieties themselves and where on the island they’re grown. These grapes are somewhat considered the noble grapes of the island. Because of their varying results, the grape variety itself would define the resulting style of the wine. Sercial was dry, Verdelho was medium-dry, Bual was sweet or medium-rich, and Malvasia was rich. If you had a Malvasia, you knew it was rich. If you had a Sercial, you knew it was dry. What they did for quite some time is they would do this thing called vinho de roda, which means “route wine” or “route” — the route of a ship’s journey from one place to the other.

They would take these wines and put them on whatever variety they were making them from. They would put it in the barrel. They would fortify them, then put them on the ship and it would lull its way to the next place. By the time it got there, that exposure would happen. Now this thing — this scientific thing that happened — with oxygen and fortified spirits and time became known as madeirization. Madeira. Madeirization. It’s literally a word used and named after this island and the style of wine. This happened up until around World War I, actually. Obviously, World War I had some complications. They couldn’t do that anymore. They basically just got rid of the whole idea.

I’m sure there are some people doing it now, but it’s not done regularly. What happened was the new way of making the wine — they couldn’t do it on the ship. There was another way they made this wine called vino canteiro, which means “rafter wine.” What they would do is they would take the barrels, and instead of putting them in ships, they would put them in houses or lodges up in the rafters or somewhere in this lodge that was uncooled and just allowed it to sit there. It had to sit there for at least two years, but up to 20 years, sometimes 100 years. The thing is, when you fortify this stuff, it’s a tank. It’s not going anywhere. It is going to be around for a long time. You can’t mess this stuff up.

Actually, when you open a bottle of Madeira, it’s best to let it hang out open for a couple of days to let it just settle a little bit, because these things are old, or they can be. This is considered the way to make Madeira wine in its most high-quality sense. There’s another way of making Madeira and it’s a quicker and more effective and cost-effective way. It’s called estufajem or “baking wine.” What they do is they put the wine in a cuba de calor, which means “heat vat.” The vat is called an estufa, and in the estufa is a heating coil, or sometimes they wrap it in like a heat jacket.

This used to be done in concrete vats, but these days they’re doing it in stainless steel, and it’s heated for 90 days instead of two years. You see the cost-effectiveness there, right? Then, they put it in barrels as if it had been two years in a lodge. You have this cost-effective wine from Madeira. There is one company called Madeira Wine Company — one of only eight producers on the entire island. Wine lovers, Madeira itself only has about 1000 acres under vine. Yes. This company does something called amarzém de calor or “heat lodge.” This is an estufajem process. Instead of a heating coil or some heating element, they actually put it in the vat, but they put that in a lodge.

It’s not in a barrel in a lodge, it’s actually in a heated lodge in the vat — a little confusing, but what they’re trying to do here is they’re trying to use the best of both worlds to make their Madeira. Now, in general, what you’re going to experience with Madeira are wines that are caramel-y. They smell sometimes like the perception of a dried fruit. They can have a little bit of citrus, like that oil essence of citrus, like in cocktails — expressed lemon, something like that. It’ll have cinnamon sometimes. It can go down like nutmeg. This is a very fruity, savory wine that is enjoyed perfectly at cellar temperature. It can even go into — I don’t know. Do you guys ever smell brown butter? Like that.

Guys, this is where everything changes. All that is wonderful, right? But phylloxera, guys. Phylloxera. It ruined Madeira. Ruined it. Ruined it. The modernization of wine also didn’t help at all because the trade and wine trade got better. Phylloxera just messed up Madeira, and decimated it like a lot of places. When they rebuilt and replanted, they didn’t plant many of these noble varieties we were talking about before. These varieties are actually hard to work with for them, so they’re in small supply today. The grape that is mostly used to make Madeira, about 85 percent of it, is Tinta Negra, also known as Negramoll. Then maybe that Trousseau, but we don’t really talk about that because I don’t really know where it is.

It’s just talked about as part of this thing. I’ve heard people talk about Trousseau and get all excited about it being there, but I don’t know who’s making it. What’s nuts is that these words I was talking about before — Sercial, all the varieties — no longer really apply. If you see the grape on a label, it’s only going to be produced in a way that represents what that style represents. Does that make sense? I don’t think we should concentrate on that. We need to concentrate on what we’re going to see on labels on the American market. You see how this can be a little bit confusing? Bear with me. I’m going to break this down and then you’ll understand everything.

Modern Madeira works like this: It is ranked in quality, corresponding to hierarchy, corresponding roughly to the grapes involved in the method made. The first is called three-year, also known as “finest.” This is going to be estufajem Tinta Negra. That’s how it’s made. Then, you have five-year, also known as “old reserve.” This is also estufajem and sometimes canteiro, which is rafter wine. it’s either rafter or vat wine, but it’s only noble grapes and not Tinta Negra or Negramoll. Then, you have 10-year, also known as “special reserve,” and this is almost exclusively made via the canteiro or rafter wine, and only made from noble grapes.

Now, these wines are made primarily for three to 10 years here. These are wines that are primarily made with blends from multiple vintages, and they indicate a general style or are profile-specific to the average age of the wine. It’s really a house style if you will, but in a classification step. Basically, if it says it has a year on it — three, five, and 10 — it doesn’t mean that every wine in there is that age. It’s just a wine made to represent what that classification would taste like. This is where the confusion lies. A five-year is not necessarily all five-year wine blended, but it is made to taste and smell like a five-year category. It gets a little confusing.

Then you have colheita, or “harvest,” which is a single-harvest wine with at least four years in cask. Then you have a frasqueira, which is a vintage wine, which is a single-harvest wine with 20 years in cask or barrel. That’s Madeira.

The thing is, in 1986, when Madeira or Portugal entered the EU, they had to adhere to the EU standards. What that means is, if you’re going to do a blend, 65 percent of the grape you’re putting in the wine needs to be part of that blend. Because of the scarcity of these noble grapes or varieties, if Tinta Negra — or Negra Mole — can make up 85 percent of the Madeira, what that means is Tinta Negra is being blended with the noble varieties. If you have to make a Madeira that’s 100 percent Tinta Negra, it can only be labeled with its sweetness level and the brand’s name on the label, and that’s a law. They have something called rainwater. I’ve never tried it. I’m a little bit confused by it. It’s light in color and says it has a flavor that’s similar to a dry Madeira made from the Verdelho grape. I don’t know what it’s like. If somebody has it and wants to DM me or tag me @VinePairKeith on Instagram and tell me what it’s like, that’d be really cool.

That’s Madeira. At first, it sounds confusing, but once you understand that it’s just a fortified wine and it’s made a certain way — different ways to make that result happen at different age requirements. Let me just go from there. Madeira. Wow, guys. Next week, we’re going back to still wine. I’ll see you in Priorat. What?

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big old shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair’s “Wine 101.” Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazingly wide spectrum of favorites, ranging from everyday to luxury and sparkling wine. (Gallo also makes award-winning spirits, but this is a wine podcast.) Whether you are new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine. Visit today to find your next favorite, where shipping is available.