Madeira is the largest of a three island archipelago west of North Africa. These autonomous Portuguese islands were discovered in the 15th century, and Prince Henry the Navigator ordered the planting of Malvasia grapes from Greece. These grapes would eventually become the basis for the Madeira wine sold across the world today.
The climate of Madeira is very similar to Morocco or the Azores, with mild temperatures and ocean winds. Vineyards in Madeira must be terraced in “poios” to grow along the mountainous slopes and valleys.
In addition to being delicious, Madeira wine has a fascinating history. Madeira Island became the port of choice for British ships to load wine to export to America and the West Indies. By the turn of the 18th century, American British colonies looking for wine shipments were using this port almost exclusively. The long voyages to American and the West Indies subjected the wines to high temperatures, but consumers found that Madeira wines got better with heat and time. Winemakers began making Madeira wine in “Estufas” (greenhouses) to emulate the high temperature and long journeys without actually having to ship the wines.
Unfortunately, in the mid 1800’s, Madeira vineyards were devastated by a mildew disease, then further destroyed by insects. Only 1,200 of the original 6,000 acres were replanted with true Madeira noble grapes (Malvasia, Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Terrantez). Winemakers began making Madeira wine with Tinta negra grapes mixed with the five noble grapes to save money, but ended up cheapening the name and label.
Great Madeira wine must follow a few requirements. First, it must be made from the Madeira noble grapes. Second, it must be fortified, much like Port. And lastly, it needs to be in a bottle for 20 to 50 years after aging in a cask for 20 years. The result is a truly excellent wine that is worth every penny.