In days gone by it was a common practice for the captains of sea-faring vessels to use wine as both ballast and a means of ensuring the crew be in a buoyant frame of mind. It was during such a conquest to the Orient that a ship stowed on board a consignment of red wine from the Portuguese colony of Madeira. The wine would deteriorate during the arduous passage, and it was a common practice to add brandy to the elixir as a preservative. By a fluke, a portion of the wine completed the round trip and returned to its port of origin (Funchal) and was deemed far superior to the wine that undertook the initial voyage. An auspicious start for a new wine simply named, Madeira.
Revolutions have been plotted, declarations toasted and presidents inaugurated with Madeira wine. Warring nations have enacted trade agreements to keep the production and flow amiable. Scurvy, the much maligned and miss-understood ailment witnessed its own demise amongst sailors and explorers because of Madeira wine.
The questions then begging to be asked are, what is Madeira, and why is it so special?
During the long sea voyages the wines would be subjected to prolonged periods of excessive heat and humidity and constant agitation caused by the ships pitching and rolling, these factors essentially cooked and oxidized the wines. The result is a fortified wine that is deep, rich and complex with enticing aromatics. In more recent times to emulate these conditions a system called an Estufagem was developed and utilized. This effectively mirrors the effects of aging by subjecting the wine to high temperatures, up to 55°C for extended periods of time, months or even decades.
Tempted to try a tipple?
I highly recommend the Historic Series from the Rare Wine Company. This series recreates the styles that were in vogue when Madeira was America’s favorite wine. There are four to choose from, each made with one of the traditional grape varietals from the Island, those being, Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey.
Charleston Sercial ($49.99)
This is the driest of the Madeiras mentioned here. The wine is delicate and vibrant with a high acidity and hints of tart citrus fruits and almonds. When chilled an excellent aperitif and fantastic with hearty bisques and rich soups.
Savannah Verdelho ($49.99)
This is a touch fuller, with a hint of smoke on the nose. There are flavors of ginger, orange peel, and vanilla with a chocolate covered pears finish on the palette. The spicy and fruity characteristics play in unison.
Boston Bual ($49.99)
The smoky elements remain but the acid is giving way to a higher residual sugar content: think smoky molasses. Raisin fruits are more prominent with a touch of caramelized walnuts. Rich and sweet but not cloying.
New York Malmsey ($49.99) Rich and sweet. Toffee and chocolate drizzled with caramel, dates and figs for the fruit portion. Full and delicious, perfect with a sumptuous and indulgent chocolate pudding.
James D-B, Beltramo’s Wine Consultant