The body, the legs, the breathing time, the fruitiness — there are so many ways to judge a glass of wine that many sophisticated palettes are easily offended by a ‘lesser’ wine. One example of a vintage scorned is world-famous Madeira wine which has endured years of sniffing noses being turned up at its humble presence. But it wasn’t always that way…
Back to the roots
Wine production on Madeira has become an important part of the island’s culture and is believed to have been first introduced by Prince Henry the Navigator in early colonial days. Jesuit priests managed wine trading in the early times and owned many of the first vineyards and large properties on the island.
Over time the monastic order gained significant economic power and became highly influential over the other islanders socially, economically, and, of course, spiritually. English colonialists began trading with Madeira in the latter half of the 18th century and promoted exportation of Madeira wine to many foreign countries.
One of the best known iterations of Madeira wine is the fortified variety. During the days of long sea voyages when Madeira wine was being exported all over the world it was fortified with the addition of brandy to ensure its safe and tasty arrival. Producers and exporters learned that heating the casks helped to preserve the wine. The wine would also acquire a distinctive burnt flavor that brought out new, pleasing tastes.
Modern Madeira Wine
Modern-day Madeira wine comes in many varieties. Dry wines like Sercial and Verdelho are often chilled and served as aperitifs. Sweeter varieties are served with dessert and the richer types like Malmsey are often enjoyed as an after-dinner drink. Madeira vintages offer all types of tastes and pairing options and can be appreciated at any time of day with almost any type of food.
Wine has become an important part of our lives, ritualistic even. From religious services to social soirees, the way we enjoy wine and the diversity of vintages and tastes that we find pleasing change as often as the seasons. Few wines have featured so prominently in international wine culture for so many centuries. Madeira wine’s longevity speaks to both its reliability and strength as a wine with staying power.
Editor’s comment: Madeira is one of my favorite fortified wines. I especially enjoy Madeira when it’s paired with aged cheese.