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Madeira… old is beautiful

The fortified wine “Madeira” is produced in the island popularly known as “Atlantic pearl” strategically seated in the middle of the Atlantic, between the Portuguese and west African coasts, on an important trade route of old. Madeira (the wine).

Madeira is a volcanic island, and it’s quite a challenge growing grapes here. If it hadn’t been for the island’s important position on the trade routes, thus creating a strong market for wine, it’s likely that no one would have made the effort. Vines are grown in tiny plots—typically, a smallholder will grow vines on pergolas, with cabbages and other crops growing underneath. There are an estimated 14 000 different vineyard plots on the island, and with a total vineyard area of 1700 hectares, it’s clear that most plots cover just a fraction of a hectare each.

Each of the major companies will therefore buy in grapes from many hundreds of different growers, creating obvious difficulties for quality control. The humidity and warm temperatures are ideal conditions for fungal diseases, which are a real problem. As a result, there are quite a lot of disease-resistant non-Vitis vinifera grapes on the island, which aren’t allowed to go into bottled Madeira.

| The Wine

• Madeira DOC

It was discovered by accident: the story goes that wines from the island were taken on board, fortified with alcohol to survive conditions at sea, and then were baked in the tropical heat of the voyage, developing all sorts of interesting flavours on the way. Thus Madeira is a fortified wine that gains complexity by being exposed to high temperatures over a long period.

The Denomination of Origin of Madeira is made up of 450 hectares of vine, in which red and white grape varieties are planted. Although Tinta Mole is the most planted grape variety in the region, there are also some rare grape varieties, such as Sercial, Boal, Malvasia and Verdelho.

The best Madeira wines are those that come from vines planted in low altitude areas. The Malvasia grape is the most famous one for the production of Madeira’s fortified wine. Other grape varieties used include: Sercial, Boal and Verdelho, conferring four levels of sweetness to the wine (sweet, half sweet, half dry and dry).

The wine’s ageing period determines its quality. Madeira wines can be classified according to their ageing years: five, ten and fifteen. Madeira wines aged for twenty years and made up of one single grape variety are called Frasqueira or Vintage. Recently, a new type of Madeira has emerged – Colheita. Though produced from one single grape variety, these wines are younger than Frasqueiras. Lower quality wines are commercialised without age designation.

Besides its extraordinary qualities regarding aromas and flavour, Madeira´s fortified wine has also a unique longevity. Madeira is almost eternal, since its qualities remain unaltered for many years after bottling.

| Other appellations:

• Madeirense DOC

• Vinho Regional (VR) Madeirense

These two new appellations is a responce to the need to produce a home grown non-fortified wine for islanders and tourists alike. Production of these have increase 400% in five years and new plantations the islands of Madeira and Porto Santo are cropping up everywhere… watch this space.

| Madeira grape varietals


Malvasia Fina on the main land this grape variety doesn’t tolerate very high temperatures it is necessary to study the ideal time for harvesting, in order to avoid deteriorating the berries. It is particularly sensitive to rottenness and some vine diseases and pests, such as powdery mildew. Boal/Bual produces moderate acidity wines, with delicate and not very complex aromas and flavours. This grape variety is regularly produced and has medium-sized bunches and berries.

Complexa Used in the production of Madeira. The grape was created as a crossing of Castelao, Muscat Hamburg and Tintinha in the 1960s. The grape provides a deep color with less tannins than the commonly used Tinta Negra Mole.
Deliciosa -
Malvasia Two types of Malvasia grow on Madeira. The traditional higher quality one is Malvasia Cândida: the more widely planted is Malvasia de São Jorge
Sercial Sercial are greenish-yellowish, elliptic grapes, somewhat tart and more or less hard. They ripen late, yielding a rather tasteless but fragrant fruit. The wine, when mature (under 10 years it is rough and tart), is dry and of excellent quality.
Terrantez Terrantez is originally from Dão, where it is known as Folgasão. It is also grown in the Azores, namely in Pico and Biscoitos, and in Madeira, where it is considered a noble grape variety for the production of fortified wine. Terrantez is a rare grape variety and is currently almost extinct. One of the reasons for the extinction of this grape variety is that it gets easily rotten (it often does not last till harvesting). Terrantez’s bunches are small, compact and made up of small yellowish green berries. Wines produces by Terrantez are very scented, full-bodied and have a persistent flavour.
Tinta Negra

Tinta Negra, or simply Negra Mole, is the most planted red grape variety in Madeira.
It is also grown in the Algarve, though it doesn’t have the qualities of that produced in the island. This is due to the weather conditions. Tinta Negra Mole has medium-sized and big bunches made up of berries whose colour is not uniform (varying between bluish-black and pinkish). This grape variety produces a very sweet red wine and has been used to produce Madeira wine. However, producers concluded that, no matter how good this grape variety’s quality was, its wines would always be inferior to those produced from Boal, Sercial and Malvasia.

Verdelho Verdelho has become famous for being one of the grape varieties used in the production of Madeira’s fortified wine. After the phylloxera plague, its cultivation in the island decreased; however, it is still used in the production of table and fortified wines. Verdelho is also grown in the Azores. Lately, this grape variety has been used in the production of Australian wines. Wines produced with Verdelho are very aromatic and balanced. Madeira wines made from this grape variety are half dry and have delicate aromas. Verdelho has small compact bunches made up of small yellowish green berries.