The fortified drink known as "Madeira" comes from the
small Island of the same name that lies in the Atlantic Ocean. Although
vines were introduced into this Island in the 15th Century, the Madeira
wine we taste today was only refined to its present state in the eighteenth
century. It is reputed that the quality of the soil was established when
the 15th Century discoverer João Gonçalves Zarco deliberately set fire to
the forests on the Island. They were so dense that are reputed to have
burned for a period of 7 years. It thus created a rich mixture of volcanic
soil and potash that the vines appreciate. It is said that in order to
create good Madeira it has to travel. This was discovered by the
trading ships that used the Island as a port on their eastern trips
through the Tropics. The wine was thus raised to a temperature of 45ºC.
through the Tropics and cooled again in the months of the ensuing journey.
This was discovered almost by accident when a shipment of wine was returned
to the Island and the shippers realized why the flavour had been so
The popularity of Madeira through recent history is well recorded
and here are two small and interesting stories.
"Napoleon, in order to have some comfort in his exile arranged to sail
past the Island to trade some of his precious paintings for "pipes"
of Madeira with the Leacock family."
"Winston Churchill on raising a glass of Bual remarked Do
you realize that this wine was made when Marie Antoinette was still alive."
The English settlers in the middle of the 18th Century basically developed the
Madeira wine trade. The first two people to become successfully involved
were John Leacock, an orphan son of a London weaver, and Francis Newton, a young
Scot. Initially the wine was not fortified but this changed around the 1750s to
improve its life span during long voyages. The producers then experimented and
designed a process named "estufagem"
Today, the wine undergoes its normal fermentation either prior or after to
being treated to the "estufagem" process. To produce the sweeter
variety the treatment is used prior to fermentation. The process involves
the heat of the sun and it is assisted by hot water pipes to maintain the
temperature between 40º-50º C. for a period of six months.
There are four main different types of Madeira that are named after
the grape from which it is made. The driest is Sercial that normally
is aged for at least eight years. It is a dry wine drunk as an aperitif or
with fish, and best served slightly chilled. Verdelho is sweeter in
taste and classifies as a medium-dry wine and often used to accompany a
slice of fruity cake. Bual is a dark and nutty medium-sweet wine and
often served as an alternative to a Port wine. Malmsey is much the
sweeter and heavier of the four, and happily drunk as an after-dinner
digestive. There are available bottles that can be purchased that carry a
date from 100 to 200 years old!
The main "Madeira Houses" are Barbeiro, Blandy Brothers,
Cossart Gordon, Harveys, Henriques & Henrigues, Leacock, Lmelino, Power
Drury & Co. and Rutherford & Miles.