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Madeira Masterclass


I attended a Madeira Masterclass hosted by Natasha Hughes MW on March 31, 2015 at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust School in Bermondsey, London.


Madeira is a fortified Portuguese wine made in the island of Madeira.  Wine has been made in Madeira for more than 5 centuries and most of it is exported.  Malmsey has appeared in a number of Shakespeare’s plays and the Duke of Clarence is reported to have drowned in a butt of Madeira.  Madeira was even a special retreat for Winston Churchill!  However, one of the problems that Madeira wines face in the market is that people don’t generally opt for heavily fortified wines.

The DOP is Vinho da Madeira and alcohol levels range between 17-22% abv.  Madeira has demarcated regions with specific characteristics and all wines have to be certified by the Madeira Wine, Embroidery and Handicraft Institute (the IVBAM).  Wines are subject to rigorous physical, chemical and sensorial controls and only when they achieve the seal of certification can they be marketed.

Madeira is a unique wine due to the various microclimates, topography, landscape, grape varieties and winemaking traditions.  Madeira is an island in the Atlantic Ocean on the same latitude as Morocco and the ocean has a huge impact on its climate.  It is very mountainous and rainfall varies from 500mm per year in the south to 3000mm at the highest altitudes in the mountains.  Most rain falls during Autumn and Winter (75%) however it is humid all year round.  Temperatures are fairly consistent; rarely cooler than 12-13C in Winter and Summers average around 21-22C.  The increase in altitude by 100m reduces the temperature by about 1C.


Soils in Madeira are produced by volcanic activity and are rich in organic materials, high in acidity, with a clay texture.  They are extremely fertile.  47% of the area is mountains and forests, and most of the agricultural area is on slopes between 200m – 700m above sea level.  Higher than this you get too much rain and it’s too cool.  The only flat regions are around Funchal in the south.  Slopes range in steepness from 16-25%, somewhat akin to the Mosel or Douro valley.  Terraces are carved into the slopes called Poios or Socalcos, with basalt stone walls to stop the topsoil falling into the sea.  Terraces are irrigated by water from canals called Levadas, the construction of which began in the 15th century.


Most growers own around 0.3ha of vineyard and as land is handed down, it is divided amongst the children in the family.  As such, it is extremely fragmented (similar to Burgundy in France) and mechanisation is impossible, which limits how much vineyard you can own/manage.  Total vineyard area is about 500ha and whilst there are more than 2000 grape growers, only around 1400 or so produce grapes on a commercial basis.


Most vines are trained latada (pergola) style.  With such a humid climate, vines are at risk of fungal disease, but the latada system raises grapes off the ground and helps air circulate.  It also promotes high yields (which is a downside of this particular training method).  Some producers use the espalier method (trellising) but espalier requires flatter land, of which there is not much in Madeira.  There are also some old bush vines still in existence (vinha no chao); these are generally old Sercial vines.  Being close to the ground, heat is reflected onto the vines, which helps with ripening.


Pruning takes place in February/March; a little later in the south, and harvest is generally between August and October.  It varies depending on the microclimate and the varietal.  Harvesting is generally a community affair as all grapes have to be picked by hand.  Only 2 Madeira producers own their own vineyards (Henriques & Henriques and Blandys).  Henriques & Henriques still have some old Terrantez vineyards; reputed to be the most difficult grape to grow.


There are 4 noble white grapes and their levels of sweetness are indicated below:

  • Sercial produces dry or extra dry, pale, highly acidic wines, with a Baume degree measurement of less than 1.5.

  • Verdelho is medium dry, almost tropical, with high acidity and a Baume degree measurement of between 1 and 2.5.

  • Boal is medium sweet, has a deeper colour and richer flavour, with a Baume degree measurement of between 2.5 and 3.5.

  • Malmsey (Malvasia) is sweet, full bodied and dark in colour, with a Baume degree measurement of more than 3.5.


Then there is Tinta Negra – a black grape found in entry level 3 year old wines.  Whilst not perceived to be very good quality, it is the workhorse amongst grapes.  If it is produced at high yields, it creates fairly average wines, but at low yields and with considerable time and effort, it can produce some excellent wines.  Styles range from dry to sweet.


Finally, there is Terrantez.  This is very rare, traditional and was almost extinct.  Until recently, there were only about 2ha of Terrantez left on the island.  It is thin skinned, prone to fungal disease and yields are extremely low.  There has been a renewal of interest in this varietal recently as it can make some very good wines, and plantings are starting to increase.  There are now some 4-5ha in production.  It grows better at low altitudes in the south as it suffers from humidity.  It is a white grape with small close knit berries and produces medium–dry to medium-sweet wines.


One common feature of all Madeira wines is their high acidity, which stops even the sweetest wines from being cloying.  Another is their longevity and by virtue of the way they are aged, their stability.


Grapes are generally picked with potential alcohol of 9-10%.  Fermentation time depends on how sweet you want the wine to be.  Malmsey has the shortest fermentation which leaves behind more residual sugar.  Sercial is fermented for longer and produces drier wines.


In terms of heating processes, the “estufagem” ageing process is intended to replicate the journey across the ocean that Madeira wines once undertook.  When wines crossed the Atlantic, they were gradually heated, exposed to oxygen and they maderised.  Often when they had reached the US, they would be put back onto the ship and sent back to Madeira; hence further ageing!  The quickest way to replicate this is the estufagem.  Large stainless steel tanks are heated via a “serpentine method” whereby hot water is piped through them at 45-50C for 3 months.  Wines produced by this method can be quite coarse and some producers prefer to insulate the tanks with a jacket containing hot water, which is a slower but more gentle process.


Once wines finish in the estufa, they are rested for a minimum of 90 days and put into oak casks where they continue ageing.  They are bottled and marketed after 31st October in the 2nd year after harvest.  No Madeira wines are sold <3 years old.


The Madeira Wine Company uses a heating process called “armazens de calor” – a kind of sauna for wine.  Hot water is circulated around a room which more gently heats the wine from 6 months to a year.  Wines produced by this method are more complex and better integrated.


The other process for ageing Madeira wines is the “canteiro”.  This is where wines are put into casks and stored in the upper levels or attics of warehouses, causing water to evaporate and concentrating the wines.  The headspace in the cask allows for slow oxidisation.  This is a much slower process and creates more complex flavours due to the longer time spent in wood.  Wines start life mid amber in colour whereas older wines can be very dark.


Basic Madeira wines are labelled with no indication of age or grape varietal.  Then there are blends which may be age dated 5, 10, 15, 20, 30 and >40 years old.  All wines are subject to tasting by the IVBAM and each house has its own style of wine.


Wines can be labelled with the year of harvest.  Colheita is a single harvest aged for a minimum of 5 years, which does not need to specify grape varietal.  Frasquera is the very highest quality and is aged for at least 20 years.  Then there are Solera wines; not often seen in the UK.  The reason for this is that when Portugal joined the EU, Solera wines were banned.  This ban was rescinded in January 2015, so going forward, we might start to see some of these on the export market.


In terms of aromas and flavours, younger wines have more primary fruit flavours, whereas the older wines have more oxidative notes.  In the UK, we tend to associate Madeira with Christmas as a dessert wine, however, in some countries, Madeira wines are served as an aperitif or with food (think of peking duck or foie gras).  Madeira also works well with sushi.  Older wines are best served at 14-16C, whereas younger wines benefit from being served 1-2C cooler.


The Tasting


Barbeito Rainwater Reserva – Meio Seco 5 Anos; made from Tinta Negra, this wine was pale amber in colour and medium dry.  It had elements of ripe peaches, apricots, cream, honey, syrup, dried fruits and roasted nuts.  It was high in acidity, with a medium (+) body and a medium (+) finish.


HM Borges Bual 10 Anos; sweeter with high levels of acidity, with a medium (+) body and long finish.  It was medium tawny in colour and had a rich intensity of rich caramel, toffee, syrupy peaches and honey.


Henriques & Henriques Sercial 2001; pale amber in colour and a medium (+) intensity with aromas and flavours of orange, citrus and marmalade, and also fig, prune and walnut.  A drier wine than the first two, with plenty of oxidative notes on the nose and palate.  Medium (+) body, high acidity and a long finish.


Oliveiras Meio Seco 15 Anos; medium tawny colour with a medium intensity and aromas of smoke, tar, caramel, dried fruits and roasted nuts.  Medium dry, high acidity and notable high alcohol, with a very long finish.


Justinos Fine Rich Colheita 1995; medium tawny with aromas of black truffles, walnut, plenty of vanilla and rich caramel.  Medium dry, with the usual high acidity, full bodied and again, noticeable alcohol levels.  Palate was very smooth and creamy, rich, mouth-coating with Seville oranges, figs, prunes and plenty of other citrus flavours with a very long finish.


Justinos Terrantez Frasquiera 1978; if the preceding wines were velvety and rich, this one was absolutely silky smooth.  Medium amber in colour, with plenty of intensity on the nose, the usual high acidity and high alcohol, but with a very full body.  Rich caramel, creamy toffee, figs, spices, citrus, roasted almonds, all extremely well integrated with a lovely lingering finish. 


I personally am a huge fan of Madeira – try them, and not just for Christmas!


Copyright of - March, 2015


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