If wines were akin to a high school popularity contest, those comprised of grapes such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir would collectively makeup the “cool kids” contingent. Occupying the other end of the spectrum, seated in the back of the lunchroom with the nerds and geeks of the wine world, lay the fortified wines of Porto, Sherry and Madeira. Of these, Madeira’s fortunes appear to have diminished the most from the height of its heyday. At the beginning of the 19th century, it was the drink of choice for presidents and royalty alike (Thomas Jefferson was an unabashed Madeira fan). Fast-forward to the present and it’s become virtually unknown to the masses as a fine wine choice. Rather, the average consumer is more likely to encounter Madeira as a condiment utilized by celebrity chefs (it’s used to make sauce madère) than as a glass of wine worthy of contemplation on its own.
True Madeira wine hails from the Portuguese archipelago of the same name. As its category suggests, Madeira wines are fortified with neutral grape spirit (brandy) during the winemaking process. It’s a tradition that stems from a time before conveniences like refrigeration and modern transportation. The practice of fortifying a wine could ensure its arrival on wooden ships in far flung ports of call in good drinking condition without degrading along the way. Historically, the Madeira Islands were often an east-west stopping point for many seafarers of the age.
Madeira is produced in both sweet and dry styles from indigenous grapes with names like Sercial, Bual, Malmsey and Tinta Negra.
It also differs significantly from its fortified cousins, Port and Sherry, in that the wine is purposefully exposed to high temperatures over time in a process called estufagem. Estufagem is meant to mimic the long voyages the wines underwent on sea vessels back in the colonial period. With time, the wine develops a rich tawny color and takes on Madeira’s hallmark oxidative and reductive characteristics.
Justino’s is perhaps the most important producer in Madeira with a history dating to 1870. The winery represents roughly fifty percent of the growers on the main island. Justino Rainwater Madeira ($18) is a great introduction to these distinctive wines. It’s comprised mostly of Tinta Negra grown on red and black basaltic sub-soil. Mildly sweet with dried fruits, caramel, walnut and tangy acidity, this wine is a suitable as an aperitif or served alongside French Onion soup.
Jim Greeley, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits Wine & Spirits Supervisor
Follow me on Twitter @ABCWineJimG