What Is Madeira? A Sweet Wine Like No Other

Posted on: May 3rd, 2013 by

What is Madeira?
If you want to know the answer to the question, “What is Madeira?”, who better to ask than the Chris Blandy, CEO of the Madeira Wine Company? Chris previously helped me understand why Madeira was so popular in Colonial America. But he told me so much more that I had share the rest. So to find out more about this sweet wine produced on an island about 500 miles from the African coast and 1000 miles from the Portuguese coast (map), please enjoy this Q&A between myself and Chris:

What makes Madeira distinct from all other sweet wines?

Madeira is fortified with vinic alcohol (grape alcohol) at 97º rather than grape brandy as used in Port. Madeira’s aging process is unique as we promote the heating of wine by storing the barrels high up in the attics of our lodges in the centre of Funchal, where the natural ambient temperature averages 25ºC/77ºF.

The wines’ acidity is a key factor as whilst our richest wines can have up to 130 g/l of residual sugar, the underlying natural acidity gives the wine a lively freshness. The acidity, sourced from the rich volcanic soil on the island, gives structure to the wine to allow it to age through this heating process.

Talk about the challenges of producing Madeira in regards to the vineyards and climate.

Today, we work with approximately 600 farmers with an average size of vineyard of 1,000 m2 or 0.25 acres, all located in different areas of the island. We contract 4 agents in strategic villages to act as our representatives, passing messages and ensuring our quality control is adhered to. Nowadays access to most parts of the island is relatively easy, but, in the past, it would take us the whole day to visit 2 or 3 farmers on the northwest [part] of the island. Many times, we were forced to spend the night in these small villages to avoid the long drive home and out again the next day. Development and social change have meant that there is pressure to maintain these vineyards. The average age of farmer is high and their children are looking for opportunities in the city or abroad. We are working hard with our farmers to ensure that the tradition is continued, by giving them and their family support throughout the year.

As the island benefits from 7 different micro-climates, one result from climate change, in my opinion, will be the redefinition of growing areas for the varietals and, in the future, we may see more vineyards planted higher up the mountains where the temperature is cooler. In the past, the family has never owned vineyards, with the exception of a small property in the north in the 80s. In 2012, we decided to take a more proactive approach to secure the continued production of the white varietals, especially Sercial, Verdelho, and Malmsey, by planting 8 hectares/20 acres of vineyard in the north and in the south. We have done this for the long term view of potential growth of sales in these varieties, to allow us to understand better the climate change impact on the varietals through research together with the Madeira institute, and also to secure production for the next generation.

Can it be a dry wine as well?

Sercial, a varietal grown either at 800 metres on the warmer south of the island, or by the sea on the cooler north, produces the driest style of Madeira, with RS levels at around 50 g/l.

What are your favorite dessert pairings with Madeira? [Ed note: Bual and Malmsey are grapes used in Madeira production. Alvada is a proprietary blend of Bual and Malmsey grapes.]

10 year old Bual with Pecan Pie or apple crumble.
5 year old Alvada with dark chocolate fondant
10 year old Malmsey with sticky toffee pudding, roasted pears, or chocolate semifreddo

What is Madeira?Can you pair savory foods with Madeira? I see sushi on the website; how does Madeira work with sushi and which one do you recommend?
We have done a lot of work with sommeliers and Michelin star chefs to pair foods with the wide range of styles of madeira. I have had many lunches and dinners with just madeira wine, such as chilled sercial as an aperitif, bual served with foie gras, malmsey with roast duck, verdelho with cheese and malmsey with dessert. The truth be told, I do like to have the occasional bottle of red wine for my main course…

Here are some of the food pairings that I have done over the past year:
Sercial: salty roasted nuts, Salmon sashimi, east coast oysters
Verdelho: Tuna sashimi, octopus sashimi, west coast oysters, miso soup, strong hard cheeses
Bual: Foie Gras, Boudin Basque (chive pomme puree, caramelized apple, roasted artichoke), or blue cheese such as Rogue Creamery’s Rogue River Blue
Malmsey: NY strip steak with caramelized onions

For someone who’s never tasted Madeira, what are they missing out on?

I was told once that Madeira is like a Ferrari – everyone has heard of it but few have ever tried one. With the amount of information readily available, the consumers nowadays are much more informed on what is out there and have greater and easier access to all different types of products. Opinion makers are helping shape trends and “fashionable” products come into the spotlight as quickly as they leave it. The Madeira market not only has the benefit of being a very small and relatively unknown player in a huge arena, but also that it is completely protected in terms of trademark. We currently have a project called Glass in Hand which is all about getting the wine in front of the consumer. We have found that as soon as the consumer tastes the 4 different styles of Madeira, their preconception on the wine vanishes and once we explain the rarity of the product, they quickly become avid fans! We must protect the traditional market of Madeira, whilst helping the new consumers understand what Madeira is all about.

Photos courtesy ahisgett and ZoeShuttleworth.

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