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The four styles of Madeira and how to identify the best

In a dusty corner of many a kitchen and drinks cabinet lies a seldom sipped and quite often forgotten bottle of Madeira, a fortified wine that saw its heyday in the 1800s.

It’s a wine that was created by chance and trial and error during the Age of Exploration, when European kingdoms sent their ships far and wide to trade and explore the world. The island of Madeira was perfectly situated as a port of call for ships journeying to and from the East Indies. Wines from Madeira did not last long because of the heat. As port was already being made at that time, it was reasoned that if a bit more alcohol was added, perhaps the wine would be more stable in its travels.

A wine’s hook is a thunderbolt that bypasses mere words and thoughts

The fortunate discovery of Madeira happened when a shipment of wine was refused at its destination and returned to Madeira after a long journey to the East Indies and back. The tropical heat that the wine was subjected to over long months transformed it. The pipe (a cask that holds more than 400 litres) was opened, and a delectable wine was discovered.

The early versions of Madeira were called vinho da roda (round-trip wines). Madeira producers were soon looking for a more cost-effective way of making the wine other than sending it on a long sea voyage. The estufagem method came by trial and error, where pipes of Madeira were stored in the warmest and sunniest parts of the winery, or even just outdoors in the sun, where, with heat and time, the wine would be transformed.

There are four styles of Madeira, which get their names from the white wine grape used in them: sercial, verdelho, bual and malvasia, and in this order, they range from dry to sweet. How does a wine geek remember? By using a mnemonic: silly vultures bore me. If the grape is listed on the label, the Madeira must be composed of at least 85 per cent of that varietal. Red grapes can also be used, primarily negra mole but also complexa, terrantez, bastardoand moscatel.

Today there are three methods of making Madeira via the estufagem process.

Cuba de Calor is a commercial method where the wine is in massive tanks that are heated to about 45 degrees Celsius for the minimum required period of 90 days as dictated by the Madeira Wine Institute. This method is prevalent for simple Madeiras that are mostly used for cooking.

Armazem de Calor is an exclusive method developed by the Madeira Wine Company, where pipes are stored in a room that is heated to sauna-like temperatures. This process can take six to 12 months depending on the style of Madeira being made.

Canteiro follows the original, natural method of making the Madeira, where the pipes of wine are heated and aged by Mother Nature – a process that can take up to 100 years for the best and the oldest.

The best Madeiras are those labelled Special Reserve or Extra Reserve (10 and 15 years respectively) as these are the ones aged naturally via the Canteiro method.

Colheita is a Madeira from a single vintage that has been aged at least five years, but not more than 19, before bottling.

Madeira that has more than 19 years in the cask can at this point be a vintage (only the year can be on the bottle, but not the word “vintage”) or Frasqueira Madeira (which commands a higher price), but without the word “colheita” on the bottle.

Sherry, port and Madeira are versatile Christmas drinks and not too pricey

The best thing about Madeiras is that they do not change once the bottle is opened:it has already been exposed to all the extremes that are avoided with other wines – heat, light and air. As long as the cork in the bottle is sound, an opened bottle of Madeira can last for a long time.

And what of its taste? Sercial Madeira, best served slightly chilled, can have toasted walnut, warm peach and ripe citrus notes. Verdelho, also best chilled, has more freshly cut hay, lemon peel and cool cucumber flavours. Bual has a just-out-of-the-oven biscuity warm vanilla and cinnamon muffin feel on the palate. Malvasia, also known as malmsey, is a rich, salty caramel with a hint of Chinese five-spice and Christmas cake in the glass.

Ages ago, I was helping one of my wine mentors who had organised a once-in-a-lifetime tasting of vintage madeiras – 1745, 1795, 1845, 1895 and 1945. There was only one bottle of each. The bottles were carefully uncorked and quickly decanted as we did not know how long the wines would last once opened. I still vividly remember aromas in the room where we held our tasting – exotic spices, sandalwood, cinnamon and leather-bound books. It was history, as the oldest wine was made before Napoleon Bonaparte was born.

And what to sip on after a tasting of this calibre? The host served Beaujolais Nouveau.