Did you know that Madeira wines were the first European wines to travel to the Americas and Asia? And that Madeira was the choice to toast the signing ot the United States Declaration of Independence? Now you do! Join us on a tour to find out more.

Madeira wine was discovered by accident. The Portuguese island, known as the gem of the Atlantic, served as an important refueling point for ships crossing the ocean, where barrels where filled with local wine to which the crew added brandy to improve its durability on long voyages. Over time, it was found that the warmth of the ship’s cargo compartment dramatically improved the quality of the wines, making them richer, more complex and more stable.
In the mid-18th century, the Madeira winemakers started to copy this process, which is how the two maturation methods used today developed.

The making of Madeira wines
There are only 500 hectares of vineyards on the island. The grapes are traditionally harvested by hand from mid-August to mid-October as part of a dedicated festival, and transported to the winery where the stem is removed and the fruit crushed to remove the seeds and peel. And The resulting must, obtained from pressing, is fermented and then fortified, a process in which the fermentation is stopped when 96% alcoholic distillate is added to the must. The length of time involved dictates the style of the wine – dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet, and sweet. The wines are then be subjected to one of two maturation processes.

Estufagem process
The Estufa is a stainless steel tank that heats the wine to 45-50 °C for at least three months using a heating coil. The wine is then matured at room temperature for at least 90 days, allowing it to cool gradually, until it reaches the desired quality for bottling which cannot happen before 31 October of the second year after harvest.

Madeira wine is always the result of blending with wine made from other grape varieties, usually the Tinta Negra. The year on the label indicates the age of the youngest wine in the blend.

Canteiro process
This process takes its name from the wooden beams (canteiros) that hold the barrels in which the wines are aged on storage racks at different heights in warehouses for at least two years, where they are exposed to the warming effect of the natural heat of the sun. The barrels are not completely filled, so the wine oxidizes slowly, producing spicy and smoky aromas with flavours of roasted nuts and dried fruits. Due to the complete oxidation, these wines, like Tawny Port, will be robust and can be stored not only for years, but for centuries.

After a few years, the barrels at the highest level will move to a lower, cooler level. When they arrive at the ground level, the wine is finally bottled and then allowed to rest for a further two years before being made avilble for sale.

The best Vintage and Premium wines are made with the Canteiro process.

The Madeira wine styles
Finest wine is made mostly from Tinta Negra grapes, aged for at least three years using the Estufagem process.

Rainwater is a light, pale-coloured wine that largely contains Tinta Negra grapes. This type also matures for three years with the Estufagem process. It is the most popular Madeira style among American and British consumers.

Reserve (5, 10, 15, 20, 30, 40, 50+-year-old wines) where the indicated year refers to the minimum aging period of the wine. The wines over 20 years old have an intense, complex, rich aroma, good structure, complexity and balance. They are delicate, smooth and velvety with a long-lasting finish.

Colheita (vintage) – a wine with an indication of the year of harvest, aged in wooden barrels for at least five years, with outstanding characteristics.

Frasqueira or Garrafeira – the year of harvest and the grape variety are also indicated on the bottle after maturing in wooden barrels for at least 20 years.

Read more in the August issue of AlgarvePLUS

Words: Lívia Mokri

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