The Illustrious History of Madeira Wine

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Madeira is both an island and a wine. It is a story which goes back over 500 years. It is as much tradition as it is modernity. It is also a journey which touches all four far-flung corners of the world.

Despite being a Portuguese territory, the minuscule island of Madeira is actually closer to the coast of Morocco. I can’t really say “located just off” because we’re talking about a distance of 400 miles (640 km.) That’s almost the same as Land’s End to John O’Groats.

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As a result, the climate on this fertile island is distinctly tropical. The temperature rarely varies during the year: you would expect an average of 19-20 degrees in winter and 22-23 degrees in summer. Sounds perfect, right?

Well, yes, for humans but not for growing grapes and making wine. There is sunshine all year round – but it’s rarely strong enough to ripen the grapes. There’s also a “British amount” of rain which falls upon the island’s mountainous terrain – meaning that mildew is always a concern.

This peculiar island gets even stranger:

Madeira is quite possibly the only place on Earth where you can find a field of sugar cane or bananas growing adjacent to a vineyard.

Only 8% of the island is arable land.

The soil is primarily composed of volcanic basalt, which until only very recently was considered as a very poor terroir.

Because of the steep rugged mountains, the vineyards are often right next to the sea.

Were it not for its fortuitous location on the transatlantic shipping route, in all likelihood, we would never have heard of Madeira wine.

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Legend says that the Portuguese first landed on Madeira and its neighbouring islands (Porto Santo and the Desertas) in 1420. At that time, Porto Santo was considered more suitable for agriculture because the island is low-lying, warm and sandy rather than green, wet and mountainous.

It was only with the settlement of the colonies in America and the extra traffic that it brought (16-17th centuries) that the port of Funchal, the capital of Madeira, emerged as the more practical choice for a naval shipping hub.

The 18th century was the golden age for Madeira wine. While new export markets were slowly opening up in Russia, northern Africa and the UK, it was actually the fledgling American colonies who had the lion’s share, consuming a quarter of total annual production. It was so popular that Thomas Jefferson is said to have toasted the Declaration of Independence (1776) with a glass of Madeira wine. Madeira was also mentioned in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography (1791.)


We talk about the Boston Tea Party in 1773 as being one of the defining moments in the run up to the American Revolution…. but I didn’t know that there had actually been a riot in Boston five years before over Madeira wine. An American-managed ship (later to be known as the HMS Liberty) was carrying a few cases of untaxed Madeira wine and found itself in the centre of a controversy in 1768. The subsequent riots and eventual sinking of HMS Liberty was one of the first openly defiant acts against the British government.


So what is Madeira wine? How does it differ from Port or Sherry? Follow this link for Part Two: “How Sweet Is Madeira Wine?”

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