Part One: The Illustrious History of Madeira Wine
If you have read Part One, you’ll understand how unforgiving the environment is on Madeira for growing vines. In the same way that Champagne (for a long time Europe’s most northerly wine-producing region) has its own style of making its base wine palatable (think bubbles!) Madeira also needed to develop something.
It can be simply broken down into two parts: fortification and ageing.
If you are not familiar with the concept of fortification, it can explained as: the addition of a strong neutral alcohol at some point during the fermentation process. This instantaneously kills the yeasts and as a result, you can end up with some sugar left in your grapes – think port or vin doux naturel.
Most fortified wines are sweet. What is special about Madeira (but also what complicates it significantly) is that you can choose when that neutral alcohol (normally it’s 96% ABV!) is added.
If you add it early in the fermentation process, you have a lot of sugar left over.
If you add it at the end, once all the sugars have been transformed by the yeasts, you can have a dry wine.
There are four different levels of sweetness for Madeira wine… and we’ll come to that later.
There are five main grape varieties used in Madeira wine production. These are:
- Sercial – pronounced “ser-seal“
- Verdelho – pronounced “verd-ell-o“
- Boal or Bual – pronounced “boo-al“
- Malvasia or Malmsey – pronounced “malm-see”
- Tinta Negra (the only red-skinned grape in this list)
Why all these different styles?
After 5 centuries of winemaking, techniques have evolved to create optimal wines. Think of it as natural selection. They have learnt that sercial is best when allowed to fully ferment and made into a dry wine.
Interestingly, sercial was once upon a time grown at an altitude of 800m. Now all the plantations are between 150-200m because they realised that it was better when grown right next to the sea.
Don’t worry! This is where it gets easier…. those first four grape varieties also refer to the level of sweetness.
Sercial is always dry. This is strictly reglemented.
Verdelho is always medium dry.
Boal / Bual is always medium sweet.
Malvasia / Malmsey is always sweet.
The only tricky personality is Tinta Negra because it can be any level of sweetness and unfortunately Tinta Negra represents 83% of the total production.
Fortunately, Madeira wines are (nearly) always 100% varietal wines, meaning that if ever you see a bottle of Madeira wine with the word Sercial on the label, I can guarantee you that it will be bone dry. Same with Malvasia / Malmsey, it will be sweet.
If none of those four styles are mentioned, it will be a Tinta Negra (but the law changed in January 2015 and you will start seeing Tinta Negra more often) so you need to check on the back label.
Just a quick aside because there are two other grape varieties on the island:
Terrantez (also known as Cascal) – a white grape accounting for 3 hectares in surface area but only 500 kilos of grapes in harvest 2014.
Bastardo (also known as Trousseau in France) – it’s a red grape and not even one bottle of 100% bastardo is made on Madeira.
If you happen to stumble across either of these two varieties, it will be marked on the label. However, because of their ridiculously low yields, Madeira wine growers have no interest in growing either of these varieties and they have practically become extinct.
Part Three: What Makes Madeira Wine Special?