What Makes Madeira Wine So Special?

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Part One: The Illustrious History of Madeira Wine

Part Two: How Sweet Is Madeira Wine?


I said that the two most important features of Madeira wine are the fortification and the ageing. Part Two dealt with the fortification part so that brings us onto ageing.

If you know anything about wine, you know to keep your bottle of wine in a cool, dry place and that once you’ve popped the cork, you should finish bottle in the next few days. However, with Madeira wine, it’s completely the opposite – they heat it up and expose it to oxygen!

Legend says that the 17th century traders discovered that the wine made on the island of Madeira was actually better after a long time at sea. The story goes that one barrel of Madeira had been forgotten during a long journey across the Equator and was only discovered once the ship arrived back at port. They then realised that the wine was of far better quality, despite having been under the hot sun for many months, than it was when it was first loaded onto the boat! This type of wine is called a Vinho da Roda but it has now become very much a rarity.

photo-1414073875831-b47709631146Sending barrels out to sea is a hugely time-consuming and laborious process, so nowadays there are two ways in which they recreate the same effect: estufagem and canteiro.

Estufagem is the most common method, mainly used for the young blends. Basically, you put your fortified wine in a stainless steel tank. This tank will be equipped with a “radiator” of hot water below. During 3 or 4 months, the wine will be heated to around 50-55 degrees C. (The exact temperature depends on the producer and they like to keep these things secret!) Afterwards, this fortified-and-heated wine will spend a minimum of 3 years in wooden barrels.

Canteiro is the more laborious approach. The wine is put in large, old barrels on the top floor of a three storey building, directly under south-facing windows. There’s no artifical heating, just the warmth of the sun. After a year or so, they move the barrel down to the middle level, and then finally (and we’re talking many years later) down to ground floor. Why is this so special? Because the level of evaporation (what we call the angel’s share) when made this way is enormous… and you end up with a deliciously concentrated and complex wine.)

Generally speaking, a canteiro aged wine will be far more expensive, but also of better quality than a wine aged via estufagem.

As you will no doubt understand, this idea of heating a wine is completely unique to Madeira and it is one of the major contributing factors why Madeira wine is so special.

It also means that a bottle of Madeira can be opened and left for a month, two months, six months, even a year without going bad!

I don’t know of any other wine for which this is possible!


Part Four: The Different Styles of Madeira Wine.

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