Madeira Wine: A Beginner's Guide to This Fortified Favorite
Even if you've never sipped Madeira wine, you may have enjoyed a bite of it. That's because Madeira sauce is a classic in French cuisine, used with everything from roast beef and filet mignon to pork chops and chicken. (Even The Cheesecake Factory has chicken Madeira on the menu — apparently, it's their most popular chicken dish.)
But while it's a favorite when it comes to cooking wines, Madeira wine has much more to offer. In this guide, we'll explore the details of this incredibly peculiar Portuguese wine, including how and where it's made, the different varieties available, and the best ways to enjoy it.
What Is Madeira Wine?
Madeira is a fortified wine that hails from the island of Madeira in Portugal, about 300 miles off the coast of Morocco. Ranging from sweet to dry, it's primarily made with a handful of grape varieties, including Tinta Negra Mole, Sercial, Verdelho, Bual (also known as Boal), and Malvasia (aka Malmsey).
As with other fortified wines such as Marsala, Port, and Sherry, Madeira is made with a distilled grape spirit (usually brandy). Thanks to this added dose of alcohol, Madeira has a higher alcohol level compared to the average glass of wine — usually about 18-20% ABV versus 12% alcohol, which is standard in the United States.
But unlike any other type of wine in the world (including its fortified brethren), Madeira is a singular creation thanks to its unique aging process. Keep reading, and you'll see what we mean.
How Is Madeira Wine Made?
In winemaking, the fermenting process is arguably the most crucial component — after all, it's what turns grape juice into wine. Depending on whether the winemaker wants a sweet or dry Madeira wine, fermenting will be disrupted to fortify it with the distilled spirit.
If the wine is fortified before fermentation finishes, there will be more residual sugar, resulting in a sweet wine. If the spirit is added after fermentation is complete, the outcome will be a drier wine with lower sugar levels.
That's where Madeira's similarities to other wines end. Whereas other winemakers do everything they can to avoid having the wine contact heat and oxygen (the two biggest culprits that make wine go bad), Madeira wine producers deliberately engage these factors.
One way to heat the wine is through an estufagem, which is a large container typically made of stainless steel. For this method, the Madeira is heated for 3-4 months, depending on the set temperature.
The other way to heat Madeira is through the canteiro method. In this case, the wine is held in casks (usually oak casks) that are placed in attic rafters where they can soak up the sun’s heat. This process occurs for a minimum of four years.
Now, we know what you're thinking. This all sounds a bit crazy and esoteric.
Here’s where the practice comes from. Back in the day, shippers would transport Madeira wine in casks that had to travel long distances from the tiny Portuguese island. Naturally, these tropical voyages included varying climates and exposure to the elements. But rather than destroying the wine, shippers considered this "vinho da roda" (round-trip) enhanced the wine's flavor. As a result, a new winemaking process was born.
How Long Does Madeira Last?
While most bottles of wine can last years unopened, they will eventually break down. But due to its unusual heating and aging process, an unopened bottle of Madeira wine can last hundreds of years.
Even when you open it, Madeira can last for months and even years. Unlike other wines that will turn into a vinegary liquid after too much oxidation, Madeira doesn't have that problem. Just make sure to store the wine properly — in a cool, dark space away from heat.
Bottom line: The insane shelf life of Madeira makes it one of the best wine investments you can make. It can literally last a lifetime or longer.
Different Types of Madeira Wine
Madeira is mostly made with red grapes although white grapes are also common. Either way, the grape color isn't of much consequence since Madeira gains an amber or toffee-like color through its heating and oxidation process.
While all Madeira wines have high acidity levels, they have different levels of sweetness and types of flavor. Here are the main types you'll come across and examples for each.
- Dry (Seco). This is the driest, crispest, and freshest-tasting style. An example is Sercial.
- Medium-Dry (Meio Seco): This flavor is slightly spicy, smoky, and caramel-like. One example is Verdelho.
- Medium-Sweet (Meio Doce): Lightly sweet with flavors of burnt caramel, coffee, cacao, and raisins. An example of this Madeira wine is Bual.
- Sweet (Doce): The sweetest style with rich chocolate notes, the Malvasia fits in this category.
Note: Tinta Negra Mole grapes are used to make all varieties of Madeira wine, so check the label to know which level of sweetness you’re getting.
How to Enjoy Madeira Wine
While we certainly don't want you to feel hemmed in by any rules about the "proper" way to enjoy wine, there are some guidelines you can follow to help maximize your wine-drinking experience. With that in mind, here are a few tips on how to savor Madeira wine, including the ideal temperature for serving, delicious food pairings, and even the kind of glass you may want to use. It's time to pour, sip, and enjoy.
Most Madeira wine can be served with general wine temperature suggestions. Serve dry Madeira slightly chilled around 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain its fresh crispness. For sweet Madeira, pour it when it’s just slightly cooler than room temperature.
Dry styles of Madeira like Verdelho, Terrantez, and Sercial make a fantastic aperitif. Serve Madeira wine with olives, salads drizzled with a tangy dressing, sushi, or smoked salmon. For an excellent cheese pairing, serve it alongside creamy sheep’s milk cheese or goat cheese. It also pairs perfectly with desserts such as apple tarts and other fruity pastries.
Sweeter styles of Madeira such as Malvasia are excellent digestifs and dessert wines. Serve it with blue cheeses, dried fruit, rich dark chocolate desserts, and sweet pastries with nuts, honey, or berries. If you have a well-aged Madeira, sip it on its own like a fine Cognac.
Type of Glass
It might sound a bit pretentious, but it's actually quite scientific: The type of wine glass you use makes a difference when drinking wine. Researchers have discovered that the shape of a glass affects how wine vapor rises, thus affecting the taste and fragrance you experience.
For drier Madeira wines, use standard white wine or sparkling wine glasses. These glasses provide enough space for you to swirl the wine, which will let it aerate and release its fragrance before you take your first sip.
For sweeter Madeiras, use a small Port wine glass or other dessert wine glass. You could also use a snifter, which is typically used for brandy or bourbon. Either way, these types of glasses have a narrow mouth that will limit evaporation and intensify the aroma.
Enjoy the Wonderful World of Madeira
When it comes to unusual wines, it's hard to beat Madeira. While it's similar to other fortified wines that have a higher alcohol content and longer shelf life, Madeira truly stands on its own.
Not just a wine for cooking or dessert, Madeira is a hearty wine that ranges from dry to sweet and encompasses a variety of flavors. What's more, Madeira's peculiar use of heat and oxygen helps it achieve its singular status as a wine that can last forever (or close to it.)
Now that you know more about Madeira wine, consider adding it to the mix when planning your next wine tasting party.
For more ways to experience the wonders of wine, check out the Usual Wines blog.