Madeira Stages A Major Comeback

Wine tasting, and making, convention tells us that oxidized wine is a very bad thing. When too much air gets into the bottle, it can cause flavors to turn funky and colors to brown. Of course, for some winemakers, these are precisely the desired effects. To wit: the fortified wines of Madeira.

Port has been the better-known Portuguese fortified wine for some time. Madeira, for many years, was thought of as nothing more than cooking wine. But now that sherry, the Spanish fortified wine that also fell prey to this stigma, is trendy again (largely due to it being discovered by mixologists), its Portuguese cousin, Madeira, is hoping to reintroduce itself too.

Madeira is named for the island on which it's made, discovered by the Portuguese in the 15th century in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Early settlers began making wine on Madeira, but it wasn't until the late 17th century that the benefits of oxidation were recognized. The wines, which were taken on trade ships making their long journeys along commercial routes, would return with rich, nutty flavors. Think of umami, before umami was was a culinary something. Lightbulb moment! Winemakers started sending the wines around the world just to achieve this effect. Later on, Madeira wine became popular among Brits and Americans. George Washington is said to have drunk a pint of it every day for lunch.

Like sherry, Madeira comes in different styles, ranging from dry to sweet. On the drier end of the scale, there are wines made from the Sercial and Verdelho grapes. Sweeter Madeiras are made from Boal or Malvasia. (These are all white grapes, but there are a few Madeiras made from red grapes.) The wines must be aged a minimum of five years; however, it's not unusual to find Madeiras aged 20 or 30 years. It's a slow, expensive process — reflected in the price tag on the bottle, though not as costly as it used to be. The wines are no longer sent around the world by boat; they are now aged using a heating technique, called estufagem, designed to mimic the trade ship journeys of yore.

As Madeira stages its comeback, you're likely to see bartenders playing around with it, just as they have done with sherry. This is nothing new: Madeira was a key ingredient in the storied punch recipe for Wassail, along with several baking spices, apples and half a dozen eggs. It's also mixed with spirits in a less obvious way — empty Madeira casks, like port ones, are used to finish Scotch, among other things. If you're looking to experiment with it yourself, you might try one of these 5 Recommended Madeiras:

  1. Henriques & Henriques Single Harvest 1998: Finished in whiskey casks, this nutty, spicy Madeira still manages to be zingy and clean tasting. ($30 for 500 ml)

  2. Justino's Reserve Fine Dry 5 Year: Lightly funky upon first whiff. Funk is a good thing here. Earthy and fruity in the mouth, with gentle sweetness. ($22)

  3. Broadbent Reserve Fine Rich 5 Year: A lovely brown color and sharp acidity, with fresh fruit flavors and a hint of the herbaceous. ($25)

  4. D'Oliveira Bual 1968: Despite its age, this sweet, spiced wine has held on to bright fruit favors and acidity. ($175)

  5. Barbeito VB Reserva Medium Dry: Funky and complex, this wine is made in limited quantities, hence the small bottle. Here is oxidation at its best and most daring. ($40)

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