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What is Madeira Wine?


What is Madeira Wine?

Madeira is a special type of Fortified Wine.

It is made on the Portuguese-owned island of Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean, these wines are very resilient and long-living thanks to their high acidity and the way they are made. They even keep indefinitely after they have been opened. This is because the wines are exposed to heat during wine-making, so they are effectively ‘baked’ and thus protected from oxidation. This process is known as estufagem.

The timing of the spirit addition varies but the better producers tend to add the spirit during fermentation, leaving the natural sweetness from the grapes. Lesser wines are usually fermented dry and then fortified and sweetened as necessary. Madeira may be aged further in casks and then blended or aged in a solera system similar to that used for sherry.


The main grape varieties are Tinta Negra Mole, Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malvasia. Tinta Negra Mole is by far the most widely planted and is used for the less expensive blends that are labelled ‘dry’, ‘medium dry’, ‘medium sweet’, ‘rich’, or ‘sweet’. The better quality and more expensive wines are made from at least 85 per cent of a single grape variety and the name of the variety is shown on the label. Each of the ‘noble’ varieties is associated with a particular level of sweetness, from driest to sweetest. Common to all Madeiras is their high acidity – much higher than in sherry – and a slightly caramelised flavour due to the heating process.

* Sercial: Pale amber in colour, dry, and almondy with very crisp acidity but balanced by the weight and impression of sweetness created by the alcohol. An excellent alternative to Fino or Manzanilla sherry. Serve chilled.

* Verdelho: Slightly darker than Sercial. Medium dry but still very crisp and developing nutty, smoky, figgy aromas and flavour with age. Serve cool.

* Bual: Dark, medium rich and raisiny, but still with a refreshing streak of acidity. Serve at room temperature.

* Malmsey: Very sweet and dark, with aromas and flavours of burnt caramel, raisined fruit, yet not cloying thanks to the acidity. Goes well with Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, mince pies and other desserts that combine sweetness with acidity, such as baked apples. Serve at room temperature.

Quality levels

These range from Finest (a blended 3-year-old wine, rarely aged in wood) through to Vintage (wine from a single vintage aged for at least 20 years in wood). The various levels in-between include Reserve, Special Reserve, Extra Reserve and Solera.

Madeiras may also show an indication of age on the label, e.g. 10 Year Old or 15 Year old.

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