Drink Madeira As We Honor America’s Independence Day

As you get ready to warm up the barbeque and chill down the beer for your 4th of July parties, think about opening a bottle of Madeira to enjoy with your friends.

Why Madeira?  Well, did you know that Madeira was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, the founding fathers of the United States?  In fact, when they signed the Declaration of Independence, they toasted with Madeira.

What is Madeira?  Madeira is the wine named for an island, and an island named for a wine.  Understanding Madeira is not an easy feat.  The winemaking process, grape varietals and wine styles are not like other wines that you are familiar with.

Madeira is a fortified Portuguese wine made in a variety of styles. During the Age of Exploration, Madeira was a port of call for ships heading to the New World or East Indies. To prevent the wine from spoiling, neutral grape spirits were added. Then, during the long sea voyages, the wines were exposed to excessive heat and movement, transforming the flavor of the wine. Today, Madeira is made using a unique winemaking process which involves heating the wine up to 140 °F and intentionally exposing the wine to some levels of oxidation. Because of this unique process, Madeira will last a very long time, even after being opened.

A recent wine seminar hosted by Richard Jennings helped to explain the basics of Madeira.  To read Richard’s tasting notes, click here.

Madeira Types and Styles

Blends (must contain at least 85% of a varietal to be called a varietal wine)

Blends are designated by Age Indicators (age stated indicates age of youngest wine in the blend)

• Rainwater – youngest wine in blend is at least 3 years old.

• 3-Years-Old, Finest, Choice, Selected – Normally Tinta Negra Mole

• 5-Years-Old, Reserve, Mature

• 10-Years-Old, Old Reserve, Special Reserve, Reserve Velha

• 15-Years-Old Reserve, Extra Reserve

• 20-Years-Old Reserve

• 30-Years-Old Reserve

• Over 40-Years-Old Reserve

Vintage Designations

• Vintage (Frasqueira) – The very highest quality wines, amounting to less than 5% of production. The wine must be one variety from one year, kept in cask for a minimum of 20 years and then 2 years in bottle.

• Harvest/Single Harvest – A vintage wine with 5 to 10 years in cask.

• Colheita – A vintage wine with about 6 to 10 years in cask.

• Solera – This is a designation reserved for quality wines that have been in “canteiro” for a minimum of five years. Traditionally you take 10% of the cask and replace it with the same amount of a younger wine. The vintage date based on oldest wine in the batch.

Degree of Richness

• Extra Seco – extra dry (0 to 49.1 grams of residual sugar per litre)

• Seco – dry (49.1 to 64.8 grams of residual sugar per litre)

• Meio Seco – medium dry (64.8 to 80.4 grams of residual sugar)

• Meio Doce – medium rich, or sweet (80.4 to 96.1 grams of residual sugar)

• Doce – rich or sweet (over 96.1 grams of residual sugar)

The Grapes of Madeira

Sercial – Highest in acidity; grown at highest elevations; late ripening, resistant to oidium and mildew; also known in Portugal as Cerceal and Esgana Cão (dog strangler) for its searing acidity. The wines are the palest, typically golden tawny in color, with orange and lemon flavors in youth; nutty and balsamic type flavors with age. Aperitif wine, or served with appetizers, nuts and crackers, smoked fish, shellfish and goats milk cheeses.

Verdelho – Next highest in acidity, medium dry, rounder and softer than Sercial; also known as Gouveio in Portugal; larger grapes and clusters than Sercial; grown in the north and south at altitudes of about 1300 feet. The wines are similar in color to Sercial, and a little darker, with a nose of dried fruit and honey, and taste of candied fruits when young. Good as an aperitif; with cream soups, stuffed mushrooms, Serrano ham, smoked game; traditional pairing with turtle soup.

Bual/Boal – Medium sweet; large, heavy grapes; grown in parts of the north and south at lower altitudes. Yields wines darkest in color of the traditional varieties, with rich aromas and flavors of caramel and coffee, and dried fruits, like orange peel and apricot. Best as a dessert wine, with nuts and fruit or soft cheeses.

Malvasia, Malvasia Candida, Malmsey – Sweetest; original variety planted back in the 1400s, with cuttings from Crete; large, heavy grapes that ripen quickly but can stay on the vine as they don’t easily rot; grown at lowest elevations, mainly on the south coast, but also on the north coast. The wines are a little lighter in color than Bual, with a nose of toffee, vanilla and/or figs. Toffee, vanilla and sometimes marmalade on the palate. Best at the end of the meal, with cookies, chocolate or fruit tarts. Workhorse Grape

Tinta Negra Mole – Widely planted after phylloxera, now amounts to 80-85% of island’s vines; the result of a cross between Pinot Noir and Grenache; small to medium sized grapes with a soft skin; versatile, in that depending on growing conditions and processing, it can be made as dry, medium dry, medium sweet or sweet; mainly cultivated in the south.

Very Rare Traditional Varieties

Terrantez – Difficult to work with, low yielding. Very sought after by vintage Madeira enthusiasts, with a characteristically bitter note on the finish; a range of flavors from citrus to nutty.

Bastardo – A sweet grape, known in France as Trousseau. Older samples have orange, praline flavors, with a bitter note on finish.

Moscatel – Moscatel of Alexandria; sweet and fragrant, often floral. Made very unusual, honeyed vintage Madeiras, sometimes with orange or lime cream notes.

Madeira Producers






With the variety of styles and grapes, Madeira pairs well with both savory and sweet foods.  You will find that you will enjoy drinking Madeira all the time, not just to honor the signing of the Declaration of Independence! But, of course, why not start with a glass of Madeira this 4th of July. Cheers!