Please The Palate Pick of the Week: Madeira

I spent the past week hosting seminars and tastings in Boston and New York for Madeira wines. Fortunately, I was able to taste some of the wines as well. And while I know that I was working with Madeira this week, they are so delicious that it is also the Please The Palate “pick of the week.”

Madeira is the name of an island off the mainland of Portugal. It is also the name of the wine produced on this island. Madeira is a fortified wine like Port and Sherry, but it is also unique. Why? Because Madeira, as we know it, was made by mistake hundreds of years ago. In the 1600s and 1700s, wine was fortified in order to survive traveling on the sea. As the ships in Madeira sailed through the tropics, the wine would be heated and cooled repeatedly, as well as exposed to oxygen. Heat and oxygen are typically the enemy of wine but they are what make Madeira.

In general, there is blended Madeira and single-varietal Madeira. Blended Madeira is a blend of different years and usually carries an age designation. On a label, you will see:

  • Finest – three-year-old blended style
  • Rainwater – the blend is aged at least three years
  • Reserve – wines are between 5-10 years of age
  • Special Reserve – wines are 10-15 years of age
  • Extra Reserve – wines are 15-20 years of age
  • 20 Year Old – multi-vintage at least 20 years old
  • 30 Year Old
  • 40 Year Old
  • 50 Year Old

Single Varietal Madeiras can be:

  • Sercial
  • Verdelho
  • Boal
  • Malvasia
  • Tinta Negra
  • Terrantez
  • Bastardo

Madeira can be dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet and sweet. While the sweetness will vary from style to style, some of the common aromas and flavors that you will find in Madeira are apple, burnt sugar, dried fruits (raisins, figs), nuts (almond, hazelnuts), chocolate, cinnamon, orange zest, coffee, tobacco, cocoa, caramel, honey, brown sugar, tea, clove, pepper and vanilla.

Madeira, a fortified wine, is by law between 17% and 22% alcohol. But,unlike other fortified wines, one thing that stands out about Madeira is the acidity in the wines. Even the sweetest of wines have acidity to balance them. And this acidity is what makes it possible to enjoy Madeira throughout a meal. Start with a sercial with cheese, then a verdelho with roasted chicken and finish with a boal with chocolate desserts or a malvasia with pecan pie.

Most importantly, Madeira is indestructible. This is a wine that can be stored anywhere, in any position. And, open bottles will last indefinitely as they are unlikely to oxidize and go bad. So pick up a bottle, or two, of Madeira and enjoy a glass with your meal. As our Founding Fathers enjoyed drinking Madeira, including while signing the Declaration of Independence, then we, too, should enjoy it every day.