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Madeira wine has been around for more than 300 years, and it hasn’t changed much in that time. It comes from a little island in Portugal, off the coast of Morocco. It has a very unique aging style that is unlike any other wine on the shelf today.
Its origins are equally unique. Although the fortification of wine was common, the idea for Madeira wine was stumbled upon by accident. The flavor varies based on the grape variety and it is labeled based on age, and several other distinguishing characteristics.
If you’re wondering what Madeira wine is, how it’s made, where it came from, or how to drink it, our review will help you decide which variety suits you and your needs the best.
What is Madeira?
Madeira is a fortified wine. Fortified wines are wines mixed with other spirits. As a result, they have a higher alcohol content and they preserve for longer than pure wine. Wines were first fortified before the refrigeration was invented. It gave winemakers the ability to transport wine farther without it going bad. It resulted in happier customers and continued to gain in popularity, even after refrigeration methods came into play.
Madeira is named for the island it comes from. Madeira is a small island off the coast of Portugal and the wine’s unique taste comes from heating the wine repeatedly. Heating wine creates more prominent flavors of roasted nuts, stewed fruit, caramel, and toffee.
Madeira exists in several taste profiles. The most common flavors are peach, caramel, hazelnut, walnut oil, burnt sugar, and orange peel. It varies from very sweet to very dry. Sweet styles are sipped after dinner in a dessert style while dry styles are chilled and served with appetizers.
The History of Madeira
When sea voyages were too long and wine spoilage was high, Madeira was a popular stopping point on the journey from the East Indies to England and America. This is where shippers would pick up loads of Madeira wine before they continued on their way.
All wine, including Madeira varieties, was fortified to survive the long journey, but shippers noticed something different about the Madeira variety in particular. As the ships passed through tropical weather, the fluctuation in temperature deepened the Madeira flavor, enhancing its richness and making it more aromatic, too. This became known as sea aging. Now makers of Madeira wine do on purpose what the sea voyage was able to do naturally.
Madeira’s aging process is unique. It is different than any other wine worldwide. While winemakers the world over try to avoid this specific faux pas, makers of Madeira do them on purpose.
Madeira is heated and then allowed to cool multiple times throughout the course of aging. Madeira is exposed to oxygen, which is something that no other winemaker will ever do. It is also allowed to evaporate by leaving the topper out of the barrel. It’s often left exposed in a hot room or in the sun and outside air.
This unusual aging method works because Madeira grapes get picked very early in the harvesting process. The juice has very high acidity, and the warm oxidation method allows the wine to age, ultimately preserving it. Madeiras can cellar for more than one hundred years without turning to acetic acid.
The two aging methods for Madeira are Estufa and Canteiro. The Estufa process is more common while the Canteiro method is reserved for only the finest wines.
To age a Madeira wine using the Estufa process, wine is stored in heated tanks for three months, allowing the sugars to caramelize. It doesn’t age for as long and doesn’t create the same deep, rich flavors as more refined Madeira wines.
Madeira wines aged using the Canteiro method are aged in barrels in a heated room or in the sun for long periods of time. The sugars caramelize at a slower rate, often for 100 years or more, leading to their refined taste.
Each of the two types of Madeira has several unique styles that range in quality. Blended Madeira is an inexpensive wine of average quality, with only a few exceptions. Single varietal Madeira is of very high quality and comes in four main varieties.
While blended Madeira is inexpensive and low quality, some high-end varieties make great sipping wines. You can identify these by their age designation.
Finest Madeira isn’t actually the finest style. It’s a three-year blended variety made from Tinta Negra grapes. However, there are very rare and exceptional styles of Madeira made from the Tinta Negra grape that you will pay a pretty penny for if you’re interested. These varieties are typically vintage and aged for 20 years or more.
Rainwater Madeira is aged for three years or more. It’s an inexpensive, fruity wine that’s good for cooking or mixing to make cocktails. Some people like it on its own, but it’s not the finest variety available.
The Broadbent NV Rainwater Madeira is imported by Broadbent Selections in the United States from Broadbent Winery in Portugal on the island of Madeira. This selection is aged for three years in a cask before bottling.
It’s a medium-bodied wine with light flavors. It’s sweet and soft without as much of Madeira’s classic acidity, resulting in a gentler aftertaste. It contains 19% alcohol and could be compared to a port or sherry. This is a great selection for those who enjoy sweeter wines with floral aromas.
I love this wine because it’s not the most expensive Madeira, which means it fits in my budget. Its sweet flavor goes great with my favorite desserts, so it’s a light and fruity after-dinner drink that helps me relax.
Reserve Madeira has several different meanings when it comes to Madeira. A typical Reserve Madeira ages 5-10 years, a Special Reserve ages 10-15 years and has a better quality distillation process, and an Extra Reserve must be aged 15-20 years.
The Broadbent NV Reserve Five-Year-Old Madeira has a darker gold color with a sweet, rich, nutty taste and aroma. It’s fruity but acidic, so while it tastes sweet, it’s also crisp and fresh. It contains 19% alcohol and could also be considered a part of the port and sherry family, though it has a higher acidity.
If you like Port or Sherry, you’ll love this one, and that’s why I love it, too. I can’t get enough of the smooth texture, rich tastes, and almost syrupy sweet experience.
Twenty-year-old Madeira combines wines from several years that have already been proven to have the best taste. These wines are aged for at least 20 years, but often they are 30 or 40 years old and will be designated as thirty-year-old Madeira or forty-year-old Madeira.
Single Varietal Madeira
Varietal Madeira wine is of the most high quality and makes a perfect aperitif or dessert wine. You can find these varietal wines as more modern blends or as single vintage wines that have been aged for centuries.
Sercial Madeira has a crisp, bright flavor. It’s typically served at the beginning of a meal or with fresh fish and vegetables. It has lemon notes with herbaceous spices and mineral undertones. They have little sweetness that is often offset by the high acidity and should be served chilled.
Vieux Vins, Inc. imports The Rare Wine Co. NV Historic Series Charleston Sercial Special Reserve. It’s a fantastic Madeira choice at a reasonable price for those who want to try something a little more special but don’t want to pay a fortune.
The Charleston Sercial is drier than other wines in this series. This member of The Historic Series features nutty aromas mixed with caramel, honey, and maple syrup. Its smooth palate of candied citrus and dried figs gives it a balanced acidity but racy bite.
I don’t typically like dry wines, but I love this one because it’s so sweet. Bonus: it’s affordable, too! I love the sugary flavors of caramel and honey, and I enjoy a glass with a heaping bowl of vanilla ice cream.
Verdelho Madeira is smokier, concentrated, and richer variety. It pairs well with soups like smoked potato and leek or seafood bisque. It has a dry, intense flavor that is versatile in pairing with many different foods. It contains notes of light caramel and spice.
The Henriques & Henriques NV Verdelho is a ten-year-old Verdelho with Madeira’s classic acidity. It features a fruity taste with a combination of spice, nuts, old wood, and incredibly juiciness that makes it great for an aperitif. Rather than a port or a sherry variety, this Madeira is fortified with 20% alcohol content. It is imported to the United States by Haus Alpenz.
I love this slow sipper with a juicy steak, green beans, and mashed potatoes. It makes for a savory meal of mouth-watering flavors. Finish off your meal with a rich and delicious piece of blackberry cobbler or pecan pie.
Boal is a sweet Madeira variety that has deep complexity and aromas. The aromatic lift will travel quickly through your home, enhancing the experience. It’s pairs well with desserts that contain figs, stewed fruit, nuts, chocolate, or caramel, and also goes well with rich cheeses. Boal Madeira tastes like salted caramel, roasted coffee, bitter cacao, golden raisins, and dates.
Often, winemakers will use the alternative Bual spelling for this type of wine, which is the case with The Rare Wine Co. NV Historic Series Boston Bual Special Reserve Madeira. It has a richer taste than the Charleston Sercial but is also a member of The Historic Series.
This Boston Bual has strong aromas like orange peel and toasted nut oil with sweet glimpses of maple syrup and honey. It has a bit of extra weight, but the sweetness isn’t overbearing. This port/sherry variety has 19% alcohol content and is imported directly from Portugal.
I love the balance of sweet and nutty in this wine. I pair it with a snack of nuts and cheeses and serve it with appetizers or at a friendly get together with light snacks.
Malmsey is a sweet name for the sweetest Madeira style. It pairs well with decadent desserts like chocolate cake, ice cream, or cheese. It’s also wonderful for sipping on its own by the fire. It has the most fruity notes combined with chocolate and roasted nuts. It can live for centuries untouched and still be delicious.
While the Broadbent NV Malmsey contains wines of many different ages, the youngest meets the minimum ten-year-old requirement. This wine is gold in color with classic Madeira acidity and dryness. It contains dominant honey flavors at the end, creating a cloying flavor that your sweet tooth will love.
My sweet tooth loves it, for sure. I pair it with either hearty snacks like nuts and cheeses or a juicy hamburger or steak.
Extra Rare Madeira
Typically available on the island of Madeira only, rare varieties like the Terrantez and the Bastardo are made from extremely rare grapes. You may also find some other rare labeling while shopping, such as Colheita Madeira or Frasqueira Madeira.
Colheita Madeira is a cousin to the Port and is from a single vintage. It must age for at least five years and is one of the most age-worthy Madeira categories. Frasqueira Madeira is extremely rare and of the highest quality. It ages for a minimum of twenty years in a cask.
If I could afford to drink this one more often, I would. It doesn’t quite fit in everyone’s budget, but everyone should try it at least once. It’s so fine, you can drink it on its own and really savor the flavor.
Best Madeira Brands
Aside from the particular selections detailed above, there are plenty of other enjoyable Madeira brands. These brands produce many different varieties of Madeira for you to try.
This brand has been around since the early 1900s and perhaps before and delivers vintage wines of excellent quality. You’ll need to front some cash for these varieties, but you won’t be disappointed. The flavors are complex and difficult to compare to other wines of the same variety because D’Oliveiras is so unique.
You may also enjoy young vintages from D’Oliveiras that feature the same complex flavors but without the same intensity. They have lower prices for those who want to enjoy this type of wine on a budget.
Barbeita specializes in making younger vintage wines in a wide range of tastes. The aromas prep your palate for even more intense tastes and unique flavors. They feature smoky flavors, apricots, orange zest, and baked tarts. You get to choose which you like the best.
Blandy’s is a well-known maker of Madeira and is sold internationally. This brand makes high-quality Madeira of many vintages and offers them at reasonable prices. Blandy’s ages their wines for at least five years and you can find nearly every type of Madeira listed above with the Blandy’s label.
Cossart Gordon is owned by the Madeira Wine Company, who also owns Blandy’s. It’s a brand featuring aged wines with complex tastes. They include many roasted flavors with enough sweetness to drink as a dessert wine or digestif. You won’t find vintages older than 1980 here, but the wines they do have contain rich aromas and strong flavors.
Justino’s sells the st Madeira, old vintages, and everything in between. In fact, the finest variety from Justino’s isn’t nearly as bitter or harsh as other finest Madeira wines. They have pleasant acidity that creates balance with the sweet taste. Other offerings feature appealing dry textures with aromas that make great table wines to pair with hearty meals.
Cooking With Madeira
In the U.S., bulk winemakers will sell Madeira for cooking. It’s generally not a true Madeira wine, and the label will indicate either Finest or Rainwater for cooking. It’s an inexpensive wine made especially for cooking, but should not be enjoyed on its own, primarily because it will not be as enjoyable as a true Madeira wine.
However, the rich, layered, complex character of Madeira makes it ideal for reducing sauces, enriching salad dressings, and deglazing pans. The powerful flavor makes a huge difference in your dish and you don’t need much to create an impact.
The sweet, earthy flavor of Madeira makes it a great companion for sauteed mushrooms. Add a splash of Madeira before you combine chicken or vegetable stock to the sauce. It can add a smoky flavor to an up or other sauteed vegetables.
While Finest or Rainwater blended Madeiras are entry-level cooking wines, you can also find affordable true blended Madeiras for cooking. If you fail to find a true Madeira, you can substitute a sweet or dry Marsala for a similar taste profile that’s both interesting and complex.
Madeira in Cocktails
One of the most popular drinks of the American Colonial period was Madeira punch. Many people gathered over punch bowls at the time for the purpose of doing business or fellowshipping with one another. Madeira adds depth, complexity, and a nutty flavor to many cocktail recipes.
The flip was popular in the United States in the 1800s, made by combining Madeira, rye, sugar, and a whole egg. This cocktail is tinged with caramel nuttiness. Substitute the rye for Armagnac, brandy, or rum for other variations.
A Sherry Cobbler combines the refreshing taste of orange with complex sherry flavors and hints of mint or raspberry. Substitute the sherry for Madeira and you have a rich cocktail with nutty undertones and rich, smoky flavor.
The next time you crave a rich, smoky wine, give Madeira a try. From the sweetest Malmsey to the dryest Verdelho, you’ll find the flavors you prefer from stewed fruits and chocolate to coffee and caramel. Ease in slowly with a Rainwater for cooking or dive headfirst into the finest Madeira for sipping with friends.
One of the best things about Madeira is its ability to age. It doesn’t really matter where you find the Madeira, it’s likely still in great condition. However, if you really want the ultimate Madeira experience, traveling to the island of Madeira is both beautiful and educational and we highly recommend it.