How To Read A Madeira Label

A brief history of a legendary wine style - and how to read its labels

How To Read A Madeira Label

Madeira holds a very special place in the hearts of many wine fans and aficionados, being one of the most historic and original wine styles as well as the most long lived of them all.

‘Madeira was held in such high esteem that it was used to toast the Declaration of Independence in 1776′ Richard Mayson, wine writer.

Its location and geography have been key to defining it; a volcanic Portuguese island in the middle of the Atlantic, around 625 miles from Portugal and 470 miles from North Africa, put it centre stage on international trade routes, fuelling a thirst for wines for the ships who wished to stock up as they passed through en route to the American colonies, the British Empire and beyond.

By the mid-18th century it was discovered that the wines survived their journeys in much better shape if fortified (in the most literal sense) with cane spirit or brandy – these days it’s a grape spirit known as aguardente which fulfils the function – boosting the alcoholic content and providing structure, thereby allowing the wines to hold their character on their journey.

Fairly swiftly it was noted that these wines had greatly benefitted having undergone their journeys to India in cask, being slowly, naturally heated all the while.

Thus, these ‘Vinho da roda’ wines became highly prized for their vivid character, which in the case of the best examples had the huge benefit of becoming almost indestructible due to the volatile acidity at their core (should anybody ever blind-taste you on a fortified wine and you can’t decide if it’s Port, Sherry or Madeira, acidity will tip you off if it’s the latter…as, perhaps, will the greenish tinge on a Bual or a Malmsey).

This slow heating system aboard ship continued until the dawn of the 20th century, when maturation in heated rooms, known as ‘Estufa’ became more cost effective. These days this is done a lot less romantically using large concrete tanks with heated coils for 3 months, or, in the case of better quality examples, in 600 litre casks or ‘pipes’ heated to 30 to 40 degrees Celsius for around a year. The best wines of all, however, are the product of the Canteiro system, employing no artificial heating whatsoever. Instead wines are aged for a minimum of 20 years in pipes in the eaves of the producers’ wineries, or ‘lodges’.

The grape varieties and styles of Madeira are as wonderfully unusual as the methods of production, and only its altitude, rising to 1800 metres, allows the successful cultivation of varieties, all of which are grown on basalt terraces.

Powdery mildew (or oidium) almost wiped out the island’s vineyards within a remarkably short space of time after its arrival in 1851 and was followed up in short order, much to the dismay of farmers and wine merchants alike, by the Phylloxera affliction, making sugar cane a much more attractive crop for many farmers.

These days, five principle grape varieties are widely cultivated. Here is what to look for on a label of Madeira so you know what to expect within each bottle:

Sercial

Sercial is the lightest and driest of Madeira styles. Late-ripening, with extremely high natural acidity, and picked from the coolest vineyards in the north of Island. At around 9 to 25 grams per litre of residual sugar, this has an almost almond-like character, and works well as an aperitif or, classically, with salted almonds or even spicy foods.

Verdelho

Better known to New World wine drinkers for its vibrant, citrussy wines in Australia, (also grown in the north) Verdelho is a notch up in terms of sweetness, with around 25 to 45 grams per litre of residual sugar, and is a wonderfully versatile wine style, with a smoky note according to some. It works surprisingly well with delicate fish dishes, as well as cheese.

Boal (or Bual)

Boal is another high acid varietal, though one which matures early, and performs best on the lower slopes of the south side of the island of Madeira. With its green apple, spice and coffee characters and sweetness of as high as 80 to 100 grams per litre of residual sugar, it can be incredibly long-lived.

Malmsey

Malmsey too is predominantly harvested from the warmer, lower-lying regions along the south coast, and is the sweetest of the four, with sugar levels north of 100 grams per litre. A traditional accompaniment to strong flavours like chocolate and coffee, or indeed cigars. English myth holds it that George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, brother of King Edward IV of England, was drowned in a butt of Malmsey following his conviction for treason, although the reality was unlikely to have been so sweet.

Tinta Negra Mole

Tinta Negra Mole, is both marvellously named (for anglophone ears), and the most widely planted grape variety on the island, and responsible for often very creditable cheaper renditions of the four varieties listed above. If none of Serlcial, Verdelho, Malmsey or Buoal are included on the label, it will have been made using Tinta Negra Mole. The wines at their most basic have been fermented to dryness, fortified, sweetened and coloured to order, lacking the higher toned, rancio characters of the better wines. These may be simply labelled Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet, Rich or Sweet.

Colheita

In reality, quality Madeira begins with an age designation of 5, 10 or 15 Years, with one of the quality ‘Big Four’ grape varieties to accompany.

Colheita or ‘Single Harvest’ wines are relatively new to the market (this being more traditionally a Port designation). The term has been adopted in particular by Blandy’s since 2000. Colheitas are the product of a single year, having been aged in a cask for five to 18 years.

Vintage Madeira

Vintage Madeira must have spent 20 years or more in a cask, and be of a single grape variety by law. These bottles often have a stencilled label showing the grape and year of production, but there’s room for considerable confusion when buying very old bottles at auction, as the vintage may also refer to the date of a Solera.

So in effect 1910, for example, could refer to the fruits of a great individual harvest, or the oldest components of a fractional blending system similar to that found in Spain with sherry. Connoisseurs, though, are often undeterred by this, as the younger wines in the blend have potentially added vitality and stuffing to the more ancient components.

Rainwater

Rainwater is a style worth mentioning for historical interest. Hugely popular in the USA in bygone years, this was a lighter style which came into being due to the slight dilution of casks – so myth has it – sat on the dock, uncovered and awaiting shipment to America.

Terrantez & Bastardo

Two further grape varieties are definitely worth a quick mention for the collector: Terrantez (an off dry style) and Bastardo (no comment). Very old bottles of these are occasionally seen at auction, even though they are virtually extinct as a crop on the island and are no longer produced.

Michael Broadbent MW

For further reading we suggest you buy a copy of the late, legendary Michael Broadbent MW’s Vintage Wine, and infuse yourself, Duke of Malmsey-like, in his notes on bottles of Madeira dating back as far as the 1680s (Broadbent was, after all, the man who offered his guests Verdelho in the mornings and Boal in the afternoons in lieu of tea and coffee when they visited his office).

Having tasted tens of thousands of wines over an epic career, he admitted that, if forced to choose his favourite-ever bottle he would pick one of these rare varieties, opting for HM Borges Terrantez 1862, harvested when the ‘vineyards (were) beginning to recover after oidium. Small production. Terrantez was the best ever made’. He gave it six stars (out of a possible five!)