Madeira wine is a fascinating and often overlooked fortified wine that’s produced on its eponymous Portuguese island.

In this introductory guide, you’ll learn the basics about Madeira, its history, how it tastes, and how to drink it:

Simply use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read it all.

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Everything You Need To Know About Madeira Wine

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What Is Madeira Wine?

Madeira is a fortified wine that is produced on the eponymous island in the North Atlantic Ocean, which is over 500 km (300 miles) to the west of Morocco and 400 km (250 miles) north of the Canary Islands. You can learn more about the island and its characteristics in this guide.

Its wine is fortified with a neutral grape spirit to halt its fermentation and leave a greater quantity of residual sugar. As a result, it can be quite sweet if fortified relatively early in the process.

Another distinctive feature of Madeira wine is that it’s heated as part of the ageing process. You’ll learn why when you read about its history below. On the other hand, if you want to learn how it’s heated, check out our guide on how Madeira wine is made.

Overall, Madeira is a robust and long-lasting wine thanks to its unique combination of oxidative ageing, mild pasteurisation, and heavy sugar content.

Madeira Wine History

John Glover The Island Of Madeira

The Island Of Madeira by John Glover

Although there has been both speculation and evidence that it was visited by the Romans and Vikings, Madeira was officially discovered in 1419 during the Age of Exploration.

A Portuguese expedition travelled to the area to claim an island after two captains had used it for shelter in a storm the previous year. However, they soon discovered a larger nearby island when they saw black clouds suspended over it in the distance.

Portuguese colonisation of the uninhabited island began between 1420 and 1425. It soon became instrumental for sugar production and its output had overtaken that of Cyprus by 1490.

Madeira Wine’s Early History

Although vines were also planted on the island when it was first settled, its wine industry wasn’t well-established until the 16th century.

Madeira soon grew into a major stopping location and trading hub. Thanks to its geographical location, ships could easily stop for supplies when travelling to and from both India and the West Indies.

Initially, Madeira’s wine was unfortified. Therefore, it was usually consumed locally by residents and visiting sailors as it would quickly spoil when shipped.

Soon after English merchants discovered fortified port wine in Lamego, Madeiran producers followed suit. However, rather than use grape spirit to stabilise the wine as was the case of port and as is customary for Madeira today, it was initially fortified with locally-made sugar cane spirit.

This new technique significantly increased the demand for Madeira wine as it could now be transported without spoiling. Trade ships would purchase it to both sustain the crew as well as trade it at their destinations.

Madeira Rises To Stardom

Madeira soon directly competed with cognac, sherry, and port and it became particularly successful in the United Kingdom, Northern Europe, and even Russia! Since Madeira was a Portuguese territory, merchants benefited from lucrative import tax rates in Great Britain thanks to the 1703 Methuen Treaty.

Furthermore, it often travelled as far as the Americas and was often sold in North Africa. Similarly, the Dutch East India Company was a regular client and it would often order quantities of 470-litre (103 imperial gallons) butts or “pipas” for its trips to India.

Portugal had transferred much of its sugar production to its Latin American and Caribbean colonies by the 18th century. Therefore, its wine became the island’s chief export. Trading vessels would then stop at the island specifically for its wine and would order greater quantities, which launched a new era for Madeira.

Turning Up The Heat

Dutch East India Company Ships

Dutch East India Company Ships

Shipments occasionally returned to the island after long round trips and wine producers started to notice that it often improved in flavour. Indeed, they soon realised that the hot cargo holds during extended sea voyages in warm climates contributed to the ageing process.

Since importers in colder climates didn’t benefit from this process, Madeira producers set to making “vinho da roda” where the wine was intentionally sent on long return voyages. However, the practice of shipping the wine out and back proved too expensive compared to the wine’s increased value.

Therefore, they began heating the wine to simulate the process on the island by leaving barrels under the sun. At first, they were left outdoors but producers started making “estufas”, which were essentially greenhouse-style rooms with large windows.

Today, an “estufagem” refers to a more modern process and the older technique now goes by another name. You can learn more with our guide on how Madeira is made.

Madeira & The Birth Of The USA

John Hancock

John Hancock

In our guide to rum’s history, we talk about how molasses import duties played a part in the events that led up to the American Revolution.

Interestingly, Madeira wine also had a role! As the American colonies didn’t yet have a wine industry, it greatly depended on imports and Madeira was by far the most popular.

In 1768, the British seized John Hancock’s trading vessel Liberty over import duties for the 25 pipas of Madeira wine that it carried, which resulted in rioting in Boston. When the Declaration of Independence was signed less than a decade later, it was toasted by the signatories with a glass of Madeira.

A Century Of Bad Luck

19th Century Photo Of Madeira Island

Madeira wine thrived until the mid-19th century when it began to face what would have felt like an unrelenting series of hardships.

Firstly, vines were struck by powdery mildew, a well-known fungal disease even today. Although much of the damage had been done, producers were able to prevent further outbreaks with “bouillie bordelaise”.

Nearly two decades later, 1869 saw the competition of the Suez Canal’s construction. Linking the Mediterranean and Red Seas, it offered Europeans a direct route to India and Asia rather than having to circumnavigate Africa.

As a result, Madeira soon lost most of its trade with India as the island was no longer on the way there and back. Instead, merchants opted for port or sherry as they entered the Mediterranean rather than take the now significant detour via Madeira.

Phylloxera Arrives In Madeira

However, the worst was yet to come in the last quarter of the 19th century when the Great French Wine Blight had finally made its way to the island. Commonly known as phylloxera, the aphids devastated swathes of vineyards and made powdery mildew seem like just a mild affliction.

Much of the island’s vineyards were destroyed and many winegrowers simply uprooted what was left and returned to other crops like sugar cane. Shortages of wine were common and some producers used older vintage or other grape varieties to try and compensate.

As its wine was growingly unavailable, merchants again turned to alternatives in mainland Europe, which also affected demand. Eventually, phylloxera was overcome by using hybrids and grafting vines onto American rootstocks. However, its effects are felt even today.

Madeira In The 20th Century

German First World War U-Boat

German First World War U-Boat

Madeira’s unlucky streak continued into the 20th century just when it started to recover from the outbreak. Up until 1916, Portugal had played a relatively limited role in the First World War and had mostly focused its efforts on protecting its colonies.

However, after it complied with British requests to intern 36 enemy ships in Lisbon, both Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Portugal. In early December that year, a German U-boat infiltrated Madeira’s Funchal harbour and sank three ships before ships bombarding the town from a distance.

Hostilities made trade difficult and the threat of U-boats lurking in nearby waters deterred merchants from visiting the island. In a twist of fate, Madeira would be Emperor Charles I of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s place of exile after the war.

Meanwhile, the Russian Tsars’ historical relationship with Madeira came to a tragic end with the 1917 revolution and the civil war that followed. Just as Madeira and the rest of the world were recovering from the First World War, American Prohibition was announced in 1920.

Although it was finally repealed in 1933, coal-fired sea vessels could travel directly from Europe to America as they didn’t depend on wind currents. Consequently, ships no longer stopped at Madeira and it became known as a Forgotten Island.

Throughout much of the remaining 20th century, Madeira suffered from a declining reputation and eventually became best known as a cooking wine. Consequently, many vineyards were soon replaced with other plantations and tourist attractions.

Madeira’s Renaissance

It wasn’t until 1989 that Madeira witnessed a veritable rebirth thanks largely to fortified wine specialist Bartholomew Broadbent. Following new investments in Madeira’s producers, Broadbent was approached to renew American interest in the wine.

Although he has since created his own companies and set up wineries in both China and South Africa, Bartholomew Broadbent is often celebrated for pioneering Madeira’s reintroduction in the American market.

To accompany such exciting growth, producers worked with winegrowers to focus on improving quality. Many hybrid and American grafts that had previously saved the island from Phylloxera were banned, uprooted, and replaced by the old noble grape varieties.

What Does Madeira Wine Taste Like?

As you’ll learn in our guide to the different types of Madeira wine, there are multiple styles, ageing techniques, and grape varieties. Consequently, it’s a surprisingly diverse wine to say that it all came from one little island!

Typically, Madeira wine is sweet as it’s often fortified during fermentation to retain some residual sugar. Even the driest Madeira wine is relatively sweet by most standards while others can be particularly syrupy.

However, they’re not cloying as Madeira’s grape varieties were specifically chosen for their natural acidity. The combination of sweetness and acidity results in a balanced palate.

Younger blends of Madeira will usually reveal tasting notes of almonds, caramel, and candied fruit. As it ages, Madeira will develop more distinctive dried fruit notes and a generally nuttier profile. Particularly old Madeira may reveal gourmand aromas of toffee, walnuts, and coffee.

We explore the various flavours in different styles of Madeira in the guide linked above.

How To Drink Madeira Wine

Firstly, Madeira wine is best chilled at different serving temperatures according to its sweetness. Drier sherry tends to be served at 12°C (53.6°F) while sweeter expressions can be slightly warmer at around 16°C (60.8°F).

Similarly, drier Madeira wine is often served as an apéritif and pairs well with seafood, soup, starters, and cheese. Richer Madeira wine is often used as a dessert wine or a digestif.

Madeira Wine Glassware

Like sherry and port, Madeira is served in small 75 ml (3 Oz) or 120 (4 Oz) wine glasses. You can use normal dessert wine glasses if these are not available. Otherwise, Madeira is often served in traditional “copita” nosing glasses.

These often feature a more pronounced tulip shape, which helps creates a bouquet. We’re quite keen on Glencairn’s copita glass, which has slightly reimagined the glass’ style for an improved experience. It also features a glass cover to help capture the aromas before sampling.

Another favourite of ours for fortified wine is the Riedel Ouverture. It’s a classic Madeira and sherry glass that’s somewhat finer than the Glencairn model if you prefer something more elegant.

Cooking With Madeira

As mentioned earlier, Madeira is well-known as a cooking ingredient. While this reputation may have felt more like a punishment during much of last century relegated, it’s now a subject of pride.

Indeed, its rich and nuanced tableau of flavours can impart complexity to a variety of dishes. It’s an excellent taste modifier when making gravy for a roast dinner.

Meanwhile, it delightfully deglazes sautéed dishes from grilled vegetables to meat before being stewed. Blended Madeira wines are better for cooking as vintage expressions can be somewhat expensive without many added benefits.

Likewise, you can choose the level of sweetness and grape variety according to the flavours you wish to impart to the dish. In most cases, it offers delicate nutty notes and a hint of toffee.

Finally, some Madeira can be used for mixing as we outline in our guide to the best Madeira wine cocktails.

Similar Drinks & Substitutes

If you have read this guide in its entirety so far, you may have noticed that we mentioned sherry and port several times, to say the least. Indeed, each of these fortified wines shares much in common!

Nevertheless, they’re all fortified wines in the same way that Barolo and Bourgogne are both red wines. Indeed, they each have characteristics that distinguish them from one another beyond just the grape varieties used to make them.

Madeira’s arguably most defining quality is that the wine is heated as part of the ageing process. Meanwhile, some of the grape varieties used to make it as fortified after fermentation like sherry while others are fortified during like port.

However, its closest relative is likely marsala, an Italian fortified wine from Sicily. Not only may it share a similar flavour profile as Madeira but it also fell from grace and became known as a cooking wine.

Sadly, true sipping marsala from Sicily is harder to find than high-quality Madeira. Therefore, while we’d recommend marsala as a substitute for cooking, you’ll have better luck finding an oloroso sherry for drinking instead.

Like Madeira, oloroso sherry is a white fortified wine that undergoes oxidative ageing. As a result, it can offer a similar albeit drier experience. Meanwhile, Pedro Ximénez sherries will be sweeter.

Madeira Wine Health Benefits

Needless to say, any healthy effects of Madeira are beneficial when consumed in moderation. After all, drinking too much of any kind of alcohol is unhealthy.

The first thing to note is that sweet Madeira wine contains large amounts of residual sugar. Therefore, it can be quite fattening. That said, this issue is less prevalent among drier styles of Madeira.

Madeira wines made from the most intensively macerated grapes such as Verdehlo, Terrantez Bual, and Malvasia will also contain large amounts of polyphenols.

These reduce Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) oxidation. Meanwhile, Madeira also helps the body to produce High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol commonly referred to as “good cholesterol”.

Both effects help reduce the chances of developing coronary artery disease. However, they’re far from antidotes!

Madeira Wine Calories & Carbohydrates

The carbs and calories in a 75 ml (3 Oz) serving of Madeira can vary depending on the style and its residual sugars. However, you can generally expect around 90 calories as well as 10.8 grams of carbohydrates.

While generally not as calorific as port, it’s generally somewhat more fattening than sherry wine, which is usually somewhat drier.

What Next?

Now that you have read our introduction to Madeira wine, learn more about it with our additional resources:

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