Although Madeira wine may share some characteristics with port and sherry, it follows a unique process that easily distinguishes it from the other two.

In this guide, you will gain a greater appreciation for Madeira wine by learning how it’s made:

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

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How Is Madeira Wine Made?

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Where Is Madeira Wine Made?

Madeira wine is named after the autonomous Portuguese island in the North Atlantic Ocean, which is found over 500 km (300 miles) to the west of Morocco’s coastline. For context, it is 400 km (250 miles) north of the Canary Islands.

As we explain in our guide to Madeira’s history, it was a popular stopping location for ships that travelled from Europe to other continents, which contributed to its popularity.

The island features a diverse range of bioclimates with various levels of humidity and temperature. While its climate is overall oceanic, it receives strong tropical influences, too. Its yearly temperatures average about 19°C (66°F) with around 1.25 metres (4 feet) of annual rainfall.

As an island set above a large shield volcano, its soil is mostly composed of red and brown basaltic igneous rock. Its grapes are grown on the island’s extremities and the greatest concentration of vineyards are along the southern and eastern coasts.

The island has experienced a number of hardships from a devastating phylloxera outbreak to its wine declining popularity. Consequently, many vineyards were ripped up and replaced with other crops or even built over to cater to the growing tourism trade.

Today, over 2,000 independent winegrowers remain. Most of them own small plots and sell their harvested grapes to just seven producers who then make the wine and export it from the island. Therefore, it’s a rare and unique commodity indeed.

Madeira Wine Vineyards

If you’re familiar with typical vineyards, those on Madeira may appear somewhat unusual. Indeed, the vines are grown on low trellises known as “latade” that raise the grapes high above the ground.

As a result, the vineyards resemble low tunnels with grapes that hang overhead like canopies. This approach is similar to Vinho Verde on the Portuguese mainland, which helps reduce the grape’s exposure to fungal disease due to the heavy rainfall and humid tropical influences.

Similarly, the vineyards are placed on steep sun-facing slopes in order to provide the best exposure. The natural landscape has therefore been carved into layers of terraces in a way similar to the Duoro Valley.

The steep slopes and narrow terraces combined with the latade style vineyards make mechanised grape harvesting impossible. Therefore, it must be undertaken by hand.

Furthermore, Madeira wine can be made from at least seven of its most common different grape varieties. As they ripen at different times, the island’s harvest season is labour-intensive, exhausting, and particularly long!

Madeira Wine Fermentation

The way that each grape variety is macerated and fermented can vary. For instance, the driest white variety Sercial as well as the red grapes Tinta Negra and Complexa are fermented without the skins to reduce the tannins and produce a light wine.

Meanwhile, other white varieties are often macerated with the skins to impart a greater level of phenols, which help balance their natural sweetness.

The juices are then fermented in stainless steel tanks. Occasionally, producers use techniques like auto-vinification, which uses pressure to spray the grape skins with its own must to increase contact between the two.

Fortifying Madeira Wine

Fermentation is eventually halted by introducing a 96% ABV natural grape spirit to the wine in a process called “mutage”. By bringing the wine’s alcoholic content to between 17.5% and 21%, the yeast that converts the sugars into alcohol become dormant.

The earlier the yeast is made dormant, the more residual sugars remain, which results in a sweeter wine. Depending on the grape variety, the alcohol may be added at different stages of fermentation by regularly checking the “Beaumé” sweetness level.

The sweetest wines are fortified after just 24 hours of whereas drier styles may be fermented for up to a week. You can learn more about the different varieties and sweetness levels in our guide to the different types of Madeira wine.

How Madeira Is Aged

Firstly, Madeira is primarily matured with an emphasis on oxidative ageing. Therefore, it spends most of the process in porous oak casks that are only half-filled to increase the wine’s exposure to oxygen.

While the wood does impart some flavour, older casks are used in order to reduce its influence. Instead, the wine takes on most of its character from its prolonged contact with air.

However, Madeira wine’s most distinctive characteristic is that the wine is heated during part of the ageing process. This technique was introduced to simulate the effects of transporting the wine in ships, which improved the flavour. You can learn more about how it was developed in our guide to Madeira wine’s history.

The heat pasteurises the wine while the oak barrels simultaneously oxidise it. As a result, it accelerates the ageing process and produces a rich and mellow flavour.

Nevertheless, there are generally two different heating methods used on the island.

Estufagem Heating Process

Taking place in an “estufa”, this technique uses artificial heat to warm the wine. Confusingly, especially given the method below, “estufa” means either “stove” or “greenhouse” in Portuguese.

How the wine is heated can be undertaken in one of two ways. The first is called the “Cuba de Calor” and uses more direct heat by surrounding stainless steel or concrete tanks with hot water pipes.

These pipes heat wine in the tanks to between 46°C (115°F) to 55°C (130°F) for no less than 90 days. During an additional month, the wine is often gradually cooled before being returned to age in a cellar for several years.

Meanwhile, the Madeira Wine Company introduced the “Armazém de Calor”, which is essentially a large sauna. As an entire room is filled with steam, it allows the wine to stay in wooden barrels while it’s heated. Since it’s less intense than the Cuba de Calor, the wine can be heated for over a year instead of just 90 days.

Canteiro Heating Process

Often used for older blended and vintage wines, the Canteiro method uses natural sunlight rather than artificial heat to warm the wine. Not only is it the oldest technique but it’s also less intense since the wine will likely spend several decades under heat.

Its name derives from the wooden trestles that were made to support the barrels while they sat under the sun.

The Canteiro method consists of either simply leaving the barrels outdoors or building warehouses with large windows across its southern wall. In fact, some warehouses will have an entire wall that resembles a greenhouse.

While it ages in the warehouse, the wine may be gradually moved away from the sun’s exposure and the heat. The barrels are either lowered or moved away from the window. Overall, the process will last for at least four years.

In the long-term, the Canteiro method is arguably more cost-effective as the wine isn’t under continuous artificial heat. However, it requires significantly more time to be effective and suffers from a greater angel’s share from evaporation, which is why the estufagem process is used for younger wines.

What Next?

Now that you have learned about how Madeira is made, read more about it with our resources:

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