Madeira Sweetness Levels
As Madeira may be blended or made from several different grape varieties, each with their own characteristics, the wine may be labelled with an indication of its sweetness.
Each of the following terms provides you with an insight into a Madeira wine’s sweetness:
- Monte Seco (Extra Dry): – 49.1 grams per litre [- 0.5 Baumé Scale]
- Seco (Dry): – 59.3 grams per litre [- 1.5ºBé]
- Meio Seco (Medium Dry): 54.2 – 78.1 grams per litre [1.0 – 2.5ºBé]
- Meio Doce (Medium Sweet): 78.1 – 100.04 grams per litre [2.5 – 3.5ºBé]
- Doce (Sweet): 100 + grams per litre [3.5ºBé +]
Occasionally, the terms above may be omitted if a Madeira wine is instead labelled with one of the single grape varieties listed below. Given that each grape type is fermented in its own style, it results in different amounts of residual sugar. Instead, it tends to be used for blends or grape varieties that vary in sweetness.
Furthermore, bear in mind that the above terms may be somewhat misleading. After all, a sugar cube tends to weigh around 4 grams. While Seco is dry by Madeiran standards, it’s actually pretty sweet.
For instance, sec champagne tends to contain between 17 – 32 grams per litre. And for champagne, “sec” is considered to be quite sweet! Meanwhile, the standard “brut” sweetness results in champagne with less than 12 grams per litre.
Madeira Wine Grape Varieties
Unlike similar fortified wines like sherry and port, Madeira places greater emphasis on the grape variety used to make it. Indeed, the island hosts a plethora of different grapes.
The following are white grapes known as Madeira’s “noble varieties”:
Meanwhile, there are also two red grapes, which are hybrids that were introduced in the mid-20th century:
To learn more about each one, use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read more.
In order to label a wine with one of the above varieties, the blend must contain at least 85% of the mentioned grape. This regulation was introduced by the European Union when some producers started using the labels as indicators of style rather than its contents.
Finally, Bastardo and Moscatel are two additional grape varieties occasionally used to make Madeira. However, they haven’t been listed above as they’re increasingly rare following outbreaks of oidium and phylloxera.
Sercial is a white grape that produces some of the driest Madeira wines. It is completely fermented before being fortified, which leaves only small quantities of residual sugar that varies between 9 and 27 grams per litre.
However, even at near-complete fermentation, the wine is rarely stronger than just 11% ABV before being fortified.
Sercial grapes feature thin skins and ripen relatively late during the harvest season but also retain a high level of acidity. Sercial is also known for its characteristic almond flavour and bright colour.
One of the island’s most popular noble grape varieties, Verdelho has been cultivated on Madeira since the 17th century. It is recognised by its small berries with unusually thick skins that ripen early in the harvest season.
Unlike Sercial, Verdelho ripens very early in the harvest season. Furthermore, it produces low yields of small berries, which explains why it’s so common on the island.
When consumed young, Verdelho Madeira displays a fruitier bouquet than any other variety. Conversely, it delivers high acidity when aged with a slightly smoky character. Its fermentation is usually halted slightly earlier than Sercial to retain between 27 and 45 grams per litre of residual sugars.
Despite being a rarer grape that was nearly driven to extinction by the phylloxera outbreak, Terrantez has witnessed a renaissance in recent years. Its level of sweetness tends to vary between those of Verdelho and Bual.
Also known as “Cascal”, it’s a low-yielding grape and quite sensitive to noble rot. Also known as botrytis, noble rot can increase a grape’s sugar content and plays a key role in cultivating Sémillon, Chenin Blanc, and Reisling. However, it can also cause those with thinner skins like Terrantez to split open.
Consequently, it was likely neglected following the pandemic as producers instead focused their efforts on higher-yielding grape varieties. Nevertheless, its production has increased of late thanks to renewed interest.
Often referred to as “Boal” in Portugal, its name was anglicised to “Bual” given its historical popularity. Confusingly, Boal is a family of grapes rather than a specific variety.
The full name of the variety cultivated on Madeira is “Boal da Madeira” or “Boal Cachudo”. Interestingly, it was discovered to be genetically identical to Malvasia Fina through DNA profiling, which is used for making white port wine in the Douro valley.
Of all the other Madeiran grape varieties, Bual requires the most heat in order to thrive. Darker with a richer body than the above varieties, its fermentation is halted when the residuals sugars are between 45 and 63 grams per litre. Bual often produces a particularly vinous flavour profile with notes of spices and dried fruit after ageing.
Although related to Malvasia Fina mentioned above, this variety refers to either Malvasia Branca de São Jorge or Malvasia Candida. However, they both typically goes by the anglicised name, “Malmsey”, which can either avoid or contributed to further confusion!
The cultivation of Malvasia Candida, which first arrived in the 15th century, declined throughout the 20th century and today only 3 hectares (7.5 acres) of it remain. Meanwhile, Malvasia Branca de São Jorge was introduced in the 1970s and now covers 39 hectares (96 acres) of the island.
Although Malmsey may be used interchangeably for both grapes, they’re quite different. Nevertheless, it is fair to presume that most Malmsey vintages after the 1970s are made from Malvasia Branca de São Jorge.
As its fermentation is stopped sooner by adding grape spirit, it features a greater quantity of residual sugars and produces the sweetest Madeira wines. Its naturally high acidity helps offset the sweetness, which results in a balanced palate.
It is often aged to a point where the wine has a dark caramel colour. It tends to offer a bouquet of marmalade and dried fruit as well as gourmand notes like toffee and coffee.
Often regarded as the island’s “workhorse grape”, Tinta Negra’s full name is “Tinta Negra Mole” and accounts for 85% for Madeira’s entire production.
Although it’s a red grape, the wine produced is quite pale and very sweet as it isn’t typically macerated. Similarly, it’s drier when grown in cooler parts of the island, which makes it a versatile grape.
Unlike the noble varieties above, it’s a hybrid variety and was created by crossing Grenache with Pinot Noir.
As a hardy and very high-yielding grape, Tinta Negra played a pivotal role in overcoming the aftermath of the phylloxera outbreak. Yet since it was a hybrid, it was deemed only suitable as an ingredient for blending wine.
Traditionally, Tinta Negra was never mentioned on the wine’s label and those that featured significant amounts could only use the sweetness indicators described in the opening of this article. However, the Madeira Wine Institute officially recognised Tinta Negra as a possible single grape variety in 2015.
Like Tinta Negra, Complexa is another, albeit slightly less common, red “workhorse” hybrid grape variety. It has fewer tannins than Tinta Negra and often produces a deeper colour.
It was created in the 1960s by crossing Muscat Hamburg, Castelao, and Tintinha. However, while Tinta Negra is now permitted to be mentioned on Madeira labels, Complexa can only be used for blending.
Madeira Wine Age Statements
Besides the different grape varieties and levels of sweetness, Madeira wine also uses its own age statements, which consist of the following:
Use the links above to jump ahead. Otherwise, scroll down to discover each one as we explore them in greater detail.
What Is Rainwater Madeira?
Rainwater Madeira isn’t really an age statement but more of a style that was a major export to the USA. Although its popularity has dwindled in recent years, it’s regularly produced on the island.
It’s typically associated with a medium-dry level of sweetness that is somewhat lighter than Verdelho. Rainwater blends are often composed of large quantities of Tinto Negra and are aged for at least three years.
The origins of its name are often speculated and debated. One theory purports that it was originally made from steep and inaccessible vineyards that couldn’t be irrigated and were therefore dependent on rainwater.
Meanwhile, it’s also believed that the name resulted from imported barrels of Madeira wine that had diluted after absorbing rainwater after sitting on an American dock for too long.
Finally, it has also been suggested that it earned the name after somebody tried the new style of wine and claimed that it tasted “as fine as rainwater”.
Ironically the lowest grade of Madeira wine, Finest is aged for just three years and is often heavily blended with Tinta Negra. It’s rarely consumed as a drink and is instead primarily used for cooking. Similarly, Finest Madeira cannot be labelled with a grape variety.
Reserve Madeira has been aged for at least five years but it is often blended with older vintages, too. Similarly, different varieties can be used in the blending process.
Single variety Madeira is also permitted once it has been aged for five years and can be blended as a Reserve to a certain extent. However, as mentioned earlier, it must contain at least 85% of a particular variety if it is to be mentioned on the label.
Special Reserve Madeira
Special Reserve Madeira follows the same process as the Reserve wine above but for an extended 10-year process.
As you’ll learn in our guide to how Madeira is made, Madeira is artificially heated while it ages in what is called the “estufagem” process. Given the long ageing period, Special Reserve Madeira will only be heated like this in the early stages if at all.
Special and older Reserve wines will instead use the “canteiro” heating process, which uses natural sunlight. We also explain this technique in detail in the link above.
Extra Reserve Madeira
Aged for at least 15 years, Extra Reserve Madeira can still be blended from several grape varieties and with some rare older vintages. However, given its rarity, it’s typically a single-vintage blend.
Since there are no named age statements after 15 years, older blends will often use years in decade increments such as 20, 30, and 40-year-old Madeira wines.
Like Reserve Madeira, Colheita must be aged for at least five years. However, it distinguishes itself by being of a single vintage rather than a blend. Meanwhile, it is not regarded as a true vintage Frasqueira Madeira, which is described below, as it hasn’t been aged for a total minimum of 20 years.
For this reason, it uses the word “Colheita”, which means “harvest” in Portuguese rather than “Fraqueira” or “vintage” in English.
Indeed, Colheita wines are typically Frasqueira Madeira that has been bottled sooner. As a result, they’re a somewhat cheaper vintage option. If aged in wooden casks for longer, producers may rename it as Frasqueira Madeira.
As highlighted above, “Frasqueira” simply means “vintage” in Portuguese and has to be aged for at least 20 years in total. Of these two decades, the wine must be aged 19 years in a wooden cask and a further year in the bottle.
Legally, 25% of the wine may consist of other grape varieties but they must also be of the same vintage. Consequently, it rarely contains other wines if any at all.
A fractional blending process best associated with ageing Spanish sherry, the Solera system is also occasionally used for making Madeira, too. While we provide a detailed explanation of how the Solera system works in our guide on how sherry is made, there are a few minor differences for Madeira.
Firstly, Madeira wine solera systems were once quite common as a way of extending wine stocks following the phylloxera outbreak. In fact, they were often used to blend older wines. However, they are particularly rare nowadays.
In short, a solera system works by transferring wine of different ages across barrels at several levels. The ones at the bottom contain the oldest wine and when partly emptied to be bottled, it’s topped up with a portion from the barrel above it.
Wine is transferred down each level until the barrel with the one with the youngest wine is partially emptied. It is then topped up with new wine. Unlike sherry, Madeira wine is restricted by the frequency and the quantity that can be transferred each time.
In order to retain an age statement, a Madeira Solera system can only undertake 10 wine transfers with only 10% of the wine being moved down each time. Consequently, approximately 50% of the resulting wine is of a single particular age.
Therefore, bottlings from the few remaining soleras are quite rare and tend to fetch a premium when they are available.
Madeira Wine Colours
Finally, Madeira wine labels can also feature other terms that refer to the Madeira’s colour:
Indeed, these descriptions don’t necessarily indicate any potential flavours or body of the wine. However, when taking into account the blend’s age statement and the grape varieties, it can provide an insight into the wine’s overall style.
Now that you have read about the different types of Madeira wine, learn more about it with our resources: