Madeira with its long history, complex flavors and food friendliness is the perfect holiday wine!
Have Some Madeira M’Dear, a song by Flanders and Swan, a popular UK comedy and music duo of my parents’ time, is a soundtrack to some fond memories of my childhood. "Have some Madeira m'dear," my dad would sing, "It's so very much nicer than beer," as he poured it for the grown-ups at Christmas time. I loved watching them sip it from miniature, crenellated crystal glasses that turned that golden liquid into a sparkling kaleidoscope. Today, the sinister import those witty, but wicked, lyrics take as the song progresses might get one cancelled.... so, I will leave the song, if not the title, behind, but not my love of Madeira.
Madeira is a neglected, but exquisite, fortified wine that is, as Eugénio Jardim of Wines of Portugal said at the recent Madeira Wine Experience event in Los Angeles, "not just a glass of wine, it is a glass of history.” Indeed it is! Nearly six centuries old, Madeira was used to toast the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and boasts among its fans George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill -- although perhaps not the Duke of Clarence, the brother of King Edward IV who, legend has it, drowned him in a barrel of the amber liquid in 1478.
And it has multiple references in literature, including, of course Shakespeare: ‘How agrees the devil and thee about thy soul, that thou soldest him on Good Friday last for a cup of Madeira and a cold capon’s leg.” Delicious in literature, history and in its multiple iterations, it also, as I discovered during the Madeira Wine Experience, pairs incredibly well with food. But let’s start with some background on this historic wine.
An Emerald Island, A Happy Accident
In order to understand Madeira wine’s history, it is important to understand the island itself. Madeira, part of Portugal, is a volcanic island, a 286 square mile emerald jewel rising to over 5,900 feet in the Atlantic. It was once completely covered in forests that, in the 1400s, were set afire and burned for 7 years to clear land for farming. Today, 47% of the island is comprised of mountains and forests.
Its strategic location, about 600 miles from the mainland of Portugal and 466 miles from the coast of North Africa, made it the perfect stopping off place during the Age of Discovery for ships headed for Africa, Asia, South America and the New World – and an excellent place to pick up wine.
In the early days, Madeira wine could not withstand the rigors of those journeys and deteriorated before reaching its destination, so alcohol, usually brandy, was added to ‘fortify’ it during the arduous journey. Many of these ships were headed for/through the Tropics so, in addition to the rolling motion those pipes (casks) of wine experienced, they also were subjected to extreme heat – a recipe for disaster for any unfortified wine.
But, in one of those happy accidents that the history of wine is full of, not only did the fortification enable the wine to remain stable during the journey but, because of the rapid maturation/oxidation process from the roiling heat, the wine developed complex and delicious flavors and character.
So, merchants began stashing their pipes into the hulls of ships bound around the world, selling the ‘madeirized’ wines on their return. Demand grew and, eventually, that proved impractical, so the process was replicated on land, initially by putting barrels high up in rooms on wooden support beams called 'canteiros' where they could capture the rising natural heat from the sun and, later, through ovens, or ‘estufas,’ that heated the wines to reproduce the effect of those long, hot sea journeys. Today, while stainless steel tanks with hot water jackets are commonly used for the estufagem method, some of the finest Madeiras on the market continue to be slow-aged through the ‘canteiro’ method relying only on warmth from the sun.
Noble Grapes and an Almost Indestructible Wine
Madeira is made from a range of grapes, all high acid, which capture sunlight, sea breezes and the coolness that altitude brings, on vertiginous terraces rising up from the ocean. Each grape brings its own distinctive flavor/aromas. The ‘nobles’ or traditional Madeira grapes are - from lightest and driest to richest and sweetest - Sercial, Verdelho (not to be confused with Spain’s Verdejo), Boal, Malvasia and Terrantez (almost extinct, but making a come back). Single varietal wines must be at least 85% of the grape variety listed on the label. Tinta Negra, which is the same as the Canary Islands' Negra Moll, is the only red grape allowed in Madeira and is not considered ‘noble’ as it is far less age-worthy, although it can produce lovely wines. Easier to grow, it was planted widely after phylloxera devasted the vineyards in the lates 1800s, and today is the most planted grape. Most ‘generic’ Madeira’s are made from Tinta Negra dominant blends.
The wines must age for at least three years to be called Madeira (although the premiums will either be vintage or have an age indication up to 50 years) and are vinified from dry to lusciously sweet, depending on when during the fermentation the wine is fortified. The 96% abv fortifying spirit kills the yeast (bringing abv to between 17 and 22%), so if it is added early to interrupt fermentation, there will be more sugar left in the wine, if added later when fermentation is almost complete, the wine will be drier.
Because of its bracingly high acid, Madeira, even in its sweet styles offers incredible balance. The unique aging process that heats and oxidizes the wine, along with that acid and fortification, explains why the wines have incredible longevity. They can be stored in any position and are (almost) indestructible – they can last for decades (centuries for the best ones) before opening, and years after opening, if properly stored, with a tight seal, dim light and a cool and consistent temperature
Toffee, Truffles, Nuts and Dried Fruit
Madeira tastes unlike any other wine, and the good ones have an incredibly long and complex finish. While it has elements that are similar to Amontillado, Sauternes, Tokaji, White Port and Rutherglen Muscat, it is quite difficult to describe the ineffable quality that makes it stand alone….
Imagine a shaving of rare truffle rolled in caramelized brown sugar, sprinkled with salty roasted nuts, dusted with peelings of orange and dried apples, all springing to life with a crisp zing of powerful acidity–- and we are just getting started....
Madeira: A Happy Marriage with Food
In a bad pairing, food can have a negative impact on wine, and two of the biggest ‘wine enemies’ are umami and sugar as each can make wine taste drier, more bitter, less sweet and less fruity – so, matching a wine that has sweetness and fruitiness with those enemies just makes sense. Add umami in the wine to the equation - and you have magic. Which is why it is surprising that it had never occurred to me to pair Madeira with food, but, I had always thought of Madeira as a delicious appertif, maybe with some salted nuts, before the main event. That understanding was delightfully shattered by Jardim in the food and wine seminar he presented during the Madeira Wine Experience.
Rainwater and White Fish
The first of his pairings was a Rainwater Madeira from producer Barbeito. Rainwater Madeira is a lighter, fresher style of Madeira developed, legend has it, when a barrel was left out in the rain and the wine was diluted by rainwater. The style is usually off or medium dry and must be bottled before it is five years old. It is paler than other Madeiras, and this one, a blend of Tinta Negra, Verdelho, and Sercial, was medium dry. Light as it was, it was incredibly juicy, offering up an explosion of flavors centered around a core of orange peel and spun sugar, with a crisp, bracing acid and lots of salty ocean spray. It was a lovely pairing with torched sablefish, garnished with white miso, and compressed pineapple. The Madeira zipped nicely through the butteriness of the fish, the pineapple compote softening the wine’s acidity, while the saltiness and umami of the miso harmonized beautifully with the savory finish of the wine.
Sercial and Sweet and Sour Pork Belly
Next up, a 100% medium dry Sercial, that tasted almost off dry because of its high acidity. I am a particular fan of Sercial Madeiras - not as light as rainwater, but among the lightest - with incredible freshness to amplify its particular symphony which, in the case of this 10 year-old from Henriques & Henriques, included tea and toffee, orange zest, bruised apple, dried apricots and salted almonds. This was paired with a bahn mi slider of kurobuta pork belly, garnished with kimchi slaw and spiced pineapple, to create a divinity of sweet, salt and sour.
Verdelho and Shiitakes
This pairing was the apotheosis of umami on plate and in the glass. The wine: Blandy’s 10 year-old 100% Verdelho, riper and fuller-bodied than the Sercial, more amber than gold, and boasting a nose and palate full of soy, honey, salted nuts, and desiccated pear, apple and apricot. Its savoriness, balanced with concentrated dried fruit, complemented the soy-braised shiitake mushroom, with silken tofu mayonnaise, rice, and crispy sesame. The salinity of the soy teased out the fruit in the wine, while the mouth-coating mayonnaise gentled its acidity. A dish like this, with deep layers of umami, would normally be a pairing challenge, but Blandy’s met the moment, amplifying the complexity of both wine and food.
Boal and a Burger
This was an usual pairing and I was skeptical. A 10 Year-old Justino's Broadbent Madeira, 100% Boal, that was medium sweet, full-bodied, and deep amber, with notes of burnt caramel, roasted truffles, sweet spices, dates, dried cherries, raisins, and nuts, and balanced with powerful acidity. My pairing for this would have been pecan or mince pie, or perhaps a rich, oozing, gooey cheese with a bit of funk on it. The pairing we were offered? An Angus prime beef slider on a brioche bun with truffle aioli, i.e. a fancy hamburger. Beef is full of umami and this burger also invited truffles to the umami party...and, wow! The body of the wine was fully up to the punch of the steak and the savory notes in the wine marched in step with the umami in the aioli, while the acid cut through the fat of the meat and its saltiness emphasized the fruit in the wine. What about the wine's sweetness? Think about the heavenly match of barbecue sauce and ribs and you will have a clue to the crazy brilliance of this pairing….. speaking of which, this wine, full of history and sophistication, would be amazing with some down-home barbecue.
Malmsey and a Cream Puff
In wine and food pairing, sweet with sweet is my mantra given what an enemy sugary foods can be to wine (my particular peeve is dry champagne with sweet wedding cake, a match IMHO made in hell). While the previous pairings have proved that sweet wines can be fabulous with savory food, the final food and wine pairing of the day proved that sweet and sweet work like a charm. This final wine, a Malmsey, was a doozy, a vintage wine – 30 years old – from 100% Malvasia, grown in the very warmest parts of Madeira, which means high sugar levels in the grapes, while still retaining zinging acidity. Malmseys are lusciously sweet, full-bodied, with honey and spice and this D’Oliveiras 1994 Malvazia - Frasquira was characteristically rich on the palate, but still fresh, with syrupy peaches and apricots, dark dried fruits, some roasted salty nuts, and drizzled over with molasses and a reduction of coffee. What a privilege to taste all this in one small glass and to experience its finish endlessly cascading across my palate.
I really appreciated the pairing with the coffee cream puff, with vanilla ganache and espresso caramel which, in some ways, was the dessert representation of the wine itself. But, if I am honest, given the incredible complexity of this wine, I would have preferred something a little simpler, perhaps a salted crème caramel, or some vanilla ice cream sprinkled with toasted pecans or hazelnuts, so the wine could really be the star. This wine was, after all, the jewel in the crown of the event – and if one has to say goodbye to this world in a vat of this kind of malmsey, as the Duke of Clarence did, well, suddenly, that does not seem so terrible …...
Madeira and the Holidays: A Perfect Pairing
So, if you have yet to try Madeira, and this has whet your palate, the holidays are the perfect time to start. But, please, walk right past those cheap bottles at Trader Joe’s or the $7.99 ones at the supermarket, and go for the gold at your specialty wine shop – the above listed bottles (except for the 1994 Malmsey, which is probably at least $200) retail at between $35 and $50. And are so very worth it.
Perhaps you can start your Madeira journey this Thanksgiving - the last three wines would be brilliant with pumpkin pie or sweet potatoes with marshmallows - or sneak a Boal onto the Christmas dinner table, and see how well it pairs it with Turkey and cranberry sauce… or, if you do Chinese food on Christmas Day, pair your Kung Pao Chicken with the Blandy’s 10-year old Verdehlo.
Better still, for New Year’s Eve, fire up your grill, throw some burgers on the barbie and try a Madeira My Dear, Because You Really Have Nothing to Fear!
Have the Happiest of Holidays and Cheers!
For more about food and wine pairing, click here
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To read my article that was shortlisted in the 2023 Jancis Robinson Wine Writing Competition, click here