WINE CULTURE IN MADEIRA ISLAND
PORTUGAL AND ITS LOVE AFFAIR WITH WINE
Portugal emerged officially as a country in 1143 and since then has maintained its firm borders for almost a thousand years, making it one of the most identifiable, oldest countries in the world. Portugal was at the forefront of European exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries during the golden Age of Discovery. Today, Portugal has a strong cultural identity which is the culmination of influences from many cultures over the centuries. One of which is its wine culture in Madeira Island, as well as mainland Portugal.
Wine has been made in Portugal since at least 2000 BC when the Tartessians planted vines in the Sado and Tagus valleys. When the Romans reached Portugal, they named the area Lusitania after Lusus, the son of the Roman god of wine Bacchus.
Madeira Island was discovered by Portuguese explorers in 1419 during the golden Age of Exploration (15th and 16th century). The islands of Madeira have a long winemaking history, being a standard port of call for ships heading to the New World or East Indies. To prevent the wine from spoiling, neutral grape spirits were added. The process of fortification was discovered to enhance the flavor and stability of wines on these long sea voyages.
MADEIRA WINE, AN AMERICAN FAVOURITE
Madeira wine became particularly popular in the American colonies, it was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, and it was used to toast the Declaration of Independence. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams are also said to have appreciated the qualities of Madeira.
MADEIRA WINE, AN OLD TRADITION
In between the hill villages of Estreito de Câmara de Lobos and Nogueira is the island’s main wine-producing area, a patchwork of precipitous terraced vineyards that appear to defy logic and gravity. Aficionados of Madeira’s fortified wines should know they are produced by back-breaking toil in vineyards not much bigger than back gardens. Grapes are almost always harvested in a traditional way – by hand. Therefore establishing a long traditional wine culture in Madeira Island for over 600 years.
Madeira wine is fortified with brandy during fermentation to raise its alcoholic content to 18–20 percent. Madeiras, ranging from dry to sweet, derive their distinctive, rich character from the volcanic soil of the island’s vineyards (some of the most steeply terraced in the world) and from a unique process of aging in baking rooms, or estufas, for several months after fermentation. This accelerated aging process was adopted after the discovery that the wines benefited from the prolonged heat of storage that they underwent during tropical voyages. Madeira is also aged in oak casks, and wines of different ages may be blended before bottling.
The initial winemaking steps of Madeira start out like most other wines: grapes are harvested, crushed, pressed, and then fermented in either stainless steel or oak casks. The four major styles of Madeira are synonymous with the names of the four best known white grapes used to produce the wine. Ranging from the driest style to the sweetest style.
TYPES OF MADEIRA WINE
Sercial is nearly fermented completely dry, with very little residual sugar (0.5 to 1.5° on the Baumé scale, or 9-27 g/l). This style of wine is characterised with high-toned colours, almond flavours, and high acidity.
Verdelho has its fermentation halted a little earlier than Sercial, when its sugars are between 1.5 and 2.5° Baumé (27-45 g/l). This style of wine is characterized by smokey notes and high acidity.
Bual (also called Boal) has its fermentation halted when its sugars are between 2.5 and 3.5° Baumé (45-63 g/l). This style of wine is characterized by its dark colour, medium-rich texture, and raisin flavours.
Malvasia (also known as Malvazia or Malmsey) has its fermentation halted when its sugars are between 3.5 and 6.5° Baumé (63-117 g/l). This style of wine is characterised by its dark colour, rich texture, and coffee-caramel flavours. Like other Madeiras made from the noble grape varieties, the Malvasia grape used in Malmsey production has naturally high levels of acidity in the wine, which balances with the high sugar levels so the wines do not taste cloyingly sweet.
Terrantez almost became extinct on the island but has been making a comeback. Its style ranges in sweetness from that of Verdelho to that of Bual, never being quite as dry as Sercial nor quite as sweet as Malvasia.
Reserve (five years) – This is the minimum amount of aging a wine labeled with one of the noble varieties is permitted to have.
Special Reserve (10 years) – At this point, the wines are often aged naturally without any artificial heat source.
Extra Reserve (over 15 years) – This style is rare to produce, with many producers extending the aging to 20 years for a vintage or producing a colheita. It is richer in style than a Special Reserve Madeira.
Colheita or Harvest – This style includes wines from a single vintage, but aged for a shorter period than true Vintage Madeira. The wine can be labeled with a vintage date, but includes the word colheita on it. Colheita must be a minimum of five years of age before being bottled and may be bottled any time after that.
Vintage or Frasqueira – This style must be aged at least 19 years in cask and one year in bottle, therefore cannot be sold until it is at least 20 years of age.
MADEIRA WINE FESTIVAL
With its strong sense of wine culture in Madeira Island, it attracts visitors and locals alike with its Annual Wine Festival is one of the tourist attractions of Madeira Island. Taking place during the grape harvest in late August, early September, this event aims to recreate the old traditions of Madeira, which were developed over centuries of labour in viticulture. This event has been commemorated since the late seventies of the last century. It begins in Funchal and includes the European Folklore Week, ornamentations, exhibitions and live portraits depicting the wine culture, as well as traditional and light music performances.
PRODUCERS OF MADEIRA WINE
Henriques & Henriques, Vinhos S.A., have their wine cellars in the charming fishing village of Câmara de Lobos, though their production and bottling facilities are nearer Cabo Girão, the highest sea cliff in Europe. It is an interesting visit as you will even see whisky casks that have been sent here to hold Madeira Wine for a couple of years before being shipped back to Scotland to give flavour to the whisky.
H. M. Borges, Sucrs, Lda., a family run business whose fourth generation continues to work with patience and dedication to store ancient wines in their wine cellars. They are based in the centre of Funchal.
Justino’s – Madeira Wines, S.A., one of the oldest Madeira Wine producers and exporters, it was a family run business up until 1993, when it partnered with one of the largest French spirit and wines companies, allowing Justino’s to become one of the market leaders in the export of Madeira Wine all over the world.
Madeira Wine Company, S.A., this is one of the largest Madeira Wine producers and exporters as it resulted from the association in the beginning of the twentieth century of four family run businesses which have been producing wine for hundreds of years: Blandy, Leacock, Miles and Cossart Gordon. The delightful wine cellars at the Blandy’s Madeira Wine Lodge can be visited every day in the centre of Funchal and tours provide a valuable insight into the history and making of Madeira Wine.
Pereira d’Oliveira (Vinhos), Lda., a company which has been run by the same family for five generation. You can visit their main wine cellars behind the Colégio Church in the centre of Funchal where the wonderful scent from the wines stored in the oak casks in this building which dates back to 1609 will imprint itself on the memories you make while discovering Madeira.
Vinhos Barbeito (Madeira), Lda., one of the youngest companies in the business of producing and exporting Madeira Wine, it has been run by the family since 1946. Being the youngest it is also considered the boldest and most irreverent in experimenting with their wonderful wines and stunning packaging. Their modern facilities can be visited on a hillside above Câmara de Lobos where you will get a perspective of their unique blend of tradition and modernity.
J. Faria & Filhos, Lda., a company founded in 1949 which produces a variety of products including Madeira Wine, rums, fruit liqueurs, brandy and fruit juices.
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