From filling the glasses of founding fathers to the secret ingredient in your fall cocktail, Madeira needs a spot on your drink menu.

Hailing from the small Portuguese island of Madeira, this fortified wine is a perfect modifying ingredient for seasonal drinks. While it’s often served as an aperitif or used in cooking, Madeira wines are a superb cocktail modifier as they have a well-rounded flavor profile with a balanced level of sweetness and acidity. While tasting notes can vary depending on the grapes used, terroir, and aging some of the most common include vanilla, mushroom, wood, coffee, honey, and nuts.

The result is a sweet and acidic spirit with funky, sometimes briny undertones. Not only is it a staple in a few classic cocktails, but the lower ABV combined with the dynamic flavor makes it interesting used as the only spirit in a craft cocktail. The fortified wine can also be used to make unique takes on a spritz or highball.

The Story Of Madeira

Shortly after the island of Madeira was discovered industrious wine makers were planting grapes. These early vines are thought to have been a Cretan variety known as Malvasia, which creates a dry, aromatic, and light wine. As the Dutch East India company began transporting 112-gallon pipes of the spirit it quickly became apparent that the wine alone would spoil before it reached its destination. Distillers began adding small amounts of rum and then brandy to the wine to stabilize it for travel.

At some point, a barrel made its way back to Madeira after its long voyage at sea. After opening, tasting revealed that the heating and cooling process the wine endured during the trip brought a distinct mellowness and unique flavor. Until 1794 the process couldn’t be replicated without ship voyage and the “Vinho da roda” (or round-trip-wine) was incredibly expensive and incredibly desirable.

Once technology advanced and the price point was able to drop Madeira became a favorite drink of everyone from the common man to the upper crust of nobility. Records show that the founding fathers were filling their glasses with Madeira to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the inauguration of George Washington.

In the mid 1800’s a series of setbacks began to plague wine makers on the island. First, in 1852 powdery mildew caused production to decrease by 90%. Shortly after powdery mildew was cured, a variety of root louse called phylloxera made its way to Madeira and wreaked havoc. By the time the root louse were brought under control only 15 out of the original 85 wine shippers were still in business.

The story for high-quality Madeira was a bleak one until the founding of the Madeira Wine Institute in 1979. The new organization helped with not just marketing but providing support for viniculture and aging practices.

Vineyard on the Island of Madeira

Vineyard on the Island of Madeira

Get To Know The Grapes

Traditionally there are four “Noble” white grapes that were historically used to make Madeira. After root louse eradicated many of the old vines, a red grape called Tinta Negra Mole was introduced. Tinta Negra is an interesting addition because while it makes up over ¾ of the grapes used to make the spirit it is not considered a Noble grape..

White Grapes:

  • Verdelho often creates a wine with medium levels of dryness and sweetness while retaining acidity and creating notes of honey, hay, and mellow lemon.
  • Malmsey is most often used to create dessert wines that has savory and burnt sugar notes and a rich, sweet flavor.
  • Sercial produces a pale acidic wine with notes of walnuts and peaches. This varietal grows at high elevations and creates the driest expression.
  • Bual grapes produces a medium sweet flavor and have notes of vanilla, raisin, and caramel.

Red Grapes:

Tinta Negra isn’t considered as high-quality as the other grapes despite being used to produce the majority of Madeira on the market. It has nutty and citrus leaning notes.

The Madeira Wine Institute regulations have a variety of specifications for how each style is labeled. If a bottling has a name of a noble grape on the label it must be made from at least 85% of the grape in question and be aged for a minimum of five years. Expressions made from noble grapes and aged appropriately are allowed to use the term Colheita on their labels. Tinta Negra varietals are often used to create Rainwater style Madeira that has a dryish, smoky, and light flavor profile.

Madeira Spritz Garnished with Citrus

Madeira Spritz Garnished with Citrus

How It’s Made

There are two main ways that Madeira can be made, both start by picking, crushing, and beginning fermentation of grapes. Some makers allow the grapes to ferment dry before placing them into tanks made of concrete or stainless steel built with exterior pipes for hot water to run through. The wine is heated to 130º for three months and then slowly cooled before brandy is added to bring the abv to 20%, the mixture is then sweetened and colored before being aged in neutral barrels for at least two years.

Two glasses of Madeira wine and two cups of fresh espresso coffee in cafe with view to Funchal town, Madeira, Portugal

Madeira pairs well with coffee

With higher-end Madeira, the process is similar to making port. Fermentation is stopped short by the addition of 192-proof brandy. At this point the now fortified wine is moved to barrels in a non-temperature-controlled storage space and placed on top of wooden beams. Over a period of at least three years the wine naturally heats and cools simulating the temperature changes of a ship. The changes in hot and cold allow the liquid to be pushed in and out of the wood developing color and flavor. The aging process must last at least three years but the longer the aging the more dynamic the wine. Some makers age their Madeira for up to 20 years or longer.

When choosing a Madeira note that the longer the aging period the more complex and smooth the spirit. Older expressions are best enjoyed alone or as simple classic cocktails while younger expressions work well in more complicated mixes and cooking. Thanks to the production method, the wine is slow to turn, and an open bottle continues to be usable for months if not years.