The island of Madeira: timeless wines born in the sea

Author: Olga Sgibneva

The island of Madeira: timeless wines born in the sea

Is the wine named after the island, or the island after the wine? This is certainly more of a rhetorical question, but it highlights the popularity this wine has enjoyed throughout its history. By the 19th century, Madeira wine (or how it is sometimes called in Spanish, Madera) was just as popular as Champagne and Bordeaux on the global market, or perhaps even more; the abundance of ripoffs and similar style wines are indirect evidence of this fact. But nothing is like the original. If we take a closer look at the wine from this island, it is obvious how surprisingly different its style and taste can be. Madeira can be both dry and sweet, taking on a unique style based on the specific local technology used in its production.

The island of Madeira: timeless wines born in the sea 

The Madeira Archipelago is in the Atlantic Ocean and, strictly speaking, is a part of Africa, not Europe. Formed by the eruption of an underwater volcano in the middle of the Atlantic, it is an amazing natural landmark located over 600 kilometers away from the sandy shores of Morocco, and 420 kilometers from the nearest Canary Islands.

Together with other archipelagos (the Azore Islands, Canary Islands, Cabo Verde, and the uninhabited Selvagens), Madeira forms Macaronesia, i.e., «the Isles of the Blessed» (Greek), which is how they were known by Greek sailors in ancient times. According to Greek legends, this was the Elysian Fields, while some linked this area to Atlantis. Nowadays, all Macaronesia archipelagos belong to Portugal, except the Canary Islands (Spain), with Madeira at the center of its tourism industry.

But in the 15 century, when the Portuguese decided to establish the world’s first colony there, they had to do the hardly ethereal job of clearing the islands of their thick, centuries-old forests, which covered almost their entire surface. In fact, the name Madeira means «wood, tree, forest» and is a Portuguese translation of the Italian Legname, the name used by Medieval geographers.

The famous local wine is an example of how difficult living conditions contributed to the creation of a unique beverage. In Madeira, wine appeared when the first Portuguese colonists planted the old variety vines able to take root in tropics.

Despite the volcanic soil improved by ash, frequent rounds of tropical rain made it impossible for the grapes to ripen and the wines were quite average, even sour, and deteriorated in quality when transported. But when visiting the island on their way to far-away countries, ships would still take barrels of wine on board as a ballast and for the sailors to drink.

The Age of Discovery of the 15th–17th centuries gave us the Madeira we know today. Back then, the island was an important stopover for ships sailing from Europe to India or Brazil.

The 16th-century chronicles report that Madeira had a serious wine infrastructure and high production volume. What happened? Early Madeira wines were unstable and quickly went bad at sea at high temperatures. Therefore, following the example of Porto and Douro, it was decided to fortify wine with small portions of distilled cane spirit, which was also made in Madeira, so the wine didn’t go bad on long sea voyages. In the 18th century, the technology was improved by using brandy to fortify wine.

Ships would cross the equator during their voyages and, affected by high temperatures, the wine in barrels would change drastically. It would get a velvety texture, complex aromatics and excellent taste. This was discovered, as these things often are, accidentally when after a long journey, the wine barrels were returned to the producer.

That was how the first Madeira making technology was born, and for several centuries, wines would be taken on long journeys to perfect their taste. After crossing «the seven seas,» this amazing beverage gained qualities that neither worsened, nor disappeared after its storage period. Such wines were called Vinho da roda, meaning wine that traveled and came back. But of course, this technology was costly, so winemakers began to come up with new production methods to age Madeira wines at natural temperatures without sending them hundreds of miles away.

The 18th century was the golden age of Madeira. These wines handled transportation and storage wonderfully, while the palatability of the fortified wine fully met market requirements. Its popularity continued to grow, covering the markets of North and South Americas, France, Flandre, Great Britain, Russia and even colonial Africa. Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor (1708–1765) claimed that Madeira wines were the best in Europe.

Madeira was especially popular in American colonies, which in some years consumed 90% of the wine produced on the island. The British colony in North America was quite notable in this respect: up to one-fourth of all manufactured wine was exported there.


Madeira and the English Crown

In the 16th century, Madeira wines became hugely popular at the court of the king of England. Indeed, a character from Shakespeare’s Henry IV was even willing to sell his soul for a glass of Madeira. Madeira wines were considered very elegant and became especially popular among court ladies, who used them to perfume their handkerchiefs. But Duke of Clarence surpassed them all: sentenced to death for a failed coup d’etat, he exercised his right to choose his execution method and was drowned in a huge barrel of Madeira wine.


Madeira and US independence

Madeira wine played a huge role in the proclamation of US independence. In May 1768, local American importers had a conflict with colonial British authorities about an illegal parcel of wine from Madeira. John Hancock was the unfortunate importer and one of the future Founding Fathers of the United States. This episode aggravated relations with London and accelerated the proclamation of independence. Madeira wine was also the beverage of choice drank to toast the signing of the Deceleration of Independence. It is well-known that Madeira was a favorite wine of presidents Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

Madeira and US independence

In the 19th century, Madeira wines were at the zenith of fame, but then their production started to decline. First, the vineyards were afflicted by powdery mildew, then by phylloxera, which was eliminated only after the grafting of phylloxera-resistant American rootstock, causing changes in the grape assortment and the predominance of red Tinta Negra Mole, while classical Madeira wines were made from white grapes. The number of ripoffs and similar style wines hit local producers hard, and two key markets closed in the 20th century with Prohibition in the USA and revolution in Russia.

In the second half of the 20th century, wine production was revived in Madeira. Leading producers made efforts to improve quality and get back to making wines from historically «noble» varieties. Nowadays, Madeira wines have a stable reputation among fortified wines. The production of Madeira DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) wines is now controlled by EU and Portuguese legislation. Thanks to its unique technology, varieties and terroir, Madeira maintains its historical level and continues to improve its quality. We have a chance to enjoy the wines which for centuries were considered the world’s best by certain connoisseurs. The Madeira Wine Institute (Instituto do Vihno da Madeira) located in the capital of Madeira, Funchal, guarantees stable quality and technology compliance.



Madeira's terroirMadeira’s mild subtropical climate makes the island a perfect tourist destination and is favorable for winemaking. There is neither exhausting heat nor severe frosts here. The average temperature in January–February is 15 °С, and 22 °С in August. Humidity is moderate, fluctuating between 57% in March and 66% in July. The Atlantic Gulf Stream also ensures a stable water temperature from 18 °C in winter to 22 °C in summer. The south of the island is traditionally drier and warmer than the chilly and humid north.

The volcanic origin of the island provided a high level of mineralization of soil, but despite the natural background, the winemaking conditions here are not so easy as may seem at first; the steep slopes required terraces, sustaining walls and a complex irrigation system.

Thanks to the efforts of many generations of inhabitants, vineyard terraces rise up to 1,800 meters above sea level. The humid climate is an issue for continental grape varieties, which got used to the warmth and dryness, so winemakers have to work hard to get high-quality grapes.

The main help here is the soil fertilized by ash from forest fires since the first colonist arrived, which has since remained fertile for centuries. The official harvesting time begins in the first two weeks of September and ends by mid-October. Because of steepness, harvesting is a labor-intensive process with no mechanical devices used.


Four styles of Madeira DOP wines

Seco, Dry

Meio Seco, Medium Dry

Meio Doce, Medium Rich

Meio Doce, Rich


Madeira types by aging

Madeira types by agingSeleccionado (Selected) and Rainwater are younger Madeira wines which matured for 3–5 years. Most often made from Tinta Negra Mole, which is a «workhorse» among Madeira varieties.

Reservа ( 5 Anos — 5 years). Wine aged for 5–10 years. It should contain at least 85% one or several historically «noble» white rapes of Madeira: Sercial, Verdelho, Boal, Malvasia and Terrantez.

Reserva Velha, Reserva Especial. 10–15 years of aging at a natural temperature.

Reserva Extra (15 Anos). Aged over 15 years; a rare type of wine, usually a blend of different vintages. The majority of winemakers produce old, aged wines such as Colheita or Frasqueira.

Colheita, Harvest. Single-vintage wine matured for 5–19 years. Its maturation time differs from Colheita Port wines, which age for at least seven years.

Frasqueira, Vintage ages for at least 19 years in a barrel and one year in a bottle. Therefore, it can only be released upon reaching 20 years of age. Is similar to Vintage Port wines in terms of age, but the name can only be used for Port wines, which are a registered trademark.


Grape varieties

Grape varieties. MadeiraThe first European colonists from Portugal and the Greek islands brought grape vines to Madeira, including the famous Malvasia, which was used for making wine back in Ancient Greece (and also the first wine to reach Ancient Rus along with Christianity in the 10th century). Other grapes were brought from continental Portugal and are now found, for example, in Douro Valley, but due to differences in the terroir and vinification, Madeira wines are completely different.

The historical varieties which made Madeira famous all over the world in the 18th–19th centuries are Sercial, Verdelho, Boal, Malvasia, and the more rare Terrantez. These are known as «noble» white grapes, and are used for making wine with different levels of sweetness, from dry to dessert. After phylloxera damage, the red Tinta Negra was added to the list of varieties approved for making Madeira DOP wines.

Sercial is a white variety which likely originates from Lisbon, where it is traditionally cultivated under the name Esgana cão. It is used for making dry wines. This grape ripens slowly and late; before fortification, its wines rarely have alcohol content higher than 11%. Thanks to Sercial’s natural acidity balanced by a slight sweetness, its Madeira wine is dry, light and fresh. Madeira from Sercial has rich and vibrant aromas, while its pale color gains depth and becomes amber over time. This is not simply an excellent aperitif or digestif, but the only Madeira wine which can be enjoyed without aging.

Verdelho was among the first grapes to appear on the island, and before Phylloxera it made up nearly two-thirds of all Madeira vineyards. Nowadays, this white variety continues to be widely cultivated, especially on the north coast at heights of up to 100 meters. It is used for making semi-dry wines (Meio Seco). This grape variety requires soil with a high moisture level, ripens early, and has low yields. Verdelho has compact grape clusters and a moderate sugar level with pronounced acidity. The wine is semi-dry, medium-bodied, and has a golden hue. This is an elegant wine with tropical fruit notes.

Boal is a local variant of Malvasia Fina, an autochtonous variety of Douro Valley and Dao. It is cultivated on the south coast of the island, where it is sunnier and warmer than on the chilly and humid north coast. The variety is quite energetic, has big clusters, is low maintenance and ripens early. Thanks to its high acidity, which balances the sweetness, Madeira wines from Boal are medium-bodied, semi-sweet (Meio Doce) with a slight note of copper, and a rich bouquet of spices and dried fruits. These wines have tremendous aging potential and are excellent in their longevity.

Malvasia has a lot of varieties—white, pink, dark-skinned—united under a single name and used to make sweet wines with a high alcohol content. A majority of Malvasia grown in Madeira is a white grape variety known as Malvasia Branca de São Jorge, which is used for making sweet (Meio Doce), full-bodied wines with signature notes of spices and honey. With age, Malvasia wines change color from light-gold to amber. This is a generous and juicy wine with complex notes of coffee, dried fruits, honey, tropical fruits, nuts and marmalade.

Terrantez was brought from the north of continental Portugal, where it was called Folgasão. This is a very fragile rare grape with compact clusters, thin skin and highly susceptible to the Botrytis fungus. It ripens late and has low yields. For centuries, Terrantez was used to make premium wines, but due to its demanding nature was replaced by higher-yield grapes, and is therefore quite rare now.

Tinta Negra Mole is the only red variety approved for Madeira DOP wines. It started being used after the phylloxera epidemic and is currently the predominating grape on the island, occupying nearly 80% of vineyards. The grape has a thicker skin and higher yields compared to white varieties. Depending on the height, humidity, region and exposure, wines from this grape can be sweet or dry. This is a diverse grape and can represent any of the four Madeira wine types, but it should be noted it is often used in simpler wines.

The island of Madeira: timeless wines born in the sea


There are two types of classic Madeira wines: the first with blends of different fortified vintages made from different varieties, and the second spanning monovarietal wines made from a single vintage.

Vinification methods may depend on the grape varieties and style of wine. Thus, maceration is not usually used to make dry and semi-dry wines, while it is obligatory for semi-sweet and sweet wines. Fermentation is stopped by adding a 96% natural grape spirit when the winemaker thinks a sufficient level of residual sugar has been reached, raising the alcohol level to 17.5–21%. Sweet wines are fortified about 24 hours after the beginning of fermentation, while dry-style wines are left to ferment for up to one week.

Madeira DOP wines are unique not so much because of special grapes or fortification, but rather the technology used to produce them: heat treatment known as «madeirization.» After fortification, wines age in warm conditions. Currently, various aging methods are used under the common name of «estufagem,» which replicate the historical Vinho de Roda technology when wines were taken on long sea voyages.

Estufagem. Historically, after fermentation was stopped by means of fortification, oak barrels with the wine were taken to the attic, where they were exposed to a high temperature when the tiled roof was heated. Such buildings were called estufag (greenhouses, Portuguese).

Cuba de Calor (heat cube). In 1794, this technology was improved by doctor and winemaker Pantelião Fernandes. According to his new method, wines aged in large (up to 30 liter) tanks, which were slowly heated to 45–55 °С. The heated aging period lasts for 4 months, then the wine is slowly cooled down and stabilized for two additional years.

During the aging period, wine is exposed to artificial aeration; it is drained from the bottom of the tank and then poured back into the reservoir from the top. This is how oxygenation takes places. This method is mostly used for simpler and cheaper 3-year old wines from Tinta Negra Mole. If the grape variety is not denoted on the label, it means the wine is made from Tinta Negra.

Canteiro. This method is used to make nobler, aged wines and presupposes no less than 4 years of aging in oak barrels in special buildings at a naturally warm temperature (the climate in Madeira is very smooth and mild).

Warm air rises up and the barrels with young wines are placed on the upper floors of such buildings (or just on top if it is a single story building). Year by year, the barrels are gradually moved down into rooms with lower temperatures to complete the aging period.

Some wines can age for 10, 15, 20 or more years before bottling. The Vintage indication on a label means the monovarietal wine aged in a barrel for not less than 20 years and is made from a single vintage. There are also wines that aged for up to a century. After that, the finest Madeira wines can be stored as long as needed without going bad, even years after the bottle is opened.

The wines also get their unique and concentrated character thanks to the so-called «angels’ share,» where the barrels are never filled to the top, allowing the wine to oxidate slowly, turning initial aromas into the Madeira bouquet of spices, roasted nuts, bread, dried fruits and smoky notes.

There are also such rare, alternative methods as steaming the barrels for an extended period of time.

In addition, special attention should be given to Madeira-style wines with their own production methods that also became classic over time. Thus, «Madera Massandra» has been produced since 1892 in the Crimea from the historical white varieties of the island—Verdelho and Sercial—with the addition of Albillo, which is common for both Portugal and Spain. This wine has won numerous international awards.

Based on Crimean technology, the grape is harvested when the level of sugar in berries reaches 20%. The wine is fortified with a spirit to reach 19.5% and is also «maderized,» where barrels with wine are placed in a special open site, giving rise to the popularity of Crimean Madeira as «twice born by the sun.»


The Institute and Museum of Madeira Wines

Located in Funchal, the capital of Madeira, the Institute of Madeira Wines (Instituto do Vinho da Madeira) is a regulatory institution that monitors technology compliance, establishes standards and promotes Madeira wines on the market. The Museum of Madeira Wine is located in the Madeira Wine Institute and covers the entire wine production period in Madeira, focusing on winemaking methods, export markets, and leading producers throughout the years. The museum has a collection of unique exhibits, including wooden winemaking tools and devices from colonial times.


Facts about Madeira

Facts about MadeiraNew Year festivities in Madeira are known for their magnificent fireworks. In fact, in 2007, Guinness World Records awarded the city the title of «Greatest Fireworks Show in the World.» On August 21, Madeira’s capital city Funchal also celebrates its city day in a very vibrant and colorful way.

The local international airport is named after Cristiano Ronaldo: the famous soccer player was born on the island of Madeira. Island visitors are welcomed by his bronze portrait sculpture, which recently had to be replaced because the initial version was so nowhere near the original.

The central park of Funchal features a monument to Russian artist Karl Briullov, who in the late romantic period also spent some time in Madeira for health reasons. He worked a lot here, painted a number of brilliant portraits, and became famous among local aristocrats. His painting «The Last Day of Pompeii» is one of the most well-known Russian artworks in Europe.