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The Ageless Wine
On a 1950 visit to Madeira, Sir Winston Churchill was honored by the island’s British community with a dinner party. As a special tribute, his hosts opened a rare 1792 vintage Madeira bottled in 1840. When served in 1950, the wine was 158 years old, but in fine condition, still boasting Madeira’s trademark rich, sweet, velvety taste and room-filling aromas of butterscotch, cocoa and coffee. Sir Winston insisted on serving the guests himself, asking “Do you realize that when this wine was vintaged, Marie Antoinette was alive?”
Madeira’s longevity earns it a special place in the realm of old wine. What other wine requires over a half century to mature? And what other wine, when a century old, still benefits from several hours of breathing and can stand up to weeks in a decanter, without losing its complexity or its richness? And how many wines can live for two centuries and still offer the enjoyment of drinking?
Madeira is produced on a volcanic island of the same name, 360 miles west of Morocco and 700 miles south of Portugal, which governs it. The history of Madeira’s wine is nearly as old as that of the island. The island was first settled by Europeans—led by the Portuguese explorer Zarco—in 1419. Within a century, the wine from these vineyards was well established in markets throughout Europe and by the 1700s it had become the most popular wine in Britain’s North American colonies.
For two centuries, Madeira was the wine of choice for most affluent Americans. Francis Scott Keyes is said to have penned the Star Spangled Banner, sipping from a glass of Madeira. George Washington’s inauguration was toasted with Madeira, as was the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Wealthy families from Boston to Savannah established extensive collections of Madeiras.
Madeira had its origins in the days when merchant ships called at Madeira on their way to the East and West Indies. Beginning in the late 1600's, wines from Madeira's vineyards were frequent cargo on ships sailing to the Americas, as well as to mainland Portugal, England and India. According to legend, the value of a trip to the tropics was learned when an orphan cask, forgotten in a ship's hold, returned to Madeira from a trip across the Equator. The wine was found to be rich and velvety, far better than when it left, and a tropical cruise became part of the Madeira winemaking tradition.
Like Port, Medeira fermentation is arrested with the addition of Brandy, leaving residual sugar in the wine. The heating process, is called “estufagem,” and throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, producers continued to send casks of their wines on long voyages, for no other reason than to develop greater character. The ocean traveling wines were called vina da roda, or “wines of the round voyage,” and those that crossed the Equator twice were considered the best. Although this practice ended in the first decade of the 20th century, heating is still a critical step in the making of all Madeiras.
The greatest Madeiras are the vintage wines, produced exclusively from grapes of a single year. These wines remain in cask for a minimum of two decades, after which they typically require 30 to 75 years to fully mature. Unlike Vintage Port, which is a blend of grape varieties, the classic Vintage Madeiras were almost always made from a single varietal, and usually one of the following four grapes Sercial, Verdelho, Bual (aka Boal) and Malmsey (aka Malvasia/Malvazia).
August 3, 2016