Mind your Madeira: Exploring “America’s Fortified Wine”
By Debra Meiburg MW
Madeira is often touted as America’s Fortified Wine, but ask an American to describe Madeira and the most likely response is a blank stare. This toffee-flavored wine has fallen out of fashion in recent decades, but it was once the toast of the town. America’s founding fathers clinked glasses of Madeira while signing their Declaration of Independence, President George Washington requested Madeira for his inauguration ceremony and devotee Betsy Ross purportedly nipped the amber liquid while sewing the stars and stripes.
Madeira is a fortified wine, which means its natural alcohol levels are kicked up by adding spirits, sort of like spiking tomato juice with vodka on a Sunday morning. Before the advent of modern science, wine was notoriously unstable and difficult to ship so producers added brandy to the wine for protection. While alcohol has been known to make humans unsteady on their feet, it does give wine a decided stability.
Though Madeira is majestically linked to America’s history, it is a Portuguese wine, produced on an unlikely hunk of volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Handily positioned in the midst of Atlantic shipping lanes, this isolated Portuguese island-province became a fashionable stopover for European ships stockpiling fresh food, wine and water on the way to colonies as far flung as the South America, India, West Africa and even Macau.
Anyone worth his or her frequent flyer miles will attest that travel is hard on the body and as stable as the fortified wine was upon boarding ship, it was soon discovered that the equatorial heat, moist humidity and rollicking ocean transformed the wine irrevocably. Upon arrival, the wines were tinged deep amber to mahogany and sported richly concentrated nutty, caramel flavors.
This delicious conversion inspired the Madeirense to ship wine barrels ‘round the world and back as ballast before releasing to market. Later, the vintners reasoned they could recreate the same effect under controlled conditions by maturating their wine in the warm lofts of humidified warehouses called lodges. Madeira’s aged caramelized character was such a hit with consumers that it didn’t take long for unscrupulous winemakers to hustle the process by heating the wine in vats. Large wine hot-tubs bubbled up a sickly sweet concoction that gutted Madeira’s reputation for high quality wine.
Top-quality Madeira is always matured naturally and comes in four main styles, each from a different grape variety: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey. Sercial is the lightest and driest wine, with each variety increasingly rich and complex until Malmsey, which is so densely concentrated and sweet it is suitable only for dessert. If mastering four new grape varieties is daunting, here’s my memorization trick, from lightest to sweetest: “Some Very Bad Men are sweet.”
While Madeira always has a kiss of sweetness, the island’s high altitude vineyards ensure the wines have a tangy bite. Madeira is amongst the longest living wines and unopened will keep indefinitely. Once the cork has been pulled, the wine will keep a year or so before losing its freshness. Sercial and Verdelho, the two lightest styles, make dramatic aperitifs and are delicious with soups or served immediately after the main course, but “Bad Men” can be quite rich and are best reserved for after dinner pleasure.