Thursday, July 5, 2018

Discovering the History and Intricacies of Madeira Wines

Now that it's just after U.S. Independence Day, I thought it's the perfect time to talk about madeira wines! Did you know Madeira was the wines used to toast the Declaration of Independence? Madeira was very popular with the founding fathers and others during that time. New York received half of the total exports of Madeira out of Portugal during 1785-1787. George Washington himself ordered 15 barrels of Madeira from 1759-1783.

Madeira wine comes from the island of Madeira in Portugal. The island sits on top of a shield volcano. Back in the old days, winemakers would add neutral spirits to their wines so they not spoil during the long sailing time to the New World. Some of the unsold wines are returned, and they found that the heat and movement had changed the flavors of the wines. They recreated this effect using the Canteira system, the traditional system of making Madeira wines. Instead of keeping the wines cool in a cellar, to make Madeira the wines are slowly heated.

You may think of Madeira wines as the very sweet dessert wines, but in fact Madeira can range from dry to sweet. As you can see below even the colors range from light to dark.
There are five grape varieties on Madeira island:
1) Sercial makes a dry, white wine with a crisp acidity. This typically pairs nicely with cheese.
2) Verdelho is also a white varietal but it produces a medium dry wine.
3) Bual produces a medium sweet white wine which pairs nicely with desserts.
4) Malvasia is a sweet, full bodied dark wine that has honey and spice notes. Thomas Jefferson personally preferred Malvazia.
5) Tinta Negra is a versatile grape that can produce dry to sweet Madeira wines.
I tasted a sweet wine from Cooperative Agricola do Funchal. The wine was 60% Tinta Negra. It was sweet with honey, fig notes but good acidity.

Vinhos Barbeito was founded in 1946 by Mario Barbeito de Vasconcelos and it is now still run by family.
They have a Historic Series targeted for the American market. Each one is named for a particular historical city in the US, like Boston. We tried the Charleston one, which was a Special Reserve dry Sercial wine. It uses 85% sercial aged for 10 years and blended with 15% Tinta Negra. The wine is aged in old French oak casks using traditional Canteiro method.

Blandy's is the oldest Madeira wine company and has been producing Madeira wines for over 200 years. We tasted the Blandy's Colheita Bual 2003. The 2003 was an exceptionally dry year, which turned out to be great for Bual. This was aged 13 years in American oak casks in Canteiro system, where the wine is gently heated by warm air on the upper floors for four years


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