When friends of mine recently hosted a Spanish-themed dinner party'complete with three different types of paella'I naturally planned to bring along some Spanish wines. But then I remembered that I had half a dozen bottles of Madeira gathering dust in my cellar, and thought it would be fun to have a Madeira tasting along with the Spanish tapas and paella prepared by our hosts.
It was fun'and enlightening. In the past, I’d only tasted Madeira a single bottle at a time. But to compare six different styles and a wide price range of Madeiras was a real eye-opener. Frankly, I hadn’t realized that Madeira came in so many varieties. Like its Portuguese cousin Port, Madeira runs the gamut from barely drinkable to sublime. Next week, I’ll discuss the various Madeiras we tasted, all of which are available here in Utah. But first, just what is Madeira?
To begin with, it’s a place: a small, subtropical island about 400 miles west of Morocco. It’s a province of Portugal, which is located approximately 500 miles northeast of Madeira, so Madeira is actually closer to Africa than to Europe.
As is the case with Port, this part of Portugal’s wine economy is mostly run by the British. So popular brands of Madeira tend to have names like Blandy’s, Leacock’s, Sandeman and Cossart Gordon.
Like Port, Madeira is a fortified wine; brandy is added to the wine near the end of the fermentation process. In fact, when brandy is added to the wine, it stops the fermentation process, leaving a slightly sweet, fortified wine. The style and level of sweetness has a lot to do with when the fermentation process is stopped. Prior to fortification, Madeira is typically made from four main grapes: Malmsey, Verdelho, Sercial and Bual, along with Tinta Negra Mole, which is mostly used for low-quality bulk Madeira'the stuff used for cooking. Essentially, styles of Madeira follow the grapes used to make it: Malmsey is the sweetest and richest style of Madeira, while Bual is medium-sweet but still rich and concentrated. Verdelho is medium-dry and Sercial is the driest style of Madeira. So you can determine which style of Madeira you’re purchasing by looking for the words Sercial, Verdelho, Bual or Malmsey, although sometimes labels indicate dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet and sweet. Sercial is not considered better or worse than Malmsey because it’s drier. Within these four basic categories of Madeira you’ll find wide ranges in quality.
One of the most interesting aspects of Madeira making is that it goes through hell: Madeira spends a minimum of three months in heated tanks during an intense cooking process called “estufagem.” During estufagem, the wine’s sugars caramelize and the wine becomes “maderized,” just like that icky bottle of Rioja that you left on the sunny back seat of your car for too long. But in the case of Madeira, maderization is a good thing. And a beneficial by-product of the Madeira-making process is that you wind up with a wine that is virtually indestructible. It’s already been heated and maderized, so there’s not much more you can do to harm it. Thus, it’ll last forever on the shelf at home.
Next week: Tasting Madeira.
Sips: I’m happy to report that The Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans has survived Hurricane Katrina. The organization has been coordinating special events at bars and restaurants nationwide featuring classic New Orleans cocktails to help raise money for Katrina victims, especially bartenders and restaurant workers. Find out more at www.museumoftheamericancocktail.org.