In 1419 the island of Madeira was discovered by Portuguese explorers João Gonçalves Zarco, Bartolomeu Perestrelo and Tristão Vaz Teixeira.
1425 : Madeira becomes Portuguese territory, the first residents arrive
Oddly enough, a map from 1351 exists on which Madeira is specified. This means that earlier navigators have found Madeira, but apparently no one has claimed the island. The first settlers arrived in 1425 and in that year Madeira was officially declared a Portuguese territory. The island was called ” ilho do Madeira”: woodland island. As it was practice at that time, prisoners were deployed to make the island suitable for habitants. To this end, areas of forest were burnt, thus creating a genesis of very fertile soil. That first fire lasted 7 years! Then the terraces were built on the steep slopes.
The first wine
The instigator for the exploration of Madeira was Enrique el Navegador. He himself traveled to Madeira and in 1450 he decided that there had to be viticulture on Madeira. The first vines came from Crete: the grapes that are stil in production today were “Malvasia Candida”. This grape variety with high sugar content is mainly used to make sweet wines and can be found anywhere around the Mediterranean and in Portugal. Nowadays this grape variety is mainly replaced by the Malvasia São Jorge. The first official quality wine of Madeira was declared in 1455.
15th and 16th century: the times of sugar cane
Viticulture was on Madeira from the first settlement, but it played no significant role. The main export was sugar cane.
The first lavadas were built in 1461: long channels in the mountains, taking water from the wet north to the dry south. In total there are 2150 kilometers levadas, of which 40 km in tunnels. These channels have made agriculture possible everywhere in the south of Madeira. The levadas however must be maintained: rocks and earth from landslides, fallen trees and leaves should be removed. Besides the levadas there are trails for maintenance. 300 km levadas footpaths are made accessible for tourists, so one can walk through the spectacular scenery: passing waterfalls, walking through eucalyptus forests and sometimes on steep slopes.
17th century : the golden age of Madeira
Madeira had become a very important place for international trade. Ships used the island as a stopover on trips to Europe, North America, Central and South America and India. Unfortunately for Madeira a large quantity of cane sugar was brought in with ships from South America, decreasing the sugar price. As a result at the end of the 16th century the rise and fame of Madeira wine started. In 1665 the first commercial ship carrying wine sailed from Madeira. At his peak there were more than 2500 hectares of vineyards on Madeira. Today, this is diminished to only 490 hectares.
18th Century: Madeira becomes a fortified wine
Initially Madeira was an unfortified wine, like port and sherry. It were mainly the English and the Portuguese who traded and shipped these wines. Along the long during journeys on sailboats the wines suffered from heat and oxygen. The wine traders then discovered that the addition of alcohol above 15 % protects the wines (all micro-organisms being yeasts, molds, bacteria and viruses die when the alcohol content reaches 15%) and this became common practice as from 1753. In the beginning winemakers used fermented and distillled cane (in fact, a kind of rum). However, this affects the taste of wine and later on only grape distillate was permitted. Generally Madeira is fortified up to 17 % alcohol, some wines have a slightly higher alcohol content.
Vinho da Roda
Madeira wine was used as ballast for the sailing ships through their journeys to India and South America.
The long journey in the warm trice climate simmered the wine slowly. Every wine gets totally damaged by this process, but Madeira wine only benefits from it. After returning to Madeira, these wines were called Vinho da Roda or Wines of the Round Voyage. Also, a considerable part of Madeira was consumed in India itself. In 1805 at total of 6,260 pipes (each 480 liters) were exported to India, which at that time was half of the total export.
A pipe of Madeira that returned from the long journey was been romanticized: it was believed to hold the character of the ship. Many Madeira pipes received the name of the ship when they were sold, such as Three Deacons, Comet, and Southern Cross.
Madeira wine was loved by the leaders of the world
Famous American presidents and politicians were passionate Madeira wine drinkers, like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The signing of the Declaration of Independence of America on July 4, 1776 ended with a glass of Malmsey Madeira. It’s said that George Washington drank a pint of Madeira per day. To clear this out: that is about half a liter!
Shakespeare, Napolen and Churchill were great lovers of Madeira. The Duke of Clarence chose for his execution in the Tower of London to be drowned in a barrel Madeira. To him, it seemed the perfect end of his life.
In 1794 Pantaleão Fernandez devised the first estufagem system. Instead of shipping the wine to warme places around the world, it can also mature at a warm place at home. “Stufa” is Portuguese for stewing .
19th century: adversity caused by diseases
The importation of American vines led to the introduction of a number of devastating vine-diseases. In 1851 the first fungal disease emerged : mildew (odium). The grapes were covered with a white powder and died.
Some years later another disease reached the island: the downy mildew, a fungal disease.
After some years the remedies against it were found: spraying with respectively sulfur, and a mixture of copper and sulfur.
Phyloxera, the distroyer
The most devastating disease however was caused by a louse called phylloxera Vastatrix, “the Destroyer”, that first hit Madeira in 1872. The Phyloxera loud eats the juice of the roots and to be able to do so, they drills holes in the vine roots, causing a form of cancer to the vine. As happened in the whole of Europe, just about the entire wine-growing was lost. The solution was found by replacing the original vine by American vines, who are resistant to phylloxera. This American grapes can quickly fix the holes in their root-system. These wines are called ” Vino Americano “. The problem with this solution is that the wines of American vines have an unpleasant taste known as “foxy” which is best described as excessively perfumed.
Finally, a definite solution was found by grafting the original vines on American rootstocks. The rootstocks are resistant to Phylloxera while the grafts of European grape varieties present the wanted quality.
Flee of British wine merchants
The diseases reducing the vineyards to virtually zero leaded to a flee of the mainly British merchants. In 1850, the total yield of the must (raw juice) was 50 million hectoliters, which ran quickly back. In 1853: 3 million hectoliters, in 1854: 600 hectoliters. The once flourishing trade with America was reduced to only 16 pipes (of 480 liters) in the year 1875.
In 1896 the Suez Canal was openend, through which the major shipping routes were diverted and therefore Madeira no longer lies on the main routes. In 1927 was the break out of the Russian Revolution. And from 1920 to 1934 the Prohibition ruled America, the ban on alcohol. These combined events dramatically reduced Madeira wine exports.
20th century: Madeira became a cooking wine
61 % of Madeira wine is made with estufagem, the rapid heating, using the tinta negra grape. These wines may come on the market after three years. There is little production of high quality wines and Madeira wines are world wide renowned wine for cooking, used in stews and sauces.
1906: Establishment of IVBAM
The Instituto do Vinho, do Bordado e do Artesanato da Madeira was founded in 1906 to ensure the quality of Madeira Wine. They carry out checks on all processes of viticulture and winemaking, give advice and provide publicity.
1986: Portugal in the EU
Portugal’s entry to the EU has probably been the salvation of Madeira wine. “Posei” is a EU program to support economic zones that are facing difficult times such as the Azores, Madeira and Gran Canaria. It supplies funds such for the production of agricultural goods such as wine, spirits, bananas, sugar cane, milk, etc. Madeira wine makers benefit from this funding when purchasing cane sugar, in the cultivating of wine grapes, and maturation and sales of the wines.
The 21st century: : quality awareness
There is a lively discussion about the quality of the Tinta Negra Mole, the grape that accounts for 85 % of all vines planted at Madeira. Tinta negra mole is the grape for all estufagem wines, the simple quality wine which is mainly used in the kitchen. But winemakers already have proven that this grape variety also accounts for good quality wines. Recently the tinta negra grape may be labeled Colheita, a quality wine.
Most wine connoisseurs have little experience with Madeira. Without exception, wine lovers are enthusiastic as they taste the fine quality wines. Wine Producers supported by the IVBAM started organizing an annually tour of Europe to present their wines. It is expected that the demand for these quality wines will increase. There is an expression for these very labour-intensive wines with their unique character: “small is beautiful”.