Viticulture in Madeira is small. The average vintner has less than ½ acres of grapes. Winegrowing takes place at sometimes very steep slopes, where ladders are needed to do the job. Almost all labour is done by hand. Therefore people say “our Madeira wine is made of tears”
Madeira is a volcanic island, mountainous almost everywhere. The bottom of Madeira consists largely of basalt and is rich in magnesium, iron and phosphorous, but there is virtually no calcium. Nutrients that are blocked by this type of soil are phosphorus and potassium. This combination makes the grapes (and other fruits) are high in acidity.
The slopes are often very steep, so only a part of the land is suitable for agriculture. The total area of Madeira vineyards is only 490 hectares, spread across over 1,050 growers. That’s an average of 0.45 hectares per winery. In comparison, there are 35 individual growers in Germany who own more hectares than the whole of Madeira! Another comparison: The area of viticulture on Madeira is less than 0.5 % of the area in Bordeaux. For many farmers, grapes are just one of the products they grow. Grape growing is partly replaced by bananas, which yeald a better profit.
The three most important wine-growing areas are on the south coast Câmara de Lobos with 125 acres, on the north coast São Vicente with 122 hectares, and Santana with 82 hectares.
Most vineyards are planted in a latada system (pergola or trellis system). Here the grapes hang like a balcony at 1.5 to 2 meters. This way the grapes profit of more air, reducing the risk of rot and mold. It was common to grow vegetables on the ground below, but this diminishes the quality of the grapes, therefore it’s done less and less. Other methods are spalier (cordon royal or Guyot) and vine o chão. However, latada provides the best quality.
Most wineries do not own land, they buy their grapes from growers, who usually cultivate other agricultural products as well. There are no fixed contracts, but each winery has long ties with specific growing families that goes back for generations. Only Henriques & Henriques owns 10 hectares of vines. An average vintner possesses 0.3 hectares of vineyard land. He is harvesting around 1500 kg of grapes and sells it to the producer. But there are also wine growers that only have 60 kg of grapes to sell. That amount is weighed separately, administered and paid for. Sometimes a winemaker must walk several hundred meters with his basket full of grapes to reach a paved road!
Transport with goatskins
In earlier times the picked grapes were taken to the press house in “borracho” or goatskins of 45 liters (Southern Madeira) or 50 liters (Northern Madeira). The production of a vineyard was expressed in numbers of goatskins.
Madeira has the longest grape harvest period of the world!
The harvest in Madeira usually begins the third week of August in the low vineyards (200 to 400 meters).
This region is dominated by the Malvasia grape. The harvest ends mid-October on the high altitudes (400-800 m). This is the area of the Sercial grape. Picking grapes is hard work but also a large and cozy family event, accompanied by lots of food and wine.
Sequence of harvest
The harvest-sequence is as follows:
4) tinta negra
Map of Madeira wine regions
Map of MadeiraRead more »