Madeira is a totally unique wine: it benefits from extreme processes that break down almost every other wine: long ripening on a warm, sunny place , under the influence of oxygen. The result is always a fresh wine with a soft sweet and complex aromas, tasting even better after 100 years !
Grapes may be fermented into wine when they hold a minimum potential alcohol content of 9%. This means, in practice, a sugar content of at least 145 grams / liter.
Fermentation and fortifying: vino claro
During fermentation the sugar is converted into alcohol. At the moment that 7 % alcohol by volume is reached, the fermentation is stopped. One does so by the addition of 96% pure alcohol, distilled out of grapes. Once the alcohol content of the wine is higher than 15% it will stop all microorganisms, including yeasts. The wine is now called “Vino Claro” and has an alcohol content of at least 17 %.
The remaining residual sugar that is not converted makes the wine sweet.
Fermentation and fortifying: vino surdo
Another existing method is to wait till the wine has completed the fermentation, fortify the wine with alcohol and then sweeten it with grape juice from the same grape variety. This is the way to achieve the “vinho surdo”.
The style of Madeira was previously achieved by long boat trips to tropical countries. The wine endured a hot climate that changed its caracter, the so-called “maderisation”. Later this is achieved by warming up the wines in a warm environment to mature. The slower the maturation proceeds, the better the wine gets.
Effects of heating
The heating of the wine causes a rapid oxidation. It also provokes the Maillard reaction: a conversion of sugars and proteins, one can see and taste in backing meat or roasting coffee beans. Finally, resin-like favors appear.
From the 18th century “estufajes” were built. These are vessels in which the wine is heated for 3 months to a minimum of 40º C up to a maximum of 55 ºC. The wine is slowly brought to temperature, with a maximum of 5 ° C per day. The creator of this system was Pantalão Fernades, who was inspired by the ancient Roman baths.
After this warming up follows the “estagio” a resting period from at least one year.
There are two types estufa: the “Armazen the color”, warming in wooden barrels, and the “cubas the color” warming in plastic of ceramic vessels of 20,000 to 40,000 liters.
All 3 year old Madeira are produced in estufa’s. The caramel-like character from this young Madeira makes it very suitable for starters. Almost all of these wines are being used in the kitchen for soup, sauces and stew. They are today’s most exported Madeira’s.
New quality estufas
A moderate quality Madera is made at high temperatures in a short time. That causes aromas of burned and cooked fruit and caramel. The need for low price Madeira continues, but with a higher quality winemakers hope to capture a new audience. Winemakers are experimenting with longer estufagem of four months, at lower temperatures of 40-45ºC. The results are very encouraging, the negative effects of estufagem have vanished!
Maturation : Canteiro system
Normally wines are aged in a cool, dark place, usually a basement. The contrast with Madeira wines couldn’t be bigger: Madeira matures in a so called “lodge”, an overhead shed. The glass windows are welcoming the sunshine! The wines are simmered slowly here. To achieve this warm temperature the shed often has a tin roof. And even sometimes additional heating pipes are applied. At the very top of this building, at the south side behind the windows, temperature can rise up to 43 ºC. While on the bottom, facing the north side and in winter time, temperature can fall till 19º C.
A young wine starts at the warmest place on top. The wine wil stay here for 1 year, up to 10 years. When the winemaker feels that the character of the wine is sufficiently formed, step by step the vessel will be moved to lower places until it is on the cool floor of the winery. Keeping the vessel at the hot spot would be too costly, because of the evaporation of the wine.
This slow aging system called “Canteira” is the basis of all quality wines. Canteira is the name of the wooden beams on which the casks rests.
A unique process, which resembles the sherry system, but it’s not the same. In the Madeira solera system the wine stays for decades in a wooden cask. Occasionally some wine is taken off and sold, up to 10 % at a time. The vessel is then refilled with new wine. This gives a wonderful blend of flavors: the old wines provide intensity and complexity, the young wines give vibrant freshness. After 10 times draining and refilling the entire cask must be bottled at once .
Madeira is usually aged in oak barrels, but not like many other wines to create a woody flavor. The most suitable wood is American white oak. Tropical wood is also suitable, as it emits no taste components, thanks to its hardness.
Madeira wine can be kept extremely long in its barrel. That’s a precious proces: every year the winery loses about 1,5 -4 percent of wine by evaporation, the so-called “angels share”.
The oldest wine “alive” in the world
Some very old wines are kept as a collectors items : unique, but undrinkable. The end of a good Madeira however is unpredictable . The cellars of Pereira d’ Oliveira contain a Madeira from 1715. In 2014, this wine is tasted by, among others, Rui Falcão. In his words: ” is this a good wine? No. It is incredibly good”.
A famous winemaker of Blandy’s, summarizes his work as follows: “We drink only when we work”