Madeira wine styles

Madeira wines mould their character by ripening under the influence of warmth and oxygen. The simplest Madeira’s arrive at the market after three years, the most beautiful Madeira’s after 10 years or even later. The main feature of Madeira is the balance of crisp acid and soft sweetness together with complex flavors caused by aging. There are different styles, depending on the grape variety, aging process  and the producer.

Production figures

The production of Madeira wine is on average 4 million liters per year. This provides approximately € 17 million turnover per year. 61% of Madeira is of the simplest quality: 3 years old.

Wine growers

In total 8,000 families are living directly or indirectly from Madeira wine.
2,000 grape growers are licensed to cultivate wine grapes, currently there are about 1,200 active grape growers. 

Origin and Protected Area label

96% of Madeira wine is covered by the DO Madeira. These are fortified wines. 4% of the Madeira wines is covered by the DO or Madeirense IG Terrace Madeirenses. Those are unfortified wines. White and rosé still wines are upcoming, and the quality is clearly increasing.

Export Figures

80% of Madeira wine is exported. From this, 81 % is sold in Europe, in order of importance to France, Portugal, England, Germany and other countries. Outside Europe, Japan and America are the largest consumers.
In the Netherlands, the import figures vary from 60,000 to 100,000 liters per year.

The price of Madeira wines

Madeira is relatively cheap considering the high costs of production :

  • Very small-scale cultivation, many winegrowers per producer
  • Hard labour on the land: steep slopes and virtually no mechanization
  • The warmth and high moisture content of Madeira requires permanent control of fungal diseases
  • Small-scale production of wine
  • It’s getting harder every year to find young workers willing to do the heavy labour on the land. As a result, the total viticulture area 
    went down from 490 hectares in 2015, to 445 hectares in 2019.
  • Loss of 2 %of the wine per year by evaporation during storage
  • Cash flow: lots of working capital is stuck in stocks
  • Non existing of cardboard- glass or cork industry. These products must be imported.

Threat of the vineyards

The best and warmest plots of land are more and more occupied by banana growing and hotels, there is less left for grapes.

Vine grapes 

There are 19 grape varieties in use for Madeira wine, 13 of them are ‘recommended’, en 6 are ‘autorised’.

Recommended grapes

(w) = white grape variety, (b) = black grape variety
boal / bual / malvasia fina (w)
listrão (w)
malvasia candida (w)
malvasia de são jorge (w)
moscatel graudo (w)
sercial (w)
terrantez (w)
verdelho (w)
bastardo (b)
tinta (b)
tinta negra (b)
verdelho tinto (b)

Autorised grapes

These grape varieties may not be used for a wine with the vintage on the label, en it is not allowed to mention the name of one of these grapes on a label. The grapes are:
rio grande (w)
valveirinho (w)
caracol (b)
complexa (b)
deliciosa (w)
triunfo (b)

The best grapes of Madeira


In Portugal this grape is called Esgana Cão or ‘dog strengler’ because it is known for its aggressive acids. Or, as said in Madeira: ‘It bites back”
This grape variety is also been used in the white wines of the Portugese Dão region.
Serial has a thick skin with a greenish colour.
Aromas of citrus peel, almonds and spices. 
Style: although it bears clearly noticeable sweet, this wine is labelled as  ‘secco’ and ‘extra secco’ which means dry or extra dry.


This grape variety is known at the Portugese mainland as Goveiro.
Crisp fresh acidity. A bit sweeter than Sercial, slightly smoky and aromas of tropical fruit.

Style: meio secco / half dry.
This variety is widely used for Madeira still, unfortified wines.

Boal / Bual

This grape variety is known at the Portugese mainland as Cached, in Madeira it is also known as “Malvaisa fina”.
Ripe and full with aromas of raisins.
Style: meio doce / semi-sweet.

Malvasia / Malmsy

Originally, the Malvasia Candida from Crete was used.
Now a days there is almost only Malvasia St. Georges, a clone of higher quality.
Ripe, full bodied, sweet wine with an intense character.
A young Malvasia has in the nose grass and is slightly smoked, honey and spices.
During the ripening process tertiary aromas appear, such as nuts, caramel, and coffee.
Due to the high natural sugar this grape accounts for the darkest color after aging.
Style: doce / rich / sweet.


Terrantez (in total 0.6 % of vines)

A grape from the Douro region, where it is (mistakenly) called folgasão.
It contains high acidity and lots of natural sugar, and is slightly bitter.
A grape that makes spicy wines.
Style: medium dry, or medium sweet.

Terrantez has become very rare, only 2.9 hectares are left on the island.
The skin of this grape is thin and very sensitive to mold. In addition, the productivity is low.
Despite the higher price there is not enough profit for the growers.
In some years 180 hectoliter is yielded, but in most years it is a lot less than that.
Madeira wine lovers really love the style or Terrantez.
Rubin Vierra, head of the IVBAM tasting panel, describes terrantez as follows:
“If it were a man, it would be a gentleman”

Bastardo (in total 0.4 % of vines)

A blue grape, in use for Port wines. Known in the French Jura as Trousseau.
High acidity and lots of natural sugar, somewhat bitterness.
Dark, rich and very fruity.
Style: each type of wine: from dry to sweet.
There are only two vineyards with Bastardo left on Madeira.


Tinta Negra (in total 85 % of vines)

This grape variety comes from the Spanish Andaluia, where it’s called ‘Molar’. After the catastrophic destruction of the vines by phylloxera in 1875, most vineyards were replanted with the Tinta Negra, that is strong and productive and has a better resistance against the wet climate  of Madeira. This blue grape variety now accounts for 85 % of production of Madeira. It is an easy growing variety. Tinta negra is the basis for the low priced wines, but increasingly good quality is made from it.
Tinta negra has a thin skin en little color.
Style: each flavor type can be made from it, from dry to sweet.

American grapes

American grapes from the Vitis Labrusca family have wonderful names like Jacquez, Isabella, Herbemont, Otelho, Noah. There is still 500 hectares of it on Madeira.  These grapes give wines with a strange, overly perfumed aroma. From 1980 on sales of wine made from American grapes is prohibited, it may only be used for home consumption.

A new grape variety

Justino’s has developed a new grape variety, the arnsburger, a crossing of several clones of Riesling.  Until now the results were not satisfying enough.


High acidity

All Madeira contain high acidity. There are several reasons for that. The volcanic soil provides high acidity in the wine, due to the high content of sulfur, iron, and aluminum, in combination with the lack of lime. This soil blocks absorption of nutrients, in particularly phosphorus and potassium. Madeira has little difference between day and night and between summer and winter. Moreover, summer in Madeira is far less hot than in almost all other wine regions. Fully ripening of the grapes is therefore a hard task, which results in high acidity levels. In the north and high in the mountains where it is colder, the grapes ripen slower and the acidity is therefore even higher.

Acidity by grape variety

From nature, each grape variety has its own acidity level. From high to medium this counts for Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia. The style of the grape is further emphasized by the winemaker. Sercial is preferably planted in cool places, and the fermentation is stopped later, leaving less residual sugar in the wine. Malvasia is true for the reversed: most planting is at the warmest places and the fermentation is stopped earlier, leaving less acidity and more residual sugar.


All Madeira’s contain sweetness in varying degrees, but a madeira is never thick or sticky. The sweetness in the wine is caused by the residual sugar after fermentation. Madeira can also be sweetened after the fortification with rectified grape juice. The high acidity provides the right balance. This sweet / acidity balance makes Madeira very accessible: easy to drink and much suitable in wine-food pairing.


The effect of heating is called maderisation. For other wines, this term counts for a negative meaning: it is a form of decay, the wine was stored in a too warm place. But Madeira is just improving from this treatment!

Complexity : tertiary aromas

The aromas of a quality Madeira are formed by maturation. Tertiar aromas arise, the so-called bouquet. The most important newly formed aroma is ‘sotolon’, the smell of walnuts, curry and fenugreek.
On the Tasting Method-page you will find an aromawheel and a tasting form, especially made for Madeira wine.

Cooking Wine

The 3 years old simple Madeira wines are often used for cooking. To avoid paying excise duty on these wines the winemaker adds salt and pepper to it. This way it’s not a wine anymore, but a sauce. It is is sold in small bottles .


sweet content

The official sugar content of the grape varieties in wine corresponds to the wine styles.
This content is expressed in grams of sugar per liter, or in Beaumé.

< 0,5     Beaume     < 49 gram      sercial                           extra dy
< 1,5     Beaumé     < 59 gram     sercial                            secco / dry
1,0 -2,5 Beaumé   54-78 gram     verdelho                       meio secco / medium dry
2,5-3,5  Beaumé  78-100 gram     boal/bual                     meio doce / medium sweet
> 3,5     Baumé      > 100 gram     malmsey/malvasia     doce / sweet, rich

Note: all styles of wine, from dry to rich, can be made using the tinta negra.

Quality control

All the wines undergo a lab test, to see if the wine meets up to the following standards:

  • alcohol content
  • sugar level (Beaumé)
  • acidity
  • volatile acidity
  • Ph
  • dry extract

Simultaneous, the wines are blind tested on taste and composition by a tasting panel of the IVBAM. Blind testinch means tasting without knowing which wines you taste, and who it is from.
Here we note:

  • color, brightness
  • condition
  • aroma’s and palate

Using the lab test and the results of the tasting panel, the IVBAM determines if the wine meats the criteria for its style and therefore is allowed on the market.

Classification of Madeira based on age

Reading a Madeira wine label: how old is this wine?

Read more »