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 aluminium, 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 445 hectares, spread across over 1,200 growers. That’s an average of 0.37 hectares per wine grower. In 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. The maximum yield is 150 hectoliters per hectare, but the average yield is 80 hectoliters per hectare. Grape growing is partly replaced by bananas, which yeald a better profit.
The three most important wine-growing areas are Câmara de Lobos on the south coast, with 125 hectares, and 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 pruning and guiding methods are ‘vinha o chão’, vines that crawl over the ground, and ‘spalier’, upright sticks with wires in between. Spalier is fairly easy to work with, but in this environment latada gives 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! And in some vineyards, grape pickers have to bow while working because the latada is only 1,5 meter high.
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, in the North at 50 meters and in the South at 200 meters. 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 usually is as follows:
Although malvasia grows in the warmest places, the growing season is longer than that of other grapes, therefore malvasia is picked late in the harvest season.
Tinta negra is picked during the entire harvesting period, because it grows in all places, cool and warm. The tinta negra grape accounts for 85% of production.
Map of Madeira wine regions
Double-click on the map to enlarge the map to its maximum.
PDO or ‘Protected Designation of Origin’
PDO or ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ is a defined area for quality wines.
Madeira has two DOs:
DO Madeira – for fortified wines.
DO Madeirense – for non-fortified wines.
And there is a PGI – Protected Geographic Indication – for table wines:
PGI Teras Madeirenses – for table wines.
The DO Madeira is divided into 10 wine regions.
These areas are in the North from west to east:
- Porto Moniz
- São Vicente
In the south, from west to east:
- Ponta do Sol
- Ribeira Brava
- Camera de Lobos
- Santa Cruz
50 km northeast of Madeira, 2.5 hours by boat, lies the island of Porto Santo. Unlike Madeira, it has a 9 km sandy beach. The soil contains a lot of sand and lime, and wine is made from two grapes: the listrão, (known as palomino fino for sherry) and the caracol, a grape that is ‘allowed’ but not ‘recommended’, as well as some verdelho.