FOOD & DRINK: Madeira Wines

IT’S now November, the days shortening rapidly and only a month or so to Christmas. Time to get some warming drink ready for celebrations and dark nights.

There is none better than those fortified Portuguese wines, Madeira and Port.

I recently went back to the rugged, green, volcanic island of Madeira, an island with a lovely capital in Funchal, the second scariest aircraft landing strip after the old Hong Kong one, but with beautiful gardens, mountains, and great walks above and below the clouds, and of course where one of the world’s best fortified wines is produced.

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Madeira is produced in a variety of styles ranging from dry wines which can be consumed on their own as an aperitif to sweet wines usually consumed with dessert - but lively acidity always keeps it balanced and refreshing.

Madeira is known as the “indestructible wine” because it’s been exposed to two aspects of wine-making that are usually avoided like the plague: oxidation and heating.

At the end of the 15th century Madeira was a standard port of call for ships heading to the New World or the East Indies. To prevent the wine from spoiling, neutral grape spirits were added. On the long sea voyages, the wines would be exposed to excessive heat and movement which transformed the flavour of the wine. This was discovered by the wine producers of Madeira when an unsold shipment of wine returned to the islands after a round trip.

Today, Madeira’s unique winemaking process involves oxidizing the wine through heat and ageing. The younger blends (three and five years olds) are produced by artificial methods - tanks, usually of stainless steel lined with pipes which circulate hot water to heat the wine to 50 degrees centigrade for three months which heat and accelerate the ageing process, and the older blends, colheitas and frasqueiras are produced by the canteiro method where the wines are aged in barrels stacked in warehouses where the gentle warming of the wine and the impact of the wood gives that wonderful caramel taste to Madeira wines.

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Age really does matter and a wine aged 10 years or more in the wood as part of the Canteiro process is likely to be smoother and more elegant than a five year old wine. From 10 to 15 years the maturation effect is quite noticeable and at 20 years Madeira wines achieve a level of perfection that is both unique and delightful. These wines are very long lived and those produced by the canteiro method will survive for decades and even centuries, even after being opened.

Most cheaper Madeiras are produced from the Tinta Negra Mole grape. A very pleasant one is Blandy’s Duke of Clarence Madeira 19pc (Lightfoots £13.55, Wine Rack £13.79, Waitrose £12.39, Morrisons £12.50, Tesco £12.50). This is a blend of various batches of wine made from the Tinta Mole grape, that have been slowly heated and cooled for three months, then aged in oak casks. It smells of honey, toffee, and roasted almonds. Rich flavours of raisins, salted caramel, and exotic spices float on a sweet, soft-textured palate that ends with a refreshing lick of acidity. Delicious with fruit, soft cheese, cakes and chocolate. If you don’t finish the bottle, simply pop the stopper back in and save it for the next dessert or cheese plate. It keeps for months after opening.

Henriques & Henriques 3 Year Old Full Rich Madeira 19pc 50cl (Majestic £12.99, £10.99 mixed 6). This Madeira undergoes the Estufa process where the wine is repeatedly warmed than cooled for 90 days making the wine stable before it has three years of cask ageing. Luscious, rich, sweet and fragrant this is full of intense flavours of dried fruit and caramel. Try this on it own, or with classic Madeira cake.

The top grape varieties used are Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey. Sercial is grown high up in the north of the island. A good Sercial is dry and tangy and makes a good aperitif or would go with lighter fish or vegetable dishes.

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Verdelho is more mellow, a bit richer, usually medium sweet, spice, smoke, light caramel, but with similar acidity to Sercial.

Bual is grown further south near the coast with higher sugar levels than the first two mentioned. Usually produces a medium rich raisin and caramel wine with some acidity. An absolutely lovely, room-filling aroma. Good with stewed fruit, caramel or chocolate desserts.

Malmsey comes from the warmer parts of the island around Camara de Lobos. The bwine is richly sweet but keeps the acidity found in all Madeiras. A lovely wine to go with rich fruit cake, chocolate, ice cream, and all kinds of desserts. Below are some good Canteiro method Madeiras:

Blandys 5 year old Reserva 50cl (Waitrose £14.99) is good value. A blend of Bual and Malmsey with a lovely nose of dried fruit, spice and toffee.

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Henriques and Henriques Sercial 10 years old 50cl (The Wine Society, Waitrose, Mitchells of Sheffield around £20) Drier than the above, this has lively acidity with flavours of spice, nuts, citrus, apricots and vanilla. Can be served chilled as an aperitif.

A lovely wine with a long finish.

Blandy’s Verdelho 10 years old 50cl (The Wine Society £19.50) Medium dry, nice acidity, mellow caramel and coffee.

Henriques and Henriques Bual 50cl 15 years old 50cl (The Wine Society £25).

Blandy’s 15 year old Bual 50cl (Waitrose £24.99) Dried fruits, wood,vanilla. Great with the cheeseboard.

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Henriques & Henriques 10 year old Malmsey 50cl 20pc (Majestic £22.99, £19.99 mixed 6). Intense aromas of coffee and raisin, caramel and spice. Luxurious sweetness, silky textured fruit on the palate and bracing acidity. This Madeira is all but indestructible; once open the bottle will not deteriorate. Enjoy as an after dinner drink with rich fruit cake, chocolate, toffee pudding or coffee desserts.

Blandy’s 15 year old Bual 50cl (Waitrose £24.99) Dried fruits, wood, vanilla. Great with the cheeseboard.

Note that all but the Duke of Clarence are 50cl bottles.

It’s a great pity the supermarkets stock so little Madeira, the best being Waitrose, and there is a good selection from The Wine Society.

I’ve run out of space so those excellent Ports must be saved for another time.

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