Madeira – the inimitable wines of a paradisiacal island.


In 1419, the distinguished soldier and navigator Joao Goncalves Zarco first set foot upon the Isle of Madeira and claimed it for Portugal. Contrary to what many authors claim, he did not discover it, for the island was known to Arab navigators and had already been visited by Italian adventurers, but Zarco was the first to lay claim to the land, which he did in the name of the Portuguese crown, with the blessing of his monarch Prince Henry, his benefactor and financial backer.

When notified of the success of Zarco’s mission, Prince Henry authorized the colonization of Madeira and sent a motley crew of slaves, refugees and convicted criminals to cultivate the land. This was no mean feat, for transforming the island’s very steep and heavily wooded slopes into arable land proved to be an arduous task. Some of the fallen trees furnished building materials for the young colony and others were exported and sold as lumber, but the majority of the deforestation was accomplished by setting the trees ablaze. This practice became the source of a widespread legend that the island burned for seven years. No one knows for sure whether or not the fire actually lasted that long but it did succeed in destroying virtually the entire primeval forest, and left a heavy deposit of wood ash in the soil.

Once this obstacle was removed, another remained in the form of the island’s steep slopes. The solution was to cut terraces, called “poios”, into the volcanic rock. Having thus rendered agriculture possible, crops of sugar cane and vines were soon planted.

The first grape variety grown was the Malvoisie or Malvasia, imported from the Greek isle of Crete. This became anglicized as “Malmsey”, and remains one of Madeira’s noble varieties. Three more “noble” grape varieties were introduced by the late 1500’s: the Sercial, the Verdelho and the Bual. Although the origin of the Bual is uncertain, the Sercial apparently came from Germany and is thought to be a form of the Riesling, while the Verdelho originated in Tuscany.

Having overcome, the building of terrases, (and the ingenious network of “levadas” or irrigation channels that accompanied them) and other difficulties the island’s geography presented the settlers were now in a position to reap abundant crops that were the rich reward of their diligence. Once tamed by the poios, Madeira proved a very fertile land, favored with a good climate and a rich soil.

Temperatures rarely fall below 16 C degrees, and they seldom climb above 22 C. The fact that there is no true winter in Madeira presents its own problems and demands certain viticultures measures.

Unlike European vines, those of Madeira, by being deprived of cold winter season,are also deprived of the rest period it allows. Premature shooting can occur as a result, and this requires special pruning techniques. The continuation of warm temperatures throughout winter also means that spraying against mildew becomes a year round task, in the absence of frosts that make such vigilance unnecessary in the vineyards of the north.

The soil in which the vines of Madeira are grown is a mixture of decomposed volcanic lava and humus derived from the burnt trees; called “tufa”. Its ability to retain several times its own volume of water is crucial during the dry months of July, August and September. This capacity of the soil, combined with the volcanic nature of the island, allows for a continuous distribution of moisture as the rains and mists surrounding the high peaks permeate slowly to the rest of the island.

The wine made in Zarco’s day was rather dull and unremarkable, no higher in alcohol than claret. Then, in 1654, Cromwell compelled the Portuguese government to grant special privileges to English merchants on Madeira, who soon began developing new techniques to improve quality and palatability.

Like Port, Madeira seems to have began as a strong, unfortified wine. The island’s strategic position in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean put it at an advantage, and the largest city, Funchal became a natural port of call for ships en route to Africa, Asia and South America. By the end of the 16th century the wine industry was firmly established and thriving.

However, early Madeira wines were unstable and deteriorated before arriving at their destination. Merchants who knew about Port wine’s fortification with brandy decided to apply the same technique, since there was enough molasses from sugar cane plantations to ferment and distill. Once distillates were added to the wine it became stable and by the second half of the 17th century both Dutch East India and English East India company boats were regularly calling on Funchal to provision their holds and add ballast for stabilization. The ballasts were Madeira pipes. (One pipe contains 600 litres of liquid).

Once the equator was crossed and the wines arrived in India, connoisseurs started noticing that the taste had improved considerably. When the ships crossed the equator twice with the same load of wine tasted even better.

In 1663, by decree of Charles II, European products could no longer be sent to the American and West Indian colonies unless they were carried on English ships sailing out of English ports. Americans decided that Madeira, lying off the African coast, did not fall under this new legislation, and began to import its wines. It was during the long voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to American or West Indian destinations that the wines of Madeira underwent a “sea change” The intense heat, and the rocking motion of the ships over long periods, brought about an extraordinary transformation, which became very popular with Americans inhabiting east coast cities. They, in turn, really introduced this “new” Madeira to the British when they shipped some to England. Madeira that had crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice, became known as “ vinho da roda” or the wine of round voyage, and was highly prized.

Merchants began to fortify their wines with brandy routinely in the 1700’s. Some producers at first frowned on the practice, but the measure was thought by most to be an improvement, and by 1772 it had become virtually universal.

Madeira was a well established wine on the east coast of America, and by the end of the 18th century North American colonies were importing 25 per cent of the total production. In fact, Madeira was held in such great esteem that it was used to toast the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Colonial troops returning to Britain opened up a new market there, but Madeira today is still much appreciated on the eastern coast of the U S A and the United Kingdom.

In the late 1700’s the very survival of the relatively new trade in Madeira wines seemed threatened Napoleon’s naval blockades and the presence of French pirates made it virtually impossible to export Madeira wines. It was at this juncture that a discovery

made fundamentally changed the fortunes of the whole industry. The wine merchant Pantaleo Fernandes learned that heating the wine with braziers produced the same effect as the long hot ocean journey . All Madeira wines are now made by this method,known as the “estufa”.

Along with this new technique, which was in use universally until approximately 1802, came a further innovation – the solera system. Previously, Madeira wines were vintage dated like other wines (in the United States, bottles and casks even bore along with vintage the name of the ship upon which it had come to America). Some of these wines still exist and can be delightful, despite their age. Virtually all Madeira made today,however, is “solera” wine, a blend of many years.

The solera system works like this – a number of large casks of a particular wine from a specific vineyard is laid down . As they become available, casks of younger wines of the same grape variety grown in the same vineyard are piled on top until a number of layers of successively younger ones are in place. When the wine in the bottom-most row is considered mature, some of it is drawn off and bottled. (generally one third of the content). These now partially empty casks are then topped-up with wine taken from the row of casks immediately above them and the process continues right up to the youngest wines, which are in turn replenished with the latest vintage.

The entire solera is left untouched after blending for at least one year so that the wines of different ages can mix thoroughly.

This fractional blending equalizes the endproduct and provides consistency from year to year.

Apart from the four noble grape varieties already mentioned, there are two more considered worthy of that title: the Terrantez, which like the other four, is a white grape, and the Bastardo, a black grape known for its success in making Port.

Both varieties were introduced around the turn of the eighteenth century. Another grape, considered less fine than the noble varieties, but possesses the ability to mimic their qualities when grown alongside them, had been introduced several years ago. It is known as “Tinta Negra Mole” or soft black grape, and is thought to be a descendent the famous Pinot Noir of Burgundy, France.

Another grape introduced around this time was the Moscatel, also considered somewhat inferior to the noble varieties. When phylloxera reared its ugly head in Madeira, as it had almost everywhere else in the world (except in Chile and Cyprus), and growers employed the same techniques that others had found successful: uprooting the old vines and replacing them with fresh stock grafted onto American rootstock, decisions were made about which grape varieties deserved to be continued.

As a result, sercial, verdelho, bual and malmsey emerged as the most important vines, while others becoming increasingly rare.

Sercial produces the driest of all, which are increasingly popular in a contemporary market that favours dry wines. It should be understood, however, that even the driest Madeira are never as dry as, for instance, a fino sherry, or a bone dry white port.

Verdelho is the next sweetest, followed by Bual and Malmsey.

At vintage time, the grapes are picked in order, beginning with Malmsey, grown at around sea level, beginning the second week of August. A few weeks later Bual is picked at 200 to 300 metres above sea level. By mid September the pickers advance to the 500 to 800 metres above sea level range to harvest Verdelho, and from there, to the 1000 metre level, to finish picking the Sercial by early October.

Each variety is pressed separately. At one time they were “pressed” by human feet in small “lagares”, but nowadays this process is carried out by presses in the shippers’ lodges. Malmsey and Bual are fermented on their skins. Sercial and Verdelho musts are clarified and then fermented.

Vinification techniques vary from winery to winery.

Canteiro wines are placed in south-facing, sunny rooms of an old lodge. The further up in the building they are placed, the hotter they become. Sercial, being a dry wine, is placed highest, just where temperatures get hottest. Lower down is Verdelho, and Bual, and on the first or second floor is Malmsey.

A canteiro wine can stay undisturbed for eight or more years. Some wines remain on canteiro for thirty years or more before they are taken down to the cool dark ground floor rooms to begin their “estagio” or apprenticeship, the first step in a long slow maturation process.

Maturation continues in a variety of casks, cubas and tonels of varying capacity and differing woods. Casks are never filled to the brim. An adequate space is deliberately left at the top to continue oxidation. Malmsey is matured in huge 1,000 to 2,000 litre capacity American or Polish oak butts. Chestnut pipes are sometimes used for Verdelho, for a special dry tang.

Brazilian satin wood, mahogany and even teak have been used to construct large cubas and tonels where the wine mature slowly, and it is not unusual to have wines of more than 100 years old still in wood and kept for special blendings.

Madeira wines are marketed in a number of quality levels:

Bulk wine (granel) – after rapid estufagem in tanks, the product is aged for 18 months, before sweetening and coloured with caramel.This type accounts for 30 – 40 per cent of the total. Most of the bulk wine goes to chocolate manufacturers food processors and France, to be bottled and distributred as cooking wine.

Finest – means blended, three-year old wines, bottled after estufagem and aging in tanks.

Reserve Madeira consists of five-year old wines that have been subjected to estufagem in tanks. A portion may be aged in oak.

Special Reserve- contains a number of vintages, the youngest of which is 10 years old. They are aged are aged long enough to acquire the typical Madeira aroma and taste.

Extra Reserve – is a category that must consist of at least 15 year old wines. This is a category rarely marketed because of its high cost.

Solera Madeiras – are no longer produced, but there are still some from the turn of the century and up to 1985.

Vintage Madeira is a wine from a single vintage, which, unlike Port, must age for a minimum of 20 years followed by a two year bottle aging before shipment. These wines are extremely resistant to oxidization and may be cellared for many years.

Dry Madeira wines (Sercial) make excellent aperitifs, and chefs use them to flavour delicate consommes.

Medium dry Madeiras are fine on their own between meals, sweet versions flatter dry biscuits and diluted as aperitifs.

Very sweet Madeiras go best with dried fruits and/or

unsalted nuts or can be enjoyed after a rich gastronomic meal. Sweet Madeiras complement bitter-sweet and milk chocolates or astries with dates and nuts, especially wallnuts.

Canada is small market for Madeira wines.

Ontario and Quebec are the biggest. Both liquor boards carry a number of Madeira wines , but the oldest and best are offered

through the Classics Catalogue of the L C B O .


Madeira’s total production is approximately three to four million bottles and the 300,000 annual visitors buy much of it. There are only six shippers and of those only three export to North America. One of the largest problems of the industry is good quality base wine.

Traditionally shippers bought must and fermented it in their cellars. Today both wine as well as must are purchased from farmers, much of it consists of the lowest quality grape – Tinta Negra Mole.

Madeira Wine Company, since 1988 largely controlled by the Symington family that also owns several Port wine companies, is the largest comprising of the following brands: Rutherford and Mill, Blandy, Cossart, Gordon and Leacock. The group produces and markets 20 well-established brands and operates a busy retail store in downtown Funchal. Visitors are welcome for a tour and tasting

Henriques e Henriques is the second largest shipper with an impressive product line including many from the 19th and 20th century. This company exports to North America and maintains a sales office with predictably encouraging sales results.

D’Oliveira is the third largest with a respectable product line of fine quality fines some dating back to the 19th century.

H M Borges, Vinhos Barbeito and Vinhos Justino Henriques are other shippers.

The biggest Madeira markets are: France, Germany, Benelux States, but the best quality is exported to North America and the United Kingdom .


Henriques & Henriques was founded in 1850, providing continuity to the family business of producing Madeira wine that began when the family was established in Cimara de Lobos in the 15th Century. This is the area traditionally known for producing the best Madeira wines. In 1925, the company started exporting its wines, and they quickly conquered the most varied markets.

The construction of a new warehouse and winemaking cellar in the iggos provided the company with suitable means for meeting the current demands of the market, and it is also the only company with a large vineyard.

Over the years, Henriques & Henriques has invested in the most recent wine producing technology, while keeping unchanged the family tradition that has lasted for more than 500 years of quality wine production.


The Madeira Wine Company is the world’s leading producer and shipper of premium quality Madeira Wine. The origins of the company can be traced back to the founding of the Madeira Wine Association in 1913, a trade organization with the objective of promoting Madeira Wine in world markets and improving the efficiency and quality. In 1925 the well-established family firms of Blandy’s and Leacock joined the Association, followed some years later by Miles and Cossart Gordon, thus creating the largest producer and exporter of Madeira Wine.

By the late l970’s the interests in the Madeira Wine Company as it had come to be known, was reduced to a small number of the original families and a short time later the Blandy family acquired a controlling interest. The Blandy family has played a leading role in the development of Madeira Wine throughout its long history. After realizing that the business needed to find a partner who could help them develop the company’s brands profile and world-wide distribution, they invited the Symington family, Oporto Port producers for four generations and over a century to join them in partnership with the main purpose of strengthening the sales and marketing aspects of the business.

The Symingtons brought an extensive worldwide distribution network and a total quality approach as well as valuable winemaking experience gained through their many years as leading members of the Port Trade. The Symingtons subsequently took on a partnership with the Blandy’s in 1989 and since then much time and effort has been invested in improving the packaging and reinforcing the distribution network of the Madeira Wine Company’s well known brands Blandy’s, Cossart Gordon, Leacock’s and Miles.

In the last decade company’s improvement of quality and excellence was recognized prestigious awards.


Vinhos Justino Henriques, Filhos Lda was created under this name in l953, although as a family enterprise it had been established since 1870, and therefore it is one of the oldest Madeira Wine producers and exporters.

In 1993, it became even more international, with the construction of new large, modern premises, equipped with the latest technology.

For more than a century, its wines have had an established presence in Europe, especially in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Austria, Switzerland, Benelux States, Spain and Scandinavia, as well as in the USA, Canada and Japan.

Vinhos Justino Henriques currently has one of the largest stocks of wine, including high quality barrel aged wines, which allows it to respond to the most demanding and selective market orders.

Hrayr Writer – Hrayr Berberoglu – E-mail – Read his books?
Professor B offers seminars to companies and interested parties on any category of wine, chocolates, chocolates and wine, olive oils, vinegars and dressings, at a reasonable cost.

One Comment

  1. Interesting. would check it out. thats if the world does not end tomorrow. haha