Madeira, The Enchanting Island and its Wines.


Madeira is a beautiful island and nature’s gift to mankind. Its landscape represents a perfect convergence of sea, forest, mountains and valleys. Madeira is an island of flowers, hot summers, mild winters, and has deep cultural roots and traditions. It lies in the Atlantic Ocean and is part of Portugal.

The viticultural landscape changes with a myriad of changing colours, from green to reddish-browns, playing their part throughout the year. Terraces, supported by stone walls, lead all the way from sea level to the brim of the forests, and resemble gardens of beauty.

Madeira, a world famous tourist destination, caters to sun-starved Germans, Scandinavians and British, grows flavourful bananas, and other exotic fruits for export. Needless to say wine represents an important export commodity.

In 1419, at the beginning of Portuguese explorations, Joao Gongalves Zarco, Tristao Vaz Teixeira and Bartolomeu Perestrelo discovered the island in the middle of the Atlantic and which they named Madeira. The three Captains had received special privileges from Infante D. Henrique (Henry the Navigator) and immediately started to cultivate the lands with wheat, vines and sugarcane.

The first colonizers were members of the Portuguese nobility importing labourers and craftsmen from northern Portugal. During the first years, special privileges were dispensed to settlers, and this enticed European merchants who realized the commerical potential, of Madeira’s location in world trade.The density of forests necessitated burning large sections, which contributed to soil fertility .
During the first years of colonisation, and up to 1461, a system of “levadas” (water channels) was built, and which gradually expanded throughout centuries.

At first, sugarcane, wine and wheat production thrived, but today only wine continues to play an important role in the island’s economy. Up to 1466, exports were mostly to mainland Portugal, the Gulf of Guinea and African regions. Although it is impossible to determine the exact date of first vines and their varieties, historians believe that the settlers brought varieties that already existed in Minho in mainland Portugal. Historical records in 1450 by Venetian navigator Alvise da Mosto, known as Luis de Cadamosto, show that Malvasia Candida (Candid Malmsey) was brought during the first years of colonization. Infante D. Henrique ordered that lands be planted with Malmsey brought from Candia (the capital of Crete).

Throughout the fifteenth-century, vineyards expanded steadily. The consequence of this was an increase of exports, but it is the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus that constitutes a landmark in the history of Madeira wine.

Tales are told involving historical figures and in which the notoriety of Madeira wine abroad was already clear. It is said that, in 1478, George, Duke of Clarence, the brother of Edward IV, the King of England, when sentenced to death by the High Chamber, chose to be drowned in a butt of Malmsey.

The beginning of the sixteenth-century is marked by a decrease in cultivation of sugarcane plantations owing to a number of factors, including excessive production and soil erosion. By the end of the century, Brazil conquered world markets with low prices. Sugarcane plantations had to be converted to vineyards. Foreign colonizers continued to disembark in Madeira, amongst them Simao Acciaiolo who was responsible for bringing over the Malmsey Babosa vines.

Throughout this century there are many references to Malmsey by visitors like the Venetian Giulio Landi, and the Italian Pompeo Arditique. Giulio stated that “The whole island produces a great quantity of wines that are considered to be excellent and very similar to Candia Malmsey”.

Throughout the seventeenth-century the production and export of Madeira wine grew steadily. Although major exporters were foreigners, British influence became predominant with the development of colonial markets in America, and through commercial concessions made to British merchants.These concessions enabled British merchants living on the island to occupy a privileged position in commercial trade with the Indies and Americas. This led to a triangular commerce between Madeira, the New World and Europe (with Great Britain occupying a prominent position). Transportation of goods from the Portuguese and the British colonies back to Europe represented another lucrative trade.

At the close of this century, Madeira wines were world famous, and production had to be increased.

At the beginning of the 18th century, the Methuen Treaty was signed (1703) between England and Portugal, and established that Portuguese wines would be taxed preferentially. In turn, English textiles entering Portugal would be exempt of duties.

This benefited, port wine exports. Madeira exports were still primarily directed towards the Indies and North America, primarily the U.S.A. Exports to Europe remained secondary.

The association of Madeira with the U.S.A. is intimate. The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, on the 4th of July 1776, by George Washington was toasted with a chalice of Madeira.

Madeira was served during the banquets of European Courts; it was the wine preferred by kings, emperors and statesmen.

Thomas Jefferson, and all the other “Founding Fathers”, greatly appreciated the most exquisite wines of the time, but preferred Madeira over all.

The introduction of two new techniques significantly contributed to the popularity of Madeira. These new techniques were fortification and heating “estufagem”. By the middle of this century, most wineries were already fortifying their wines.

Curiously, export distribution per market registered a change at the close of this century, which was probably due to the War of Independence of the United States of America. It forced many English citizens to return to Great Britain. This, in turn, led to the expansion of the English market for Madeira.

The beginning of the nineteenth-century is marked by an export boom, caused by the Napoleonic Wars. However, this was not to be a favourable century for Madeira wine. The post-war depression devastated European exports.
Of the many occurrences related to this period, one continues to be of much interest to historians. The protagonist was Henry Veitch, the English Consul in Madeira, who, upon Napoleon Bonaparte’s calling at the island in 1815 on his way to exile in the island of Saint Helena, presented the emperor with a barrel of Malmsey. The saying goes that owing to the emperor’s refusal to drown his exile miseries in Madeira, the barrel with the precious nectar was returned to the Island. In 1840, the wine of that particular barrel was bottled to the delight thousands of English citizens, amongst whom was Sir Winston Churchill who, upon visiting Madeira in 1950, had the privilege of savouring it.

The instability in North America brought about by the Civil War of 1861 affected exports of Madeira. Although Madeira was fashionable in post-war England, this was insufficient to compensate for the shrinking of the American market.

Other factors played a role in the changes of wine exports, namely, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 which affected exports, since ships going west no longer called at Madeira.

The expansion of the Russian market by mid-century came as a breath of fresh air, which compensated to some extent the loss of the British market. Russians famously like sweet and potent wines. Madeira satisfied both conditions perfectly and provided much needed sales, but then oidium and phylloxera devastated vineyards in the second half of the century.

During this period, and notwithstanding the increase of the American vine roots, introduced as a means of combatting phylloxera, the majority of the production of Madeira Wine consisted of “Verdelho” and “Tinta Negra”. Despite the recurring crises, by the turn of the century the production and trade of Madeira Wine recovered.

The twentieth-century was relatively stable for Madeira compared to the previous one During the first decade of the 20th century and up to the First World War, export markets changed, making Germany the best for Madeira. This century was equally marked by efforts in terms of regulating Madeira wine production in an attempt to improve quality. Several Portuguese and English wineries merged, changing the industry for ever.

The Revolution of 1974 and the subsequent entry of Portugal into the European Union brought about significant developments in the Autonomous Region of Madeira and which had an impact in the vitivinicultural sector. The reinforcement of quality control became one of the priorities of government precipitating the healthy development of the industry.

Today, growers and all wineries are committed to constantly improving the quality, packaging, and promotion.

From the seventeenth-century on, the Indies were one of the main markets for Madeira . This trade route was famous for Madeira, not only because of the quantity of exports, but also due to the famous “Vinho da Roda” (Round Trip Wine).

The transportation of Madeira to those regions was made in the hold of ships. While crossing the Equator, temperatures reached more than 50 C and continued through the tropics. Occasionally, a cask would return to Europe, and experts found that the taste of thewine had improved siginificantly. Merchants started shipping barrels of Madeira to the Indies with the sole objective of enriching it, and in the process, adding value. It was this wine that, on its return to Europe, conquered an unprecedented fame. In England, Madeira gained an extraordinary reputation, which was responsible for the astronomic prices people were willing to pay.

Motivated by the evidence that heat improved quality and added value, by mid-eighteenth-century wineries invested in “estufagem” (heating) chambers, a technique, that is still being used.

Maderia’s landscape is unique and characterized by the steep topography. The particular conditions of the soil (of volcanic origin), the proximity of the sea, the climatic conditions, and the unique production technique, Madeira wine possesses unique characteristics no other wine in the world does.

Vineyards are all over in Madeira and on the island of Porto Santo. In all, there are about 400 hectares (822 acres) of vineyards for the production of Wines with Denomination of Origin, such as Madeira Wine and “Madeirense” (VRPRD) or Geographical Indication such as the Regional Wine “Terras Madeirenses”. The main viticulture councils are “Camara de Lobos”, situated on the south coast, with about 125 hectares, followed by Sao Vicente with about 122 and Santana with approximately 82 , both on the north coast.

The Soils

The soils of volcanic origin are basaltic mixed with clay, acid, rich in organic matter, magnesium and iron, low in potassium, and sufficient in phosphorous.

The Climate

The climate is characterized by its microclimates, with hot and humid summers and mild winters. In the viticultural areas, one may find sub-humid or sub-arid climates are in the north coast, at the upper limit of vineyards, or the south coast, at elevations below 150 metres above sea level.

Annual average precipitation varies from over 3000 mm, at high altitudes, and around 500 mm, along the south coast near sea level. As a norm, about 75 per cent of the annual rainfall occurs in autumn and in winter.

In spring there is little rain, over 20 per cent, and in summer less than 5 per cent. Precipitation increases with altitude effecting mainly the southern coast.

The total area of the island is of 732 km2. The greatest part of this area is on slopes of 25 degrees or above. The flat terrain is around urban and suburban Funchal, the capital of Madeira, where terroir is unsuitable for agriculture. Slopes between 16 and 25 degrees, suitable for agriculture require terraces called “poios”, which are built using local basaltic stone.

Irrigation Water

Irrigation water in Madeira is collected on high altitude and distributed throughout through canals called “levadas”. The building of these “levadas” began in the second half of the fifteenth-century. Today, this system consists of about 2150 Km of canals.

The landscape of Madeira, is characterised by small vineyards. Vineyard ownership is very fractioned; on the average approximately 0,3 hectares.
Terraces make mechanisation almost impossible. Everything from pruning to harvesting, requires manpower.

The most traditional system is the “latada” or pergola. In this system, the vines are guided horizontally along wires and suspended off the ground from stakes. The trellis height varies between one and two metres, and the densities of the plantations between 2500 and 4000 plants per hectare. During the second half of the twentieth-century the “espaldeira” or espalier vineyard configuration was tried, and which can accommodate 4000 to 5000 plants per hectare with some success.

Pruning takes place between the end of February and March. In general, vignerons of the north coast begin pruning at the end of February and those on the south coast on the second half of March. However, after harvesting and from November onwards, eliminating the shoots is accomplished to speed up pruning later. Harvesting takes place according to well established rituals starting at the end of August until mid-October. Everyone is involved in harvesting to speed up the process. Grapes are placed in boxes (25 Kg and 50 Kg) and transported to cellars.

Each bunch is inspected for healthy fruit. Rotten grapes are eliminated. After weighing the harvest and establishing the potential alcohol determined, a decision is made to proceed with the type of wine envisaged. The must is partially or totally fermented, and then fortified. The pure alcohol used is 96 per cent by volume. Fortification stops fermentation, and the timing occurs in accordance to the sweetness desired. This system creates four types of wine: dry, medium dry, medium rich and rich wines.

Once fortified, the wines may be subjected to one of the following production processes: “Estufagem” or “Canteiro”, two different heating processes.

“Estufagem” – The wine is placed in stainless steel tanks and heated by immersing rods containing hot (45 and 50 degrees Celsius) water for a minimum of three months. Once the “estufagem” is completed, the wine is subjected to a period of “estagio” or rest for at least 90 days. Bottled wines may never be sold before the 31st October of the second year following the harvest.
“Canteiro” – The wines that are selected to age in “Canteiro” (this term comes from the fact that casks are placed on wooden support beams called “canteiros”) are aged in casks, usually in the top floors of cellars, where the temperature is higher, for a minimum of two years. This oxidative ageing develops complex aromas and intense flavours.

“Canteiro” wines must be barrel aged for a minimum of three years.

Grape varieties
The following grape varieties are authorised:

Bastardo, Folgasao (Terrantez), Malvasia-Candida, Malvasia Candida Roxa, Malvasia-Fina,( Boal), Sercial (Esgana-Cao ), Tinta, Tinta Negra, Verdelho, VerdelhoTinto,Caracol, Carao-de-Moca, Complexa, Deliciosa,Listrao,Malvasia Branca de S. Jorge,Moscatel Graudo, Rio-Grande,Triunfo, and Valveirinho.

Sercial, Verdelho, Boal (Bual), Malvasia (Malmsey) and Tinta Negra are the most popular.
“Sercial”, “Verdelho”, “Boal” “Malvasia” or “Terrantez” yield the following designations:
“Sercial” dry or extra dry.
“Verdelho” medium dry
“Terrantez” medium dry or medium rich
“Boal” medium rich
“Malvasia” rich

Frasqueira or Vintage – at least, 85 per cent of the grapes of one vintage and of one variety, which must be barrel aged for a minimum of 20 years.

Colheita – 85 per cent of the grapes from one vintage and at least, 85 per cent of one variety.

Solera – designation reserved for extraordinary wines that have been in “canteiro” for a minimum of five years. Only 10 per cent may be bottled annually which must be replaced with wine of same organoleptic characteristics up to 10 times. The labels may indicate the starting date of the solera.
Madeira with the indication of its age must conform to standards extablished by the controlling board and approved by it.
Over 40 years old – must be over 40.
30 years old – over 30 years but less than 40.
20 years old – 20 years or older but less than 30.
15 years old or Reserva Extra – 15 years or older but less than 20.
10 years old or Reserva Especial or Reserva Velha – 10 years or older but
less than 15.
5 years old or Reserva – five years or older but less than ten. Rainwater – five years old.
Seleccionado – three years or older but less than five.
Canteiro – means that the wine has been fortified immediately after fermentation, subjected to the estufagem process for a minimum of three years, and barrel aged for a minimum of 10 years.
Extra Seco (extra dry) – means the wine contains one gram of residual sugar per litre.
Seco (dry) – means the wine contains less than two grams of residual sugar per litre.
Meio Seco (medium dry) – means the wine contains seven grams of residual sugar per litre.
Meio Doce (medium rich) – means the wine contains 15 – 24 grams of residual sugar per litre.
Doce (rich) – means the wine contains more than 24 grams of residual sugar per litre.


Madeira, is a complex wine with unique organoleptic characteristics and flavours that can be enjoyed anytime.

Madeira Sercial or Dry Wine, full bodied and perfumed, is perfect as an aperitif and goes well with olives, toasted almonds, caviar or salmon canapes, hors d’oeuvre with mayonnaise, smoked fish, sword fish, tuna or black scabbard ( a local fish specie), shellfish, sushi or fish mousses, and with fresh goat or ewe’s milk cheeses. Dry Madeira, with tonic water, a slice of lemon, on the rocks is popular and refreshing.

Madeira Verdelho or Medium Dry, golden coloured and full bodied, is also an excellent aperitif. It complements olives, toasted almonds, dry fruits, consommes, cream soups, gratinated onion soup, Serrano ham or smoked game, stuffed mushrooms, and duck or goose pate de foie-gras.

Madeira Boal or Medium Rich, full bodied and fruity wine, complements fresh tropical fruits, cakes or fruit tarts. Young Boal is perfect with soft cheeses.

Medium rich Madeira tastes great with milk chocolate, pralines, petit-fours, and fresh cream cakes.

Madeira Malvasia or Rich, is dark, full bodied and aromatic. Match it confidently with tropical fruits, walnuts, hazelnuts, dry fruit cakes or fruit tarts, butter cookies, dark or milk chocolate, pralines, petit-fours, Roquefort, Stilton or Gorgonzola.

All export shipments must be approved by the controlling board prior to shipping.
Annual Madeira wine production varies between 3.7 to 4.3 million litres pending climatic conditions.

Much of the production is sold to tourists, and exported to more than 30 countries, the Azores Islands, and mainland Portugal.

French are the biggest consumers followed by British and Germans.

Canada, and the U.S.A are relatively small markets, although the latter was once the best and biggest.

The L C B O has one Madeira wine on its general list, but features every year several times aged and high quality Madeira wines in its Vintages and Classics catalogue releases. There are seven major Madeira wine houses. Some export the majority of their production, others specialise in selling to locals and tourists.
The companies are:

Vinhos Barbeito, Madeira Wine Company, Vinhos Henriques & Henriques, Succesorres de H.M.Borges, Pereira d’Oliveira, Vinhos Justino Henriques Filhos, J.Faria & Filhos.

Of all, Vinhos Henriques &Henriques and Madeira Wine Company are the biggest, and maintain tasting rooms in Funchal and export to many countries.

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.