Mad for Madeira 12/06/11

Like most Americans, I harbor a deep fascination with pirates. There’s a certain, undeniable allure about the pirate’s life, full of briny ocean air, fresh scurvy, and all the rum you can drink (provided you’re able to steal at least as much rum as you can drink from passing vessels).

Of course, these days it’s not so easy to become a pirate. The aspiring plunderer of the modern age is left with but two real options: move to Somalia, or download a bunch of copyrighted movies. And while both courses of action have their obvious merits, neither affords the same, prolonged seafaring experience that was commonplace in the Golden Age of Piracy.

Which finally brings me to my point. Did you know there’s a type of wine that was traditionally aged over long sea voyages? It’s called Madeira, fortified wine produced on the Portuguese islands of the same name. But fair warning for the etymologically reckless: although “Madeira” can be broken into the words “made” and “Ira,” research suggests that my friend Ira has, in fact, never even tried to produce Madeira.


Not even once.

Fortified wine refers to wine that has been bolstered by extra booze, usually via the addition of a neutral brandy at some point during the production process. It’s generally higher in alcohol content than unfortified wine, approaching 20% alcohol by volume (the two Madeiras I’ll be reviewing both clock in at 19%). When most people hear the term fortified wine, they have a tendency to think of Port and Sherry, the two most famous members of the category, which also includes Vermouth and Marsala. Or else they think of this adorable little fellow here:


Isn’t he precious?

So what’s the deal with Madeira? A key distinction between Port and Sherry is that the brandy is added before fermentation is finished for Port, and afterward for Sherry. But Madeira swings both ways. There are four grapes permitted for use in Madeira production, and by an astonishing coincidence, there are also four styles of the wine, whose names are identical to the grapes from which they come. The lighter two, Sercial and Verdelho, mirror the Sherry production process and tend to produce dryer wines, while Bual and Malvasia, the heavier, sweeter ones, are more akin to Port.

The practice of aging Madeira on ships at sea became standard after it was discovered that the long voyages through the equator needed to ship the Madeira from place to place were actually improving the wine. At some point, however, somebody must have realized it was possible to age this wine without sending it away to the enological equivalent of a boarding school, and now there are two popular methods by which to heat Madeira, recreating the conditions of yore while never leaving the comfort of your own winery: Estufagem and Canteiro. You can read about those here, if so inclined.

Over the course of the past week, I’ve drunk my way through two bottles of Madeira: the Blandy’s Medium Rich 5-year-old Bual and the Blandy’s Medium Dry 5-year-old Verdelho. It wasn’t my intention to buy two bottles from the same producer, but these were the only two Madeiras I could find under $25 (each was $23), so there you have it.

nullMy very first Madeira, the Blandy’s Bual, had me captivated right from the get-go, shining in the glass with a translucent, coppery-brown hue. I described the color as reminding me of the ghost of an old penny, if that helps anyone. The nose was relatively straightforward, and consistent through my three days of drinking: raisins, caramel, and a hint of almond.

On the palate this was rich and sweet, though not cloying, with enough spice and acidity to balance out the residual sugar. More notes of raisin and caramel rang out, with pepper popping in to say hello, along with something a bit more earthily exotic that for whatever reason, had me thinking “turmeric.” So I’ll say turmeric.

Full-bodied, this wine had a long, raisin-y finish and paired nicely with various desserts, but the biggest shock was how well it paired with sushi. Why did it work? I’m thinking it was the soy sauce. Why did I even try it? Believe me, it’s not that I wanted to pair this with sushi; I just wanted to eat sushi, and I wanted to drink Madeira, and well…I’m not a very strong person, I guess.

I award the Blandy’s 5-year-old Bual thumbs up – a great start.

nullAs fate would have it, my first Madeira was so lovely that I was impelled to get a second immediately. The Blandy’s Verdelho was similar in color to the Bual, though lighter; more of a brownish amber, or if you’d prefer, like the ghost of a penny that wasn’t all that old, and died lamentably before its time.

On the nose, I received a more savory impression than the Bual Madeira had given me, with walnut as the dominant aroma, alongside honeycomb (the bee stuff, not the cereal), dates and smokey vanilla. The palate pushed those dates to the forefront, with plenty of honey supporting them, on top of licorice and – finally a repeat from the first Madeira – peppery spice. Not quite as full-bodied as the Bual, this was still rather hefty; not quite as sugary, it was still rather sweet.

More complex than its colleague, but the same price, the Verdelho Madeira earns thumbs up.

Long story short: Madeira made a wonderful first impression on yours truly. And then an even better second impression. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for more, and I encourage you to seek some out if you’ve never tried it. Even when opened, Madeira will stay good for months, so you don’t have to do what I did and drink nothing else for six days, either. But you may want to.

Oh, and if you’re still wondering whether pirates actually have anything to do with Madeira, you should know that the practice of piracy is still alive and well on the very island that produces it. So beware! If you’re not careful, they’ll strip the clothes right off your back…and the DRM protection right off your Blu-Rays of the new season of Breaking Bad.


Yo ho!

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2 Responses to this article

Mary December 7, 2011 Reply

i tasted my first Madeira in September at Wine School. Can’t wait to try more and will look for your recommendations.

Jason December 13, 2011 Reply

Mary, thanks for commenting! Since I wrote this review I’ve actually been able to try Blandy’s 5-year Malmsey (the rich one), and I found it somewhat disappointing compared to these two; it reminded me of the Bual, but less complex. So I’m thinking I might favor the lighter styles in general.

I’d love to hear about any Madeiras you might encounter as well!

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