By Mannie Berk, adapted from his foreword to Madeira, The Island Vineyard, 2nd Edition, The Rare Wine Co., 2011. 

Of all of the wines created over the past five hundred years, there is none that lays greater claim to being a wine of its time and place than Madeira wine, a highly improbable beverage forged by fire and heat. Its vines—nourished by the ashes of a primeval forest consumed by fire five centuries ago—are rooted in rock that exploded from the sea some 14 million years earlier. Only weeks after its birth, it is introduced to the tyranny of a world whose persistent, oppressive warmth would suffocate other wines but for Madeira wine is necessary to achieve perfection.

It is a wine of nearly magical complexity, whose powerful aromas can fill a house. Though a fortified wine like Port and Sherry, it has been made for centuries from its own range of ancient, enigmatic grape varieties, each with its own character and degree of sweetness. In fact, Madeira wine tastes little like Port or Sherry—as its palate is uniquely blessed by powerful acidity, which amplifies every flavor and dramatically frames the wine’s honeyed richness, making it seem both less alcoholic and less sweet, and leaving the mouth refreshed. And it is arguably the world’s longest-lived wine, with the greatest Vintage Madeira  postponing full maturity for a century or more, only to defy nature for another 50 to 100 years: gloriously rich, ambrosially textured, infinitely nuanced, yet majestically serene in their beauty.

Madeira’s uniqueness among wines derives from a variety of factors. The island is itself volcanic, rising steeply from the sea, with vineyards planted on its slopes at elevations up to a half mile above sea level. Most of the common grape varieties are either unique to the island or of unknown origin. Grapes also don’t ripen here as they do elsewhere in Europe, America or Australia. While recent increases in global temperatures have pushed potential alcohol levels for many varieties in Europe past 14 degrees, Madeira’s Sercial achieves full physiological maturity—and the capability of producing all its classic nuances—at 10 degrees of potential alcohol. Even Malvasia, whose sugar levels tend to be the island’s highest, is ripe at about 12 or 12.5 degrees. It is only with the addition of brandy that Madeira wine can achieve its classic form, combining substantial residual sugar with an alcohol degree of 19 to 21 percent.

But, of course, the element that contributes most to Madeira’s individuality is the exposure to oxidation and warmth that molds its striking aromatic character. Such treatment, which would be abhorred in most other wine-producing areas, has its roots in history, from a time when Madeira wine was sent on long ocean voyages through the tropics, ultimately settling in hot climates like the Southern American colonies and the East and West Indies. The exposure to heat was found to improve the wine; so by the eighteenth century, Madeiras were often sent by sailing ship to the Indies and back to develop character. Such wines became known as vinho da roda or “wine of the round voyage.” Other Madeiras passed through the Indies on their way to North America or England, earning the right to be sold as “shipped via India” or, in the event of a sojourn on one of the islands, “West India Madeira.”

Inevitably, merchants sought ways to produce the same effects without the wine ever leaving Madeira. The simplest way, and a method used to this day for the finest wines, is Canteiro: aging the wine for years in a building exposed to the sun or in the attic of a shipper’s wine lodge. But before ever using the Canteiro method, in the very late 1700s, producers anxious for quick results installed estufas, or “stoves,” to heat wine to high temperatures, achieving in a few days what would have taken many months by ocean voyage. Of course, the results were hardly the same, and experiments ensued, reducing temperatures and extending the period of treatment to a few months. But so much bad wine was being turned out that there were three attempts (in 1802, 1803 and 1834) to ban estufas. Each time economics won out, and estufas have remained, evolving into sophisticated temperature-controlled heated tanks, reviled by purists, but economically necessary for the production of all but the best of today’s Madeiras.

Six Hundred Years

For more than half a millennium, Madeira wine has been produced on a small Atlantic island, most of whose 306 square miles are too mountainous for any kind of agriculture. As a result, there have never been more than 3000 hectares of vineyards, all of them along the island’s craggy coast. And because Madeira lies 365 miles from the nearest large land mass, Morocco, there has been no temptation to extend its vineyards beyond their traditional boundaries.

The first vineyards were planted here in the early 1400s, shortly after the arrival of the first European settlers. Vines—including the famed Malvasia Candida—were brought from Europe and the Mediterranean, and drainage channels called levadas were built, bringing water from the mountains to nourish the vines. The vineyards earned high praise from visiting Europeans, but for nearly two centuries, until the British began arriving at the end of the sixteenth century, there was little organized trade. The British made all the difference, organizing how the island’s wine could profitably be made, promoted and distributed, establishing important markets throughout the British Empire, but especially in the North American colonies.

Madeira’s position in the eastern Atlantic Ocean was crucial for the development of this trade, since the island lay at 32°45’ north latitude and 17° west longitude, precisely in the path that ships took from Europe south and west. Whether they were journeying around the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa, on their way to India or China, or crossing the Atlantic to South America, the West Indies or North America, ships would stop at Madeira to trade with island merchants, frequently taking on wine as cargo. Because of the particularly large number of vessels destined for America, Madeira wine made impressive inroads there, and came to dominate that market with special commercial privileges granted by the British Crown in the 1660s.

Thanks to the efforts of the British merchants who increasingly controlled the island’s wine trade, Madeira became popular and admired throughout the British Empire. In fact, during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, Madeira was very possibly the most prestigious wine in the English-speaking world. Yet, it achieved its greatest renown in the British colonies that were to become the United States of America. As late as the second quarter of the eighteenth century, Madeira was a modest light, dry white wine, but by the time of the American Revolution, it had become a fortified wine of compelling character, and it was this wine that achieved a place in American popular culture unique in its history. Madeira wine was the ultimate luxury beverage, enjoyed almost to the exclusion of other wines by wealthy families, and its fame radiated throughout the world. 

Madeira’s enormous success attracted its share of imitators. Some, like Marsala which called itself Sicily Madeira, competed somewhat fairly, emulating the Madeira wine style but not hiding their geographic origins. Others were outright frauds: cheap concoctions from various parts of Europe that masqueraded as real Madeira. In fact, the imposters became so widespread that they seriously undermined Madeira’s prestige in Britain, where many consumers came to assume that any wine labeled “Madeira” must be fake. While the United States’ Minister to France in the 1780s, Thomas Jefferson had so little faith in the so-called “Madeiras” sold there that he had his Madeira wine sent from the States. And in the U.S. itself, the best way to be sure that a “Madeira” was real was to buy it directly from a reputable merchant on the island, a practice to which many connoisseurs adhered.  

The Long Slide

After achieving such great success, Madeira wine began a long descent into oblivion. By the first two decades of the nineteenth century, it had lost its market leadership in Britain and India, but remained prized by serious connoisseurs, particularly in America, where it remained the wine that defined this young country and its top families. Even more than in the previous century, the United States’ emerging upper class saw Madeira wine as not only America’s wine, but their wine, inaccessible to the less affluent, and beyond the appreciation of those not born to refinement and privilege. Wines became known for the ships that brought them or the families that owned them. Madeira wine parties, for gentlemen only, were important social rituals in cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Charleston. And in the decades after a new capital, Washington, was built, a conspicuous display of one’s fine Madeira was used not only to demonstrate high social standing but to curry favor and build influence.

Madeira retained its powerful symbolic meaning in America throughout the remainder of the 1800s, but in the latter half of the century, events foretold its eventual demise. First, in 1851, a mildew epidemic (“oidium”) struck the island’s vineyards, reducing its production by 80% in one year and nearly 100% in four, and triggering a panicked exodus of many British merchants. Ten years later, just as the vineyards were recovering from oidium, the American Civil War not only eliminated the United States’ Southern market, it made any transatlantic shipping treacherous. And a little more than a decade after that, the phylloxera vine epidemic put the nail in Madeira’s commercial coffin not only by once again crippling production, but by convincing even more merchants to give up hope. It was a setback from which Madeira would never recover.

For the four decades following 1875, Madeira’s trade with America virtually ceased, with an average of sixteen pipes shipped per year. The wine became hopelessly old-fashioned in a country where Madeira drinkers were increasingly old men—albeit powerful and influential ones—and Madeira’s merchants expended very little effort to cultivate new customers. The loss of the American market was briefly made up for by Russia, which flourished until the October Revolution of 1917, and in a more enduring way by Germany, France and Scandinavia. Of all the important traditional markets for Madeira, only Great Britain remained, thanks, of course, to the fact that so many of the island’s merchants were British and had well-established distribution there.

Madeira Wine Today

Having once enjoyed a towering reputation among English-speaking wine drinkers, Madeira flirted with extinction in the early twentieth century, the victim not only of vine disease, but revolution, war, economics and fashion. In the decades after phylloxera arrived in 1872, all of the island’s vineyards had to be replanted using American phylloxera-resistant rootstock on to which the classic varieties were grafted. Not only did farmers not bother to replant such classic grape varieties as Malvasia Candida, Terrantez and Bastardo, many skipped the grafting part altogether, leaving the American vines to produce their own grapes. “Direct producers” like Isabella, Herbemont, Cunningham and Jacquet were common throughout the island, although the European Union required that they be pulled up by 2013. The use of direct producers in making Madeira is now prohibited and can only be used to make table wine for local consumption. However, it is likely that juice of the likes of Isabela and Jacquet found its way into many of the Madeiras—even some Vintage Madeira—made in the first half of the twentieth century.

Owing to these and other factors, the vineyards available for the production of Madeira have declined dramatically. Though exact figures have never been kept, Madeira’s vineyards may have occupied as many as 2500 hectares before phylloxera. Today, estimates of the amount of land devoted to vineyards vary from 300 to 420 hectares, divided among nearly 3000 individual farmers. To put this into perspective, these 300 hectares are less than the Rothschild family alone owns in the Médoc, and just two-tenths of one percent of the vineyards in all of Bordeaux.

The composition of the vineyards is also very different today. At the time of phylloxera, about two-thirds of the island’s vineyards were planted to Verdelho, with the balance Sercial, Bual, Malvasia and small amounts of Terrantez, Bastardo and Moscatel. Verdelho had long been the island’s workhorse variety—the backbone of the countless wines shipped over the centuries without the name of a grape variety. Perhaps because of this, and its abundance on the island, Verdelho had not been so highly regarded, and it was not until the twentieth century that it was accorded the same respect as, say, Sercial or Bual.

But Verdelho’s heightened esteem has come at a price: its widespread disappearance in favor of an old, historically obscure variety: Tinta Negra. Unlike the classic white varieties it has replaced, Tinta Negra is a red grape of chameleon-like versatility, capable of producing the entire range of Madeira styles depending on where it is planted and how its juice is treated by the producer. Before phylloxera, Tinta Negra was sparsely planted; today estimates of its use in the making of Madeira run as high as 90%.

A Shifting Landscape

As for the historically important varieties, most of Verdelho’s great early vineyards on the south coast were long ago abandoned or replanted to Tinta Negra or direct producers; today, Verdelho is mostly confined to the island’s north side, particularly the area around São Vicente. Bual can be found in small amounts on the south side, while limited plantings of Sercial are on both sides of the island. Terrantez, which produced so many great wines in the eighteenth century, has now been relegated to a curiosity, with just a handful of vineyards producing fruit. Malvasia Candida—whose fifteenth-century origins make it arguably Madeira’s most historic variety—is essentially extinct, as is Bastardo. Neither exists outside of a handful of experimental plantings. But in the meantime, a new form of Malvasia—Malvasia São Jorge—has proliferated on the north coast and is today the source of most of the wines labeled “Malvasia” or “Malmsey.”

On the production side, there has been an astonishing consolidation over the past two centuries. In the early 1800s, scores of British, Portuguese and American merchants were in business on the island as wine exporters. In 1828, British merchants alone numbered at least 71. But the oidium epidemic of 1851-1852 took a heavy toll, reducing this number to fifteen by 1855. Numbers continued to dwindle, so that by the 1870s, there were only ten British wine merchants on the island, matched by twelve shippers of Portuguese nationality.

The twentieth century saw further contraction, largely due to the creation of the Madeira Wine Association which, between 1913 and 1940, absorbed some 28 independent firms, leaving few merchants to fend for themselves. Today, there are just eight companies registered as wine exporters: Vinhos Barbeito, Henriques & Henriques, Justinho Henriques, Pereira D’Oliveira, H. M. Borges, J. Faria & Filhos, P. E. Gonçalves and the Madeira Wine Company, as the Madeira Wine Association has been known since 1981.

But such numbers are deceptive. Thanks to concentrated resources and better vineyard management, the output of wine hasn’t dropped nearly as much as one would think given the loss of vineyards and producers. While there’s perhaps only one-tenth the vineyards today—and one-tenth the number of shippers—today’s wine exports (30,000 to 40,000 hectoliters per year) compare favorably to what was shipped in the 1830s and 1840s, before oidium.

Yet, the future for Madeira is far from assured. The typical vineyard owner is in his 50s or 60s and possesses only about a tenth of a hectare (or a quarter acre) of vines. He was very possibly a sharecropper (colono) until Portugal’s 1974 Revolution, when he was given the chance to buy the land he occupied. Unlike many of his brethren, he has resisted the temptation to switch to bananas, despite the fact that they can generate two or three times the income from the same amount of land. He has persevered as a grape-grower largely because growing grapes for one of the export companies is what he knows how to do.

But odds are that his children will not be interested in continuing his work. So, while the local government has enjoyed modest success in encouraging new vineyards, some say that for every hectare of new vines planted, five are lost, as vineyards give way to real estate development and other forms of agriculture. The situation has been particularly grim on the island’s south side, where the finest wines of the 18th and 19th century were sourced. Today on Madeira’s sun-bathed southern slopes, vineyards of historic varieties like Bual, Sercial, Terrantez, Verdelho and Malvasia Candida are a thing of the past, having largely succumbed to a century and a half of adversity. And with circumstances as they are today, there is little hope for their return.

There are few wines in the world with so colorful a history as Madeira wine—and none that has faced, and continues to face, such great challenges to its ongoing existence. But while those of us who love this heroic wine can do little more than hope for a profound change in its prospects, we can take comfort not only in the glorious old wines that have survived, but in Madeira’s improbable, yet incredibly rich, history.

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