Madeira is the island off the south-western coast of Portugal – closer to Africa than Portugal. It is a small and very steep island that is covered in vineyards dedicated to the production of Madeira.
There are five grapes that go into making Madeira though none are often made as single varietals to each other. The classic grape variety is Tinta Negra, a red grape that makes the fair majority of Madeira wines. There is then the four Noble grapes that are all white – these are Boal, Sercial, Verdelho and Malvasia (sometimes known as Malmsey).
Like Port, the wines of Madeira are fortified with a neutral grape spirit midst their fermentation process that stops fermentation and leaves a wine with high levels of sugar. Unlike Port where all Ports are fortified at the same point to keep a unified level of sweetness for all styles, Madeira can be fortified at different points, over a span of a week, to make sweeter and drier styles alike.
Once fortified these wines are put into barrels for ageing, these barrels are then put into hot-houses called Canteiros. The barrels are put into these hot-houses for a minimum of three years – the idea being that the sugars and flavour-producing compounds will ‘maderise’. In the maderising process the sugars will caramelise and with the flavour-producing compounds will create flavours of toffee, caramelised fruit, baking spices and dried fruit flavours. The longer the wines spend in the hot-houses the more complex and developed these flavours become.
Madeira wines were first produced as wines that were fortified to ensure that they would keep over the course of long boat trips around the world, usually on journeys lasting 12-18 months at a time. Over this time the wines in barrels would be exposed to long periods of sustained heat thus maderising the wines. The hot-house process mimics this old-fashioned method and takes it one step further by leaving them in the heat for a lot longer.
3 year old, aka Finest
These Madeiras are solely made out of the Tinta Negra grape variety. They can be dry, medium dry, medium rich or rich – a variance on the level of sugars left in the wines. They will often have pleasant dried red fruit, raisin and baking spice flavours.
5 year old, aka Reserve
These Madeiras can be made from Tinta Negra or any of the four noble grape varieties. If the noble grapes are blended together they can’t be labelled with the grape names but if are single varietal Madeiras can be labelled as such. These wines will have caramel, dried and candied citrus flavours along with baked stone- and tree-fruit flavours.
10 year old, aka Special Reserve
These can only be made from the four noble varieties, and blends are not permitted. They will be varietally labelled. 10 year old wines will have flavours that are found in 5 year old versions but with more complexity and richness.
15 year old, aka Extra Reserve
These Madeiras are exactly the same as 10 year olds just aged for longer.