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Madeira, M'Dear (April 12, 2002)

When did you last pour yourself a glass of Madeira? If you can answer that question, you're in a tiny minority because Madeira, the fortified wine from a little Portuguese island off the coast of North Africa (the same latitude as Casablanca), is about as fashionable – and accessible – as the hula-hoop. Yet I believe it's a drink whose time has come.

Why? Because it can live twice as long as you or I can and it's virtually indestructible. In the wine shops of Funchal, the island's capital, bottles of Madeira bearing dates well back into the last century are left standing up on the shelves. In the bright sunshine and with no air-conditioning! In spite of this, the wines taste wonderfully well. (And any chef will tell you how versatile these wines are in the kitchen.)

So if you want to find a wine from the year of your birth – look for it in Madeira. I did. Vintage 1939 was a lousy year everywhere else in Europe and there is virtually none to be had in Bordeaux, Burgundy or Oporto; but I found a Barbeito Sercial '39 for $80 in Diogo's Wine Shop (Avenida Arriaga 48, Funchal).

Not only does Madeira last in the bottle, once it has been uncorked the wine will hold its character longer than sherry or vintage port.

What gives Madeira its amazing longevity? (And could a daily glass set us off on the path to immortality?) The story goes back to the mid-eighteenth century and, like most technological breakthroughs, the taste of Madeira came about by accident.

The grape is not indigenous to Madeira, though tropical flowers abound. Vines from Crete were first planted on the island in the fifteenth century. The variety was Malvasia, which produced a sweet wine. The British, in their unilingual fashion, corrupted this to "malmsey." King Edward IV's brother, the Duke of Clarence, whose name now graces the label of the Madeira Wine Company's Malmsey-style blend, was said to have been drowned in a cask of Madeira. This story, in addition to the many references to Madeira in Shakespeare's plays, shows that the British took up the wine as early as the fifteenth century. English wine merchants set up shop on the island and began to export the products back home and to the colonies.

George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were all fans of Madeira. Washington, the gossip has it, consumed a pint of Madeira every night with his dinner. But Madeira in those days was not the Madeira we know today; it was more like a table wine. Over the years, the producers discovered that by adding brandy to the casks, not only did they raise the alcohol content but they also made the wine less vulnerable to spoilage on long sea voyages.

And it was these voyages that would eventually shape the character and style of Madeira. The shipping casks in the holds of the ships were subjected to intense heat as the vessels sailed through the tropics to the Indies. The effect of this baking process was to give the wines more body, longer shelf life and an agreeable cooked flavour.

Once the producers had cottoned on to the reason why their wines tasted better at the end of such a journey, they decided to replicate the heating effect as part of the fermentation process on dry land, where they could control it.

In the beginning, this was done by leaving the casks (called pipes) under the eaves of the lodges, exposed to the heat of the sun. By law, a vintage Madeira must spend a minimum of 20 years in cask and then a further two years in bottle before it can be sold. Some of the finest vintages can be left for 100 years in wood. The 1959 vintage, for example, has not been bottled yet.

Eventually, furnaces were installed that heated steam pipes which were run around the upper rooms of the lodges, called estufas (ovens). For the bulk wines made from the ubiquitous Tinta Negre Mole grape, the heating is now done directly inside the large wooden vats.

There are basically four different styles of Madeira originally based on the noble grape type that produced them. Sercial is the driest, Verdelho is semi-dry, Bual is medium-sweet and Malmsey is sweet.

But these names do not necessarily correspond to those varieties today. If you look at the vineyards on the island you'll soon see why it would be almost impossible to separate the varieties. The Madeirans will tell you that each variety is grown at different levels between 300 and 700 metres in the volcanic soil, but in reality the tiny vineyards, carved out of precipitous slopes in terraces, are so closely planted it would be difficult to ensure the integrity of a single variety. The four-hundred-odd growers on the island usually bring field blends to the wineries for processing.

A visit to the island would not be complete without dropping into the Madeira Wine Company's historic offices (a former monastery, now Avenida Arriaga 28) in Funchal. Here you can sample Madeiras of the old English companies, Blandy's, Cossart Gordon, Leacock and Miles dating as far back as 1845 and 1860 – and they're sold by the glass! Around the corner at Rua dos Ferreiros 125 you can find the Casa dos Vinhos, where the fine old Madeiras of Henriques & Henriques are also available by the glass.

Apart from vintage Madeiras that bear the year stencilled on the glass, the wines are graded by the amount of time they spend in oak. Extra Reserve is 15 years or older, Special Reserve 10 years or over, Reserve 5 years or older. These reserve wines will all be categorized by the grape variety (suggesting their degree of sweetness). Labels bearing the terms Finest, Choice or Selected will have spent a minimum of three years in wood and will be simply called Madeira. Rainwater, a soft style of Verdelho, will be three years old at least, and those bottles bearing the term Solera are a blend of different years, demarcated by the year the solera was first started.




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