What is Madeira Wine?
Madeira is a fortified wine produced and bottled in Madeira - a Portuguese island off the coast of Morocco - using specific grape varieties, aged by the unique heating system, making use of the same ancient ageing techniques that have passed from father to son, from one generation to another. This iconic fortified wine is virtually indestructible.
Madeira wine is typically a mono-varietal wine, with each white varietal representing one of the four styles of Madeira. Dry, medium-dry, medium-rich and rich.
Historically, Madeira Wines were divided in two categories: the ones that bear a generic age - also known as Blends - and those who were produced from one single grape variety, and from one single harvest, which can be Coheita or Vintage.
An Accidental Wine
The heating of the wine during the ageing process is unique. Its origins came about during the era of discoveries in the 15th and 16th centuries when the sailing ships passed by the island to pick up fresh water and supplies, in the form of wine in barrels which were loaded onboard the visiting ships to provide much needed refreshments to the sailors, and to also act as ballast. Legend has it that on one particular round trip to India, the barrels of wine were returned to the producer on the island who discovered that the wine had improved considerably, which was attributed to the heating of the wine by the high tropical temperatures, as the ship had crossed the equator 4 times. For many years, the practice of shipping wines on a round trip became normal, and gave birth to the “vinho da roda” (round trip wines).
For centuries afterwards, shippers continued to send casks of their wines on long voyages, for no other reason than to develop greater character. Today, this ageing is replicated via the Estufagem and Canteiro methods in the wine lodges on the island.
With time, the practice of shipping barrels on a round trip became costly, and following the introduction of steam ships, the journey became much faster, and producers started using the “canteiro system”. As sales grew, and demand increased, producers were challenged to find a faster way of supplying their costumer’s needs, and as a consequence, the “estufagem” system was invented.
A Fortified Wine
Madeira became fortified over time. Fortification of the wine with brandy was introduced in the mid-18th century and today, the process continues with neutral alcohol at 96% strength. Today, all wines have in between 17,5% and 21% alcohol strength.
How is madeira Wine Produced?
On arrival, all grapes are analyzed, classified, weighed and immediately processed to remove all the stalks, then crushed to remove the seeds and skins. The stalks are treated as waste, but the seeds and skins are collected in crates and given to the farmers for agricultural feed.
Different vinification methods are used, according to the different grape varieties.
Tinta Negra Wines used to produce dry and medium dry wines aren’t subject to maceration, whilst medium rich and rich wines use maceration and auto-vinification techniques.
All white varietals are subject to pelicular maceration in order to gain the maximum dry extract from the grapes.
Fermentation takes place in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks that are closely monitored and is stopped with the addition of natural grape spirit (96%) when the appropriate amount of natural grape sugar has been converted into natural alcohol.
The rich-style wines are fortified after approximately 24 hours whilst the drier style wines are left to ferment for 7 days before fortification.
Nowadays, two different ageing methods ae currently used: “estufagem” and “canteiro”.
The process known as "estufagem" was introduced by a local physician called Pantelião Fernandes in 1794 as a consequence of increasing market demand. It has since been used in the production of 3 year old wines.
Today, once fortified, Blandy’s Madeira wines are transferred to large tanks called "estufas" and gently warmed up to temperatures of 45°C over a period of 4 months, and afterwards stabilized in in wooden vats for an additional period of two years. After the gradual cooling of the wine in the 4th month, the wines are then left to age for 2 years in Brazilian satinwood vats. This process is only used with the Tinta Negra grape in the production of 3 year old wines.
Ageing in Canteiro
The word "canteiro" derives from the name of the traditional supporting beams on which the American oak casks are placed. This unique process consists in the ageing of the wines in seasoned oak casks for a minimum period of 4 years in seasoned oak casks strored under the rafters of warm attics, where the casks are stored and exposed to the natural warmth of the sun gently that heats the wine.
Wines produced in the "canteiro" system are stored in casks by the variety name and vintage year, and under the ancient rafters of the lodge. Tthe casks are gently warmed by the natural occurring heat of the sub-tropical climate, and the wines acquire a unique and concentrated character, resulting from the “angel share”, which is the name given to the reduction that the wines undergo during their ageing. The casks are never 100% full, which allows the wine to slowly oxidize and to transform the primary aromas into tertiary aromas or the classical “Madeira Bouquet” of spices, roasted nuts, dried fruits smoke, amongst many others.
After a few years on the highest and warmest level, the wines are moved down to successively lower floors and cooler levels. Years pass and eventually the wines reach the ground floor to finish ageing. This ancestral and totally natural process is called ‘canteiro’ and is used for all our premium wines.
From Vine to Wine
From March onwards, the company's viticulture team does regular checks of the vineyards, providing assistance and advice to growers so as to ensure that the
best possible quality is achieved. Although the harvest officially begins in the first fortnight of September, it is common to have some early maturation estates by the end of August. Normally the harvest is completed by mid-October, as the last grapes are delivered to the wineries. During the harvest, each area has a regional agent, who checks maturation, coordinates the picking and delivery of the grapes to the winery.
Due to the steepness of the island geography, the harvest is very labour intensive, as all grapes are handpicked. However, the harvest is also a time of celebration and a social event where families and friends gather and unite the efforts of the harvest to the pleasure of gastronomy in celebrations that occur throughout the island.
The grapes are harvested when they have reached the required levels of maturity and then transported to the company’s winery in Funchal where the grapes are carefully selected and then vinified. From the day they are fortified to the day they are bottled, when the ideal maturation stage has been achieved, the wines are under the constant supervision of the Blandy’s Winemaker and his team of coopers.
Currently, the company sources its grapes from over 600 growers, of which about 20 accounts to 80% of the total volume.