Madeira Is Internationally Famous For One Specific Wine

by | Jan 4, 2022 | Cellar Chat

Madeira is internationally famous for one specific wine, simply called ‘Madeira’ and it all started in 1419.  Portuguese navigators discovered two islands in the Atlantic in 1418, Deserta and Porto Santo. From the latter they could see dark cloud formations on the horizon and went to have a look, thereby discovering a third island, Madeira, which enjoys regular rainfall and the promise of agriculture that the other two lacked.

 Settlers planted Malmsey grapes (Malvasia) and, with a concentration of sugars, produced an excellent sweet wine. Malvasia is the most widely grown variety and today, over 400 years, there are different styles and quality levels of Madeira wine. The highest may be matured for as much as 20 years. The wine was also used as ballast in sailing ships and, in the early days, it was accepted that sailing across the equator would damage any wine but Madeira, with a good dose of brandy, actually improved. Today this improvement is effected by a heating method whereby the wine is kept in heated storage for three or four months to get the same results, a deliciously dark, sweet wine.

 At a birthday bash in Paarl for a native of the island some while back, he somehow procured a bottle of Madeira. This was offered in tiny sips and so I experienced for the first time a wine over 100 years old. The label boasted a 1903 vintage. What a pleasure and what an experience. 

Last May I was given a bottle of Port. Lucky me as winter beckoned and I am partial to this strong, heady, sweet red wine.  South African port-style wines may no longer use the name ‘Port’ so we use names such as Cape Vintage, Fine Old Vintage, Cape Tawney and Cape Ruby retaining the Port overtones in label design. Happily, the cultivars used to come from Portugal such as Tina Barocca and Touriga Nacional, all confirming an element of originality and confidence.  Great care is taken to follow the correct principles and maturation. More a sipping wine than a drinking wine, at around 18% Alcohol it should be treated with respect. My earliest recollection of Port was at preparatory school in England where, at the tender age of 9, after sipping from a silver cup we were taught to always pass the Port to the left at end of year dinners. Happily, the taste still lingers. (Passing to the left is supposed to come from an old Royal Navy tradition of passing Port to port – left). But summer is on us and one can complement a warm summer evening with a Muscadel served from the refrigerator, or a Teutonic Schnapps, all of course in the name of aiding digestion. 

 I rather like ending an evening with a Cognac. Both Anthonij Rupert and Blacksburg can provide pleasant surprises. Further down the road Boschendal and Tokara can also help. 

PS.  Once upon a time, Port was made right here.