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Barrels from Henriques& Henriques Photo: Oliver Martin
Barrels from Henriques& Henriques Photo: Oliver Martin

Madeira wine – a taster

There is more sophistication and variety in Madeira wine than you might think. Here’s a brief guide.

Mention Madeira wine, and thoughts may turn to cooking or cocktail mixers. True, the rich flavors in this fortified wine lend themselves to a variety of purposes in the kitchen, but the finer versions make excellent sipping wines, which can be drunk chilled as an aperitif (the drier ones) or at room temperature with dessert (the sweet versions).

Photo: Oliver Martin

Taste profiles vary according to the variety of grape used. Those wanting a more sophisticated experience should seek out the single-varietal Madeiras: Sercal, Verdelho, Bual, or Malmsey – with Sercal grapes being the driest and Malmsey the sweetest. Blended wines, which use a combination of grape types, can also be excellent. The Tinta Negra grape often features in blends. It’s the only red grape used to make Madeira wine, and it’s also the hardest working one, accounting for around 85% of all production.

As for Madeira wine vintages, there are three options to consider at the higher end of the quality scale, Colheita, Frasqueira and Solera. The latter two are considered to be the cream of the crop as they’ve been made using the Canteiro method, slowly ageing the wine in barrels (in warm rooms or under the sun). The more common, and much cheaper, method of production is known as Estufagem, which involves a quicker process of heating the wine in tanks to caramelize the sugars, which takes about 3-4 months.

Photo: Oliver Martin

What else gives this famed tipple its distinctive character? Madeiran soils tend to be acidic, rich in iron and phosphor, and poor in potassium – qualities that all contribute to the trademark acidity of the wine. The acidity is one of its most remarkable assets, which, along with the ageing process (heating and cooling the wine, and exposing it to oxygen) means that some versions can be kept in the cellar for more than a hundred years. 

Blandy's Wine Lodge

Located in the center of Funchal and founded in 1811, Blandy’s is Madeira’s oldest wine producer. It’s a large and commercial operation, but this means that the team’s expertise is second to none, so where better to head for a guided tour and tasting session? Tours and tastings of different durations are held daily, as well as the occasional vineyard visit, and there's a tailored menu exploring the different grape varieties for those who prefer not to sip on an empty stomach.

Blandy's Wine Lodge

Avenida Arriaga 28, Funchal

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Henriques & Henriques

Those wishing to combine their wine tasting with a trip out of the city may like to visit the cellars at Henriques & Henriques, located in the charming fishing village of Câmara de Lobos. The friendly staff of this historic producer, founded in 1850, will happily guide you through their award-winning wines in their well-stocked shop, and there are tasting sessions to join, too. Henriques & Henriques is unusual in that it owns its own vineyard of about ten hectares in Câmara de Lobos. (Due to Madeira’s mountainous terrain, vineyards are often much smaller and owned by private landowners who sell their crop to producers.)

Henriques & Henriques

Avenida da Autonomia 10, Câmara de Lobos

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Text: Emma Holmqvist Deacon

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