This is one of the great fortifled wines, made on the island of the same name. The word means ‘wood’ and originated because, when it was first explored by the Portuguese in 1418, it was covered with trees, which the discoverers burnt down (the fire lasted 7 years). This greatly enriched the soil. The wine was first exported unfortified, but they began to add brandy to it about the middle of the 18th century.
Because Maderia came under the English crown for a while as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza, Charles II’s queen, links with Britain were formed early and many of the wine firms are still British. It became very popular in America in the late 18th century because of a legal technicality, which permitted Madeira to be imported by any ship. Even though it might come via Britain, it was not subject to the controls on wine from Europe, which could only go to the New World in British ships, because technically Madeira was in Africa. This appealed to those who, before the War of Independence, wished to defy the British authorities. Madeira became popular everywhere during the Napoleonic wars, when French wines were obviously difficult to get. The sea voyages to the U.S. (as they now were) and the Far East, with the wine slowly heating up during the trip, enormously improved the wines, often taken on as ballast. This resulted in the system of gradually heating them, known as estufagem, which now substitutes for the sea voyages.
Madeira is made as all wine is made, the fermentation being subsequently either arrested (as far as the very sweet wines are concerned), or slowed down (for the drier wines) by the addition of brandy. The wine is then subjected to the gradual heating and cooling that gives it a special character and is then put into a solera and matured like sherry. Madeira disputes with sherry the distinction of being the longest lived wine in the world, and 18th century wines still survive. Sir Winston Churchill, visiting the island, once remarked in wonder ‘Do you realise that when this wine was made, Marie Antoinette was still alive!’ But vintage wines are very seldom made today, the dates shown on some bottles being those of the establishment of the solera. However some very old wine will be in each fine Madeira.
The main types are all called after the grapes from which they are made: Sercial. Which is the dryest; Verdelho, which sometimes recalls a nutty flavour to people; Bual or Boat (the latter is the Portuguese spelling), golden-brown and fairly sweet: and Malmsey or Malvasia. Dark brown and lusciously sweet, though never cloying. Each of the great Madeira wine houses makes a slightly different style of wine. Some also make blends, to which they attach a brand name, such as the well-known Rainwater.
Madeira should be served in tulip-shaped glasses or medium size goblets, like port. The dry type may be slightly chilled if it is wished, but in fact Madeira is a robust sort of wine and this is not essential, although pleasanter for aperitifs. The decanting of great old dessert Madeiras, however, is advisable; simply because a handsome decanter shows off the colourof the wine. Madeira was, in former times, the traditional refreshment for a bank manager or lawyer to offer favoured customers. It was also known in the Far East as ‘S.S.S.’ – for subalterns1 soothing syrup – because it was considered a less taxing drink for the younger men in the mess, who had not become accustomed to the heat of India so as to be able to drink much port with impunity. In the 19th century household it was often taken with a piece of Madeira cake when the master of the house returned in the evening (this was before the days of aperitifs before meals) and ladies would drink it as well, with perfect respectability. Sercial and Verdelho are sometimes served with a clear soup, but can also accompany certain first courses of fish. Bual and Malmsey are for dessert – either with something sweet or with fruit. Although many of the firms making Madeira belong to the Madeira Wine Association, not all do.
One of the main types of Madeira, very luscious and dark brownish in colour. It is served as a dessert wine or on its own. The name comes from the grape, and this originated in the Mediterranean where its Greek name is Monemvasia, which became Malvoisie or Malvasia. The grape is in fact one of the classic wine grapes of the world, the Pinot.
Although the unfortunate Duke of Clarence, brother of King Edward IV, is popularly supposed to have been drowned in a butt of Malmsey while imprisoned in the Tower of London, there seems to be no historical basis for this story. Malmsey is mentioned on several occasions in Shakespeare, but it is possible that the term was used generally for any sweetish, rather rich wine – a popular drink at a time when sugar was expensive and a rarity.