Time has built tradition and tradition has produced the incomparable Madeira wine. Madeira, part one.

Madeira, named after the island and the demarcated wine region of Madeira where it is produced, is like no other wine in the world. Madeira, a fortified Portuguese wine comes in a variety of styles, ranging from dry to very sweet, and is a very robust wine capable of ageing almost indefinitely due to its unique winemaking process which involves heating the wine up to temperatures as high as 50 °C or 122 Fahrenheit.

Set in the Atlantic Ocean about 560 km or 350 miles off the coast of Morocco Madeira island is part of an archipelago composed of two inhabited islands, Madeira and Porto Santo, and the uninhabited Desertas and Selvagens  islands. Madeira has a unique landscape characterised by a sharply elevated terrain. The specific conditions of the soil of volcanic origin, mainly basalt and the proximity to the sea, combined with the climatic conditions of hot, humid summers and mild winters, produce a fortified wine that can hold its quality for decades and even centuries.


From the moment the island was discovered in 1419 people took to cultivate the land with wheat, vines and sugarcane. Sugarcane was the largest crop produced until the beginning of the 16th century, when Brazil took over and most of the sugar cane plantations were converted into vineyards.

Mardeira, situated as it is, in the Atlantic shipping lanes, was a natural port of call for any ship travelling across to the Americas or south around Africa to Asia. Its location was a source of continuous good fortune for Madeira and its wine trade. Ships making the stop before the crossing invariably loaded wine for the voyage.

Transportation of Madeira wines to the Indies was made by putting the pipes (oak casks) in the hold of ships submitting them to the high temperatures of the tropics. Sometimes a few pipes would return and those cask would show great quality and complexity due to ageing acceleration. These wines became known as “Vinho da Ronda” or “Vinho Torna Viagem”. Merchants understood the commercial value of these return trip wines and began to send them deliberately to India to sell them upon return for astronomic prices.

Throughout the 17th century the production and export of Madeira wine grew enormously, but all the major exporters were foreigners. British merchants had a privileged position in the trade with the Americas and Indies.The Methuen Treaty of 1703 benefited the Madeira trade even more, Portuguese wines would pay less than one third of the custom rates upon entering England compared to wines of other countries. Export to North America was on a high, so much so that on the celebration of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America on the 4th of July 1776 America’s first President George Washington toasted with Madeira wine.


The introduction of two new techniques to enhance the development of the wine in the mid-18th and beginning of the 19th century were “estufagem” and fortification.

Estufagem is a technique that intends to replicate the ageing conditions of a round trip voyage. It can be done by direct heating of the sun on the roof of a Madeira loft or through the circulation of hot water or water steam through serpentine copper pipes to heat the wine inside a storage vessel or in the room where the vessel is stored.

Fortification. In 1807 Emperor Napoleon I (1804-1814) prohibited trade with England and the King of Portugal refused to apply the embargo. Imposing a blockade of the sea route to Madeira, Napoleon’s brother Joseph  hoped France could strike a nasty blow against England’s prospering transatlantic wine trade.The embargo had a huge effect in Madeira, the amount of Madeira wines in stock grew bigger by the day. Fearing that their precious liquid would go to waste the tradesmen started to experiment with spirit alcohol to prolong the wine’s shelf life. This method of subsequent sampling proved to be very successful. Further variations of this “fortification” process enhanced the quality of Madeira Wine even further. From that moment on, it was possible to produce Madeira in greater amounts for the growing market.

In the first half of the 19th century the Madeira wine industry was thriving, Madeira was the foremost luxury drink of the day. The trade with Madeira wine reached its peak, but in the second half of the 19th century disaster struck. Around 1850 Madeira saw its vines ravaged by oidium or powdery mildew and shortly thereafter in 1873 phylloxera arrived. Six thousand acres of vineyard were destroyed. Only about 20% were replanted with true Madeira vines, the rest with European and American hybrids.


I was once shown a 19th century photograph that fascinated me of people carrying bloated goat skins. I thought initially that they were carrying olive oil, but in actual fact what you see are “Borracheiros” and in the context of Madeira wine they are the persons carrying the “borracho” with new wine or grape must. The name “Borracheiro” derives from ‘Borracho’ which was the name given to wine pouches made from goatskin. For centuries at harvest time it was a common sight to see the “Borracheiros” walk in single file along the narrow, and sometimes steep, paths from the elevated vineyards down the Madeira lodges to reach the cellars where the wine was poured into large barrels for maturation. A full goat skin could weigh up to seventy kilos. Nowadays, the “Borracheiros” merely appear in festivals recreating moments from the history of Madeira.


During the first decade of this 20th century and up to the First World War, export markets changed. Instead of the USA and the UK  Germany became the top export market. However, in between the two World Wars  it changed again, this time to the Scandinavian market, especially that of Sweden and Denmark. By the end of World War II and the period after conditions in the wine trade were extremely difficult. The Portuguese revolution of 1974 and the entry of Portugal in the European Union (1986) brought about significant changes. European rules and regulations, but also reinforcement of quality control became important. Tourism is now the Island’s largest industry and since bananas were found to fetch a higher price per acre than grapes, many vines were replaced with banana trees, though in the last 10-15 years there is a counter movement too.  Besides the culinary Madeira used as a flavour agent in cooking, which constitutes about 85% of the Madeira wine export, there is a trend towards making premium rated, complex fine Madeiras ( made  as naturally as possible) with an high ageing potential. The wine that lives forever is making a comeback.

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0 thoughts on “Time has built tradition and tradition has produced the incomparable Madeira wine. Madeira, part one.”

  • What a great article and a beautiful video. About half way thru the video, I was about to place it on pause and get me a glass of fine madeira wine. Nice job and a great read! I think I will re-watch it this evening in my easy chair with an 18 ounce brandy sniffer containing about 3 ounces of my favorite Madeira Blanc du Bois and just enjoy the aromas that emanate from the glass. God bless Madeira the island and God bless madeira the wine.
    Cheers & Ciao!

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