Off the coast of Morocco, the rugged Portuguese island of Madeira features steep vineyards planted in volcanic soils. It was an important port of call during the 1400s and 1500s, when sailors who traversed the tropics would stop there for supplies and trading products, including the local wine.
Exposed to hot sun on the open seas, however, the wine would often spoil. So its makers took a cue from Porto producers and fortified the stuff with a sugar distillate to ensure its survival through the course of the voyage.
Sailors soon discovered an added benefit. The longer that Madeira sat on their ships, the deeper its flavor became. In the years that followed, what could have been a mundane table wine was transformed into a hot commodity.
Today, four principle noble grape varieties are used to make Madeira into styles of the same names: Malvasia (or Malmsey), Bual, Verdelho and Sercial. The wine is fortified with brandy and, rather than rely on ocean air and sunlight to treat the wine, it’s exposed to heat and oxygen while aging at the vineyard.
“The beautiful thing about Madeira is, even though it’s a fortified wine, styles range anywhere from bone dry to intensely sweet,” says Sam Gamble, head sommelier of Atlas restaurant in Atlanta. While sweet Malvasia pairs with desserts, he says other variations work well with savory dishes.
At Los Angeles cocktail bar Thunderbolt, for instance, Owner Mike Capoferri pairs Verdelho Madeira with country ham. “The Verdelho has a beautiful sugar content level that’s going to match really well with the salty, cured flavor,” he says.
Madeira is a great addition to cocktails, too. Chantal Tseng, a Washington, D.C.-based cocktail consultant, mixes Verdelho and Sercial styles with spirits like gin and Tequila to add salinity and complexity. She also likes it as the base for simple mixing.
If you’re hesitant to buy a bottle, don’t be. Because of its aging process, Madeira is considered somewhat indestructible.
“Everything that’s gone wrong to wine [has] happened to Madeira,” says Gamble. “There are no bad bottles.”