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Madeira: Wine World Glory/ Patriotic July 4 Choice

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map of the Island of Madeira (courtesy Wiki Commons)

One of my single favorite types of wine comes from a volcanic island 400 miles off the coast of North Africa that has belonged to Portugal since its "discovery" by Europeans in the 1400s. It is a fortified wine that comes in a variety of styles -- from very dry to very sweet -- but that is always supported by lively acidity. Older versions are among the world's most complex wines, with very long finishes, that inevitably leave a big impact on a first-time taster. Apropos of our upcoming July 4th holiday, these wines were also, by far, the most popular wine in the American colonies.

I'm talking about the remarkably long lived, very special wines of Madeira.

The reason these wines were so popular amongst our forefathers had a lot to do with a colonial era tax loophole. During the reign of Charles II, the British adopted an act forbidding American colonists from importing goods from Europe in their own ships. They were instead required to bring in such goods only through Britain, paying British duties and shipping costs. The loophole was that the island of Madeira, located conveniently north of Africa for ships returning from the Far East or India via the Cape of Good Hope, was not included in the act's definition of "Europe."

Our tea-partying ancestors knew a good tax break when they saw one, so America's early love affair with one of the world's great wines was born.

Madeira is unusual not only because of where it's grown, and the grapes it's made of (traditionally very high acid white grapes capable of very long aging), but also because of how it is made. Early on they started fortifying it, so that it would survive the long boat trips to destinations throughout the world. When some of those ships came back from months on the high seas journeying to India and other distant tropical destinations, it was found that the remaining wine had gotten even better, as a result of the long period of heating, evaporation and further concentration it received in the warm holds of these ships sailing the tropics.

Madeira's winemakers learned to mimic these conditions in one of two ways -- slowly heating the wines by keeping newly fermented casks in the top floors of lodges on this warm island for a couple of years or more; or by raising temperatures on the new wines even more rapidly, for a period of at least three months, using heated tanks.

The first of these two processes is called the "canteiro" method, named for the support beams on which the heavy casks rest in these lodges. The second is called "estufagem," which takes its name from the tanks, or "estufas," in which the wines are heated. Only the lesser Madeiras, mainly meant for cooking, are still produced via estufagem. The favored method, and the only one used for fine vintage Madeiras, is the slow heating and cooling, over a period of years, by canteiro.

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barrels of Madeira heated via canteiro method in lodge at Artur de Barros e Sousa, Lda.

Either heating process caramelizes some of the grape sugar, which was stopped from turning into alcohol by being fortified before fermentation was complete, giving the wines their unique caramel and toffee type flavors. Those flavors, coupled with the high lemony and citrus acidity, and the additional complexity that results from letting the best Madeiras continue to slowly evaporate, concentrate and develop by leaving them in cask for a decade (or sometimes many decades, in the case of the finest vintage Madeiras), is what makes these wines a mind blowing, thoroughly delicious experience. No wonder they were the favorite wines of Ben Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson, the most famous wine connoisseur amongst our founding fathers, is known for his love of Bordeaux, Sauternes and white Hermitage, from the Northern Rhone, all regions he visited when he was Secretary of State, and from which he purchased wine when he was President. Throughout his life, however, what always dominated his wine collecting and cellar was Madeira, which he purchased both in bottles and in "pipes," which was the traditional name for small barrels wealthy patrons would buy and then bottle on their own.

Thomas Jefferson

When I look through Jefferson's meticulous records of his purchases, however, what I notice is that the Madeiras he bought were, at most, eight or nine years old. There are Madeiras available to us today, however, that are 10, 15 and 30 years old, or significantly older -- going back to the mid-1800s -- with all the additional complexity and concentration afforded by that long cask aging.

I recently had a chance to sample much of what's currently available from the five remaining major exporters of Madeira, at the annual Madeira trade tasting in San Francisco this month. I was also honored to be asked by the Madeira wine authority, the IVBAM, to deliver the "master class" for the trade that kicked off the annual tasting this year. So I'm still full of facts, figures and the lore of Madeira, which I'm including in the longer version of this post that appears here on my blog.

The most important thing to know in choosing a Madeira is that there were once four primary high acid white grapes from which Madeiras were made. In progressive order of sweetness, from very dry to usually quite sweet, those four grape varieties were Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malvasia (also known as "Malmsey").

Although those four varieties became nearly extinct on the island as a result of phylloxera in the late 1800s, when vineyards were replanted with the easier to grow and higher yielding red grape Tinta Negra Mole (the result of a cross between Pinot Noir and Grenache), along with American hybrids, the names of those "noble" white grape varieties were still used to designate the style of the wines subsequently made primarily from Tinta Negra Mole. Since 1993, however, wines made from Tinta Negra Mole can only use generic terms for sweetness levels -- like Seco (or dry) and Meio Doce (medium sweet). The names of the noble white grapes, enough of which have now been replanted to make up about 10 percent of the island's wine grapes, can only be used on a wine if at least 85 percent of it comes from those grapes.

Suffice it to say, if you haven't yet tried a Madeira, you definitely owe it to yourself. Since it was the wine that George Washington and the other authors of the Declaration of Independence used to toast the signing of that milestone message of freedom, why not join me in raising a glass or two of Madeira to our founding forefathers on this coming July 4?

When you buy your Madeira, look for one that is at least 10 years old. (Madeiras five-years-old and younger are fine for cooking, but don't give much feel for the complexity and depth of aged Madeira). Good values are available from Barbeito (try any of the Rare Wine Company Historic Series, made by Barbeito, in the style of Madeiras popular in particular colonial port cities, like Boston and Savannah); Broadbent; Henriques & Henriques (e.g., the Bual 10 Years Old or Verdelho 15 Years old); or Justino Henriques (try the 10 years old Reserve). For a bigger splurge, but truly amazing older vintage Madeiras, try D'Oliveiras (available from Rare Wine Co.).

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older vintage Madeiras

For even more recommendations and my detailed tasting notes, see my blog here.

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