Imperishable Wine: The Tempered Virtues of Madeira

by Corby Kummer

I LIKE SWEET wines. In this my taste corresponds to that of the ever-increasing numbers of Americans who are buying dessert wines. They have discovered a rich variety of flavors that can either accompany dessert or take its place, in wines that contain half the alcohol of liqueur. They also frequently choose to forgo any other wine with dinner and save their alcohol for after the main part of the meal—which is where I part company with them.

In last December’s Atlantic I wrote about port. Lately I have been exploring Madeira, another fortified wine that is far less well known than port or sherry as an apertif or after-dinner wine and also one much better suited to pairing with a variety of first courses and desserts. Too, its aftereffects seem less pronounced than those of port. If people know Madeira at all, it is as an ingredient in sauces, stuffings, or vegetable dishes—a cooking wine that isn’t very pleasant to drink—or as the subject of the genteelly lecherous “Have Some Madeira, M’Dear,” written by the English team of Flanders and Swann, whose At the Drop of a Hat revues were popular in the late fifties and the sixties. Neither image of Madeira is a true one.

The California product sold as Madeira has an offensive, insistent odor, like winy prune juice spilled on a counter and left in the sun. Real Madeira, from the island 400 miles west of Morocco, is in fact heated before it is bottled—strange for a wine—but it has a fresh, lively nose. That very unusual heating is related to the second misimpression—that Madeira, like port, is an English taste. Madeira was made great by its travels to America, and was uniquely appreciated by Americans, including the framers of the Constitution. It is said that Madeira was used to toast the Declaration of Independence.

Madeira won the hearts of Colonial Americans by default, because an English royal decree of 1665 barred the export of European goods to the colonies except through British ports and on British ships—meaning that virtually all wines were highly taxed. But the Portuguese “province” of Madeira (today the island is an autonomous region of Portugal) was allowed to trade directly with the American Colonies and British holdings in the Caribbean, because England’s King Charles II was married to the Portuguese infanta. Its wine thus became standard in America.

By accident, the shipping itself changed Madeira from a very good wine, comparable to many French reds, into a great one. Ships carrying Madeira bound for the colonies traveled an equatorial route to the Caribbean islands. The long exposure to heat would ordinarily be ruinous to wine, but buyers and shippers alike found that they actually preferred the baked Madeira to the raw. They liked it so much, in fact, that soon all Madeira was subjected to a hot sea voyage before it was sold. Wine shipped to and aged in America would travel back to England, where in the eighteenth century the best Madeira was called “American. Throughout the nineteenth century— by the beginning of which all Madeira was fortified so that it would keep longer—and even into the twentieth, shippers would send Madeira roundtrip along the Equator to India simply to bake it twice. This was just for the most demanding customers: winemakers had long ago learned how to heat the wine on the island to achieve the same effect.

This preference for cooked wine was not so peculiar. Heating sugar (and protein) changes and usually improves flavor. The flavor of caramelized sugar is what we enjoy in the burnt edges of grilled vegetables and in the crackling glaze of crème brûilUée. Harold McGee, in The Curious Cook, his always interesting book of essays, describes the hundreds of flavor compounds produced by the simple act of heating sugar, and says that ordinary ripening produces a good number of them in fruit. Many sweet wines, such as French sauterne and Italian Vin Santo (which Tuscan families heated and cooled as it aged by storing it under the eaves, long before Charles II and his decree led to the discovery that Madeira improves when heated), acquire depth from a slow drying of the grapes not quite to the raisin stage. The grapes for Madeira are not dried at all; they are made into wine almost as soon as they are picked. But the wine acquires a powerful charge of flavor with heating—done in casks or vats in sauna-like rooms that slowly reach a temperature of 113° Fahrenheit and then slowly cool. It’s easy to see why the French built sauces around Madeira, and why a small amount contributes so much to many recipes: the caramelized sugar is like that in a reduced stock or meat glaze, with the sweet-acid balance and fruit unique to a great wine.

Madeira remained popular here until Prohibition, which devastated an island economy that for more than two centuries had relied on American Madeira consumption. Madeira had just recovered from two blights—oidium, a mildew that struck in 1852, and phylloxera, a louse that wiped out most European vineyards and then appeared in Madeira in 1872. (This year phylloxera has plagued California vintners.) But Madeira never fully recovered from Prohibition. Nancy Peach, a representative of the Madeira Wine Company, a consortium of British Madeira houses, has visited the island and calls the industry a “mad marketing mess.” Port and sherry long ago surpassed Madeira in sales and esteem, and although Madeira is more expensive to produce than either one, it remains undervalued. Robert Finigan, in his Essentials of Wine, calls it “one of the most overlooked fine wines of the world.

Madeira is also usually called indestructible, because whatever damage people can do to other wines by improperly storing them in warm or humid places has already been done to Madeira. A simple airing of any Madeira for a day or two will generally bring it to exactly the state at which the shipper bottled it and meant it to be drunk, and it lasts virtually forever.

THE BEST Madeira you can usually find in a wine shop is called rainwater. Despite the pleasant name, rainwater is a thin, dull blend said to be named for the accidental entry of rain into unplugged cask bungholes; the softness of the wine pleased its eighteenth-century Virginia recipient. The blend no longer features rainwater, but neither does it feature any of the four “noble” grapes that produce the only Madeira worth drinking. (It’s fine for cooking, though; Blandy’s packages a comparatively full, sweet rainwater in little bottles that hold nearly a cup, for people who want to buy just enough wine for a recipe.) The four noble grapes define four quite different styles of Madeira, and you shouldn’t bother buying a bottle unless the grape variety is prominently displayed on the label.

Until very recently shippers have been able to use the name of one of the noble grapes to refer to the style, even if the principal component was an impostor called Tinta Negra Mole, a prolific “soft black” grape related to Pinot Noir which is said to mimic each of the four noble grapes when grown at the proper altitude. This is quite a trick, considering that the four varieties are not black but white, although the final wine is a caramel color. Tinta Negra Mole has its defenders, but I find it unmistakable, whatever the label says. Just when the wine should become interesting on the tongue, it dulls out, wiping away initial promise.

Fortunately, the European Community now requires any maker that names one of the four varieties on the label to make at least 85 percent of the wine from that grape. The rule became binding only this year (Portugal fully enters the EC next year), so beware of varietal names written small on older labels, which can mean “in the style of.”

The noble grapes produce honed wines, and none is sharper than Sercial, the driest of the four and the one grown highest on the island, where the grapes will develop the least sugar before being harvested. Further, the grapes are “fermented dry,” meaning that all their sugar is allowed to turn to alcohol before neutral grape spirits, which stop fermentation, are added. Anyone who likes fino or Dry Sack or other dry sherries will enjoy the astringent refinement of Sercial, which has a sherry-like aroma and leaves tastes of both caramel and lemon on the tongue. Like dry sherry, Sercial has classically been served with turtle and other clear soups, although it is equally good with salty appetizers such as olives and prosciutto.

Verdelho is the next driest. I wasn’t captivated by either of the Verdelhos I tasted recently, because I found them verging on the butterscotch and toffee of fuller styles of Madeira but lacking the edge of Sercial. Verdelho would go well with a winter soup, especially one with a ham bone and lentils, but of the four it seems the least irreplaceable.

Bual is where Madeira begins to show its greatness. Some believe, very plausibly, that Bual is the finest of all Madeiras. It most clearly demonstrates the “thrilling balance of sweetness and acidity” in Madeira which the writer Barbara Ensrud describes in her Wine With Food. I can’t imagine tiring of Bual, because it provides a constant tension between citrus and a head-filling sweetness, with neither ever gaining the upper hand. I was lucky enough to taste a 1920 Blandy’s Bual, which smelled faintly of coffee and was superb, with a broad but focused range of flavors. I would happily renounce all other Madeira to be assured a constant supply of that 1920 Bual. A bottle costs about $150—quite reasonable considering how notable and unusual the wine is and the fact that it is usually drunk one modest glass at a time, and especially reasonable by comparison with vintage port. If you can’t find a range of Madeiras at your local wine shop, you can call Bart Broadbent, who distributes the products of the Madeira Wine Company; the number is 415-331-7656.

Bual best illustrates why Madeira is so well suited to food: it cleanses and refreshes the palate, as wines meant to be drunk with food always do but sweet wines generally don’t. David Rosengarten and Joshua Wesson, who write the newsletter Wine & Food Companion, think that Bual and freshlyroasted almonds are a great match; Nancy Peach would like to pair it with pineapple upside-down cake. Their suggested matches highlight the versatility of Bual, a refined wine with clear structure which can be served as an aperitif or with dessert. I think that its bracing sweetness is better suited to dessert.

MALMSEY IS the sweetest and lushest Madeira, with the weight of port in the mouth and enough heft almost to banish thoughts of food pairings. In the odd language of Madeira, Malmsey is “superlative rich,” Bual “medium rich,” Verdelho “half dry,” and Sercial “dry.” This unedifying terminology is reminiscent of “super-colossal” olives, and on a label should be suspected of camouflaging the actual grape used. “Malmsey” is itself a corruption of “Monemvasia,” the town in the Peloponnesus where the grape variety originated; other members of the same family include the Italian Malvasia and the French Malvoisie. Amazingly, even the velvety Malmsey leaves a slight acidity rather than sweetness in the mouth. The palate-covering richness but cleansing acidity of Malmsey leads to its frequent pairing with dense desserts like dark-chocolate cake and chocolate truffles. Barbara Ensrud, who prefers Malmsey alone, says nonetheless that it is “absolutely stunning with plain, un-iced angel food cake.”

Although I’m less taken with Malmsey on its own than Bual on its own (and Bual lends itself to more kinds of food), I did admire a Miles ten-yearold Malmsey, with a toffee sweetness and a lightly acid finish. like all port except vintage port, all Madeira is blended. Current marketing strategy seems to involve naming blends for the youngest wines in them; the youngest permitted to be sold using noble grapes is five years old. I found Cossart’s fiveyear-old Malmsey overpoweringly sweet, like cough medicine, and Blandy’s fifteen-year-old Malmsey less interesting than its ten-year-old. (These are two of a number of Englishowned houses on the island; as a rule the Portuguese Madeira houses concentrate on Sercial and Verdelho, and the English on Bual and Malmsey, although they all make each style.) A ten-year-old Malmsey is the best introduction for anyone who wants to know why Madeira holds its own against port.

Even if I favor Bual, only Malmsey is suited to the pairing that is dearest to my heart, and one I never expected would work brilliantly: with espresso. Italians have long “corrected” espresso by adding grappa and other distilled liqueurs, whose acerbic force makes each liquid even more potent. The big block of flavor in Malmsey brings out the best coffee flavors in espresso, which in turn makes Malmsey seem a livelier, more complex wine. And at the end a delicious, reviving acidity lingers in the mouth. If you’ve been committing the sin of dropping a lemon peel into a cup of espresso, try a shot of Malmsey instead.