(n.) A fortified wine made on the Portuguese island of Madeira, located off the coast of Morocco. Production can be traced to at least the 16th century and the wines were popular around the world in the 17th and 18th centuries as the island served as one of the stops for ships headed out to colonies around the world. After discovering that the wines would spoil on these long voyages, producers began to fortify their wines with spirits. The heat and movement from the ships also added a distinct flavor to the wines, which would come to be known as “maderized,” and examples that had made a round-trip on the ships were especially prized. The advent of a phylloxera epidemic in the late 19th century, which caused a grape blight in Europe, and Prohibition in the United States, which stifled demand, crippled production and the wines fell out of favor. In the 2000s, the wine has found some renewed popularity among a certain set of trendsetting bartenders and sommeliers, who have begun to place quality aged versions on their lists and shelves.
Like port, madeira is made in a range of styles. Post-phylloxera, most of the island’s vineyards were replanted with American hybrid grape varieties, which now end up in cheaper and lower quality bottlings. Wines made with over 85 percent of the original noble grapes may bear a grape label, which correlates to an eponymous style: sercial is the driest and is commonly served as an aperitif; verdelho, comes in a medium-dry style and often has fruity aromatics; boal (or bual) is medium-sweet; malvasía (malmsey) is the sweetest.
Modern madeiras undergo an aging process that approximates the sea voyage that would give the wines their special burnt sugar character. The best are left to age naturally in casks in hot lofts, attics or outdoors in the sun (the canteiros method) for a minimum of two years; vintage madeiras can undergo this aging process for at least 20 years, with some notching upwards of 100 years. Lower quality versions are heated to 113 °F to 122 °F in stainless steel tanks for a minimum of three months (estufagem process) before being transferred to casks to age. There are five tiers of aging: Finest (at least 3 years in oak casks), Reserve (5 years), Special Reserve (10 years), Extra Reserve (15 years), and Vintage (made in one year from noble grape varieties). Vintage Madeira (those that bear a vintage date on the label) can age for decades, and it is not uncommon for bottles uncorked after a hundred or more years to still taste fresh on account of the wine’s high acidity levels.