Madeira is a fortified Portuguese wine made on the Madeira Islands, situated in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Africa. The wine is produced in a variety of styles ranging from dry which can be consumed on their own as an aperitif, to sweet wines usually consumed with dessert. The islands of Madeira have a long winemaking history dating back to the Age of Exploration when Madeira was a regular port of call for ships heading to the New World or East Indies.
To prevent the wine from spoiling, neutral grape spirit was added. On the long sea voyages, the wines would be exposed to excessive heat and movement which transformed the flavour of the wine as the wine producers of Madeira found out when an unsold shipment of wine returned to the islands after a round trip.
Today, Madeira is noted for its unique winemaking process which involves heating the wine up to temperatures as high as 60C for an extended period of time and deliberately exposing the wine to levels of oxidation.
By the 16th century a well-established wine industry was on the island. Near the end of the 20th century, producers started a renewed focus on quality, ripping out the hybrid vines and replanting with the noble grape varieties of Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malvasia. The workhorse varieties of Tinta Negra Mole and Complexa are still present, but hybrid grapes were officially banned in 1979. The terrain of the mountainous volcanic island is difficult to cultivate with vineyards planted on man-made terraces of red and basaltic bedrock. These terraces, known as 'poios' are very similar to the terraces of the Douro Valley.
Since 1993, Madeira labels indicate the level of sweetness as seco (dry), ‘meio seco’ (medium dry), ‘meio doce’ (medium sweet) and ‘doce’ (sweet). Finest - means aged for at least 3 years, Reserve - 5 yrs, Special Reserve - 10 yrs, Extra Reserve over 15 years, Colheita or Harvest - a single vintage but aged for a shorter period than true Vintage Madeira. Vintage or Frasquiera - aged for at least 20 years.