with Amy Reiley
I was putting the final touches on this month’s column when I was struck by a bolt of lightning.
I was invited to a tasting of Madeira wines. I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I didn’t expect was that the lineup would inspire me to scrap my column entirely and start again.
Madeira wines are a bit of a mystery to most Americans. Sure most of us are familiar with the term, “Madeira wine,” and many tend to lump it into a category with Port. That wouldn’t be incorrect, exactly. Both are bold, fortified wines produced by the Portuguese. And many Ports as well as many Madeiras are delicious with chocolate and/or cheese. But that’s about where the similarity ends.
To better understand Madeira you have to start with its incredibly unique geography. After my tasting, the first thing I did was look up the exact location of Madeira (which is the name of the island as well as the style of wine produced in this geographic region). Madeira is a pinprick of a volcanic island standing solitarily in the Atlantic, over 1,000 miles from mainland Portugal. (It isn’t actually entirely alone. The island is part of the Archipelago of Madeira, which looks like a smattering of bread crumbs off the coast of Morocco on your average map.) And because it is actually off the coast of Africa, it is much closer to the equator than most popular wine growing regions.
But not only is Madeira’s geography unique, its tradition of winemaking also sets it apart from anything else in the world. It is estimated that in the 1400’s, only 25 years after Madeira was colonized, the islanders began exporting wine. However, the process of winemaking that marks the Madeira style of wine known today wasn’t invented until the 1700’s.
The wines of Madeira, after they’re fortified, are aged through a process of slow oxidation. The wines are classified by their level of sweetness. Levels include Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Rich or Rich. If the wine is made from the Sercial grape, the wine will be Dry. If it is made from Verdelho, it’s Medium Dry. For the Boal grape, it’s Medium Rich and wines made from Malmsey are Rich. If you prefer a Madeira as an aperitif or with a savory meal, you might want to explore the Dry wines. And if you’re one of those people who love wine and chocolate, you should get to know Rich Madeira wines. For the rest of us, I recommend keeping one bottle in each style on hand at all times.
Now, back to the reason I completely changed my column to share Madeira wines with you RIGHT NOW. Madeira is utterly perfect for the Holiday season. The wines echo the flavors of the season that pull on your emotions. There are notes of bright citrus, the warmth of baking spices, roasted nuts, golden raisins, vanilla and caramel. These are the kinds of wines to instantly get you in the spirit of the season. So to get you started, here are four of the wines from the tasting that helped inspire this column:
Henriques & Henriques
Single Harvest Sercial 2001
What’s most remarkable about this wine is its freshness. It is delightfully bright and fruity with citrus, especially orange oil, from the aromas to the finish. Although I’m recommending these wines for the holidays, this is one you could easily enjoy year-round.
The Rare Wine Co. Historic Series Madeira
New York Malmsey Special Reserve
If you’re looking to lose yourself in a big, rich wine, this is the one for you. Its aromas are as enticing as a vanilla bean crème brulee and in the mouth it has weight, body, oranges and golden raisins. The best part is the finish with a hint of milk chocolate.
10 Year Malmsey
This is the wine for drinkers who love texture. It is thick and rich with a seductively syrupy mouthfeel. Its flavors offer citrus with deliciously intriguing baking spice and just a touch of black pepper on the lingering finish.
This wine is Christmas dinner in a bottle. Big, complex and spicy, it offers layers of vanilla and baking spice in the aromas and on the palate. As it rolls across the tongue it leaves the impression of a delicious baked something, like brioche studded with dried orange and raisins.
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