The history of Madeira starts with the discovery of the island by João Gonçalves Zarco in 1418. Some people say that the history of Madeira started much earlier. They believe, although there is no archeological proof, that it was the remains of the lost Atlantis. It seems that the Phoenicians knew about the island, but whatever their knowledge was, it has been lost over time. In the 15th century Henry the Navigator promoted settlement of the island. The first to come were prisoners, but soon there was an established society on Madeira. Something the first settlers brought along was grapevines. Land for the growing of wine was always rare and had to be cultivated with great efforts. This was only possible with the help of slaves, mostly Guanches. They also build the irrigation-system, the levadas. This irrigation enabled the growing of sugarcane which brought great wealth to the island. The wine of Madeira was not fortified at first. It was just plain ordinary wine, but the colonists stopping over on Madeira to fill up their supplies, liked it.
And so, the new American colonies became a favourite trading partner for this wine. General Washington was a great friend of this wine; it is said that he drank a pint of it daily. His inauguration as president of the United States and the appointment of the city of Washington as the capital were celebrated with Madeira. So, it’s no surprise that the Americans celebrated their Declaration of Independence with a glass of Madeira. The legendary frigate Constitution was also baptized with Madeira. As a remembrance of this event, the Madeira vintage of 1802 has been named Constitution as well. While the European market remained unstable, the US was a solid importer of Madeira wines. Until the twentieth century Madeira played an important part in the social life of the upper class. It was especially favoured in cities such as Baltimore, Boston, Charleston, Philadelphia and Savannah where they celebrated with so-called ‘Madeira-parties’. At these events, you drank several vintages of Madeira to a light meal like terrapin-soup. In Silas Weir Mitchell’s famous book "A Madeira Party" the reader will find a very detailed and slightly ironic picture of such an event.
Old Map of Madeira
It was just by chance that the positive effect of the long voyage from Madeira to America was discovered. The travel and the heat had turned the wine into something completely different. The baked oxidized taste was to the like of a growing number of people. In the middle of the 18th century fortification began, due to overflowing stocks of wine during times of war. This ‘overflow’ wine was distilled and the resulting alcohol added to the Madeira wine. This procedure also enhanced the durability of the resulting wine. Later the estufagem, the heating of the wine, was invented as a substitute for the long and costly sea travels. From that point on, it was possible to produce Madeira in greater amounts for the growing market. The fortified wine became more and more en vogue. Many British merchants came to the island of Madeira and entered the wine trade. In the beginning of the 19th century, the trade with Madeira wine reached its peak.
Historic picture of an early estufa of Cossart Gordon, seen at the IVM
And then, within twenty years, two dramatic events hit the island and destroyed the whole wine production. At first Oidium infected the vines. Before the wine industry had recovered, the second plague Phylloxera hit the island. Only because of the foresight of some of the shippers did the wine industry survive. In the vineyards the European vines were grafted on phylloxera-resistent American roots. Oidium was battled with sulfur and coppernitrate. Many old vintages were still in cask and only because of those huge amounts of old pre-phylloxera wine could they enhance the quality of the later vintages by blending in the old vintages. Still, the quality went down over the following years. Many of the American vines began to grow free in the vineyards. The versatile Tinta Negra Mole was now being preferred to the difficult classical varieties. With the sinking quality and the increasing competition from other fortified wines the markets dwindled. Madeira Wine was no longer used for drinking only but found its way into the cooking pot, usually as an ingredient for sauces.
In 1913 most of the remaining shippers founded the Madeira Wine Association to fight the decline together. All the British shippers and most of the Portuguese shippers eventually entered this association. Today only seven exporting producers are left on the island.
But only after 1970 did quality take an upturn. To meet the standards of the European Community Portugal issued guidelines concerning the winemaking. In 1980, the Instituto do Vinho da Madeira (IVM) was founded which supervised the whole wine industry on Madeira from growing the wine to filling the bottles. All bottles therefore bear the "Selo de Garantia Madeira", which guarantees a minimum standard. The replanting of the classical grape varieties is also promoted and lower quality vines are cleared. Still, one has to remember that all those measures will take a long time to work. Because of the long production process, it will take at least a few decades to reach the old quality standard.
The export of bulk wine, a long standing problem for the quality standard, was finally ended in 2001. Since this date only island bottled Madeira wine is available. A little bulk wine is still exported, but this wine is mixed with salt and pepper, so that it can not be rebottled as cheap Madeira wine. The salt and pepper wine can only be used for Madeira wine sauce.
The European Community also wanted to improve the quality of Madeira wine and launched the POSEIMA initiative. Producers who mature wine in the traditional canteiro method (see making of) are financially supported with grants from EU. The wine has to stay in cask for a minimum time of 5 years.
POSEIMA wine at ABSL
Nevertheless Madeira Wine always had its friends. The exotic flair, the versatility, the different tastes and the easy storing made this a collectible for many wine lovers. Add the relatively cheap price for old vintages and the historic dimension of the wine and it’s easy to understand why. After the low alcohol trend of the early nineties took a turn toward the other direction again, Port, Madeira and even Sherry seem to have a brighter future ahead. More and more people seem to realize that watery Pinot Grigio just doesn't fit a good five-course meal. And you just can't meditate with thin wine! So look out for the Renaissance of Madeira!