The Making Of Madeira Wine

Old Casks at ABSL

The grapes are grown on steep terraces all over the island. At the north coast and in the Camara do Lobos area there are some larger vineyards, but usually they are very small and sometimes rather remote. At Camara do Lobos Henriques & Henriques built a relatively large vineyard, the size of ten hectares with the help of bulldozers. This vineyard is accessible for modern machines. It is one of only two such areas in the moment, but the Madeira Wine Company is also planning for a big vineyard. About 4500 growers cultivate grapes on the island, most of them in the Câmara de Lobos area. Altogether some 2000 hectares are suitable for wine-growing, but only 600 are planted with vines, since the cultivation of bananas is much more rewarding. Most wine growers also grow vegetables for themselves or for the local market between the vines. This slows the growing of the grapes which become more aromatic and more concentrated. The grapes are mostly grown in the pergola-style, low in height and covered with a roof of their own leaves. This protects the grapes from the strong winds and the sometimes dramatic changes in temperature. The distance between the vines is two to three yards. The plants are usually irrigated with water from the levadas. The different varieties are grown in different heights above sea level. Boal and Malvasia are best grown in lower altitudes, whereas Verdelho and Sercial like the higher altitudes. The versatile and robust Tinta Negra Mole imitates the other varieties depending on the altitude it is grown at and depending on the processing.

The vintage of 2003, seen at ABSL

The harvest is mostly done manually. Malvasia is the first, the dry varieties Verdelho and Sercial go last. This sounds like a paradox, but since the aromas are not backed up by sweetness, these grapes simply have to get as much sun as possible for the development of their aromas. The grapes are then carried up to the next street, sometimes hundreds of yards, and are collected on small trucks. Then they go to the winepress, where the grapes are crushed and pressed. Until into the late 1970’s this used to be done with feet and wooden presses. One lagar is still featured in the museum of the Madeira Wine Company. The fermented juice used to then be carried by the boracheiros in goatskins containing up to 70 liters or 15 gallons to the winecellar downhill. Such a load was of course tough to carry and made the men thirsty. And so there are many stories of boracheiros reaching the cellar with empty skins but heavily drunk. Today the processing and cellaring is done at the location of the press. The fermenting of the must is stopped with brandy; the time of adding the brandy depending on the grape variety. The must from the Malvasia grape gets the brandy right at the beginning of fermentation, Boal and Verdelho around the fourth day, and Sercial about a month after the fermentation started. In this way the resulting wine will be sweet or dry, depending on when the fermentation of the grape's sugar was stopped, but all the wines will have high alcohol content. The adding of brandy is known as fortification.

Old Casks at ABSL

The fortified young wine is then transferred to the estufa. In the simplest version, this is a large container, usually stainless steel, with a pipe system in it. The pipes circulate hot water in them and so heat the wine over several days to a temperature of about 50 degrees Celsius or 120 degrees Fahrenheit. This final temperature is then kept for some weeks or months. Since the heating in this way is rather fast, some of the wine's sugar will turn to caramel. The wine will then feature the typical burnt taste of the lower qualities of Madeira wine. The better qualities of Madeira are put into large wooden casks, standing in a heated room. The best wines and all the vintages are treated with the Canteiro method. The casks with the young fortified wine are transferred to the roof, where they will be exposed to the sun's heat. The beam carrying the casks is called canteiro, giving this method it's name. As an example the building of Henriques & Henriques in Camara do Lobos has a huge window front to the south to get as much heat in as possible. Wines treated with the Canteiro method do not display so much caramel, but rather have a fresh fruity taste. Once the wine is in the estufa or cask, the Madeira Wine Institute will impose a seal on the container and register it's contents.

Estufa, being heated to 50 degrees Celsius, seen at Vinhos Justino Henriques Filhos Lda.

When the heating is finished, the wine in the estufa is allowed to cool and will then be transferred into wooden casks to be stored for years to come. Depending on the intended use, this can be three to fifteen years. There is always some air in the casks and so the wine completely oxidizes, i.e. the organic contents of the wine react with the air's oxygen and thereby change the color, the smell and the taste of the wine. Finally the wine goes into the blend. The cellarmaster tries to keep the characteristic taste of the shippers wine by blending different wines together. The normal everyday Madeira wine is such a blend, the age given on the label indicating the youngest wine in the blend. Blended wine with the name of a grape variety on the label must contain at least 85% of this grape. The other 15% can be filled up with other varieties, usually Tinta Negra Mole.

Old Casks at ABSL

The very good wines are treated in a different way, they can become Vintage Madeiras. This means that they will stay in cask for a minimum of twenty years, most of them much longer, up to hundred years and more. In this time the sun's heat leads to further concentration and oxidation. Before over-concentration makes the wine undrinkable it will be transferred to glass demi-johns containing 22 liters or 5 gallons of wine. Those demi-johns are then sealed airtight which stops further development of the wine and enables long-time storing. In earlier times, this was the way for the Madeira lover to store its wine in large quantities. Finally the wine is bottled and will then rest another two years before it goes to the market.

Demijohns, seen in the wine museum of the Instituto do Vinho da Madeira

Madeira wine, because of the complete oxidation, is very robust and will keep for years to come, even centuries. Once a bottle is opened, the contents will also keep at least for weeks or months. So you can take your time and slowly sip on history without having to worry about the wine getting bad.