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Magical Madeira

Madeira may not be as widely known as some of the other great fortified wines of the world. Still, it should be—there's simply no other wine on the planet that can age as brilliantly as Madeira, yet that's also so utterly delicious in its youth. Here's everything you need to know about Madeira.

What is Madeira wine?

Madeira is a fortified wine produced in the Portuguese islands of the Maderia. Interestingly, those islands are closer to Africa than they are to the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. They're among the most age-worthy, delicious fortified wines in the world, and because they're produced in a range of styles, and from a number of different grape varieties, it's easy to find a Madeira wine to suit practically any and every palate.

Where does Madeira wine come from?

Madeira Island, which is located in the Atlantic Ocean between the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa, is the source of Madeira wine.

How is Madeira wine made?

Despite all the options among Madeira wine brands, there is one primary method—with three sub-techniques—for the production of Madeira. Grapes are harvested, crushed, and then fermented. Wines that will ultimately become sweet Madeira are typically fermented in the presence of its skins, whereas wine for more dry styles of Madeira are usually fermented without them. Fermentation is stopped at a particular point, based on how much of the residual sugar remaining in the partially fermented grape juice they want to leave, by the addition of grape spirit or grape brandy. This increases the alcohol and kills off the yeast, which stops fermentation, leaving whatever level of natural sweetness the producer desires. From there, the wine undergoes a heating process that mimics the heating and cooling that the original Madeira wines went through on long sea voyages. There are three main methods of heating the wine—mechanically, with passive heat in the heating room, or natural, whereby the sun does all the work. Sun-aged Madeira wines can often possess the ability to age gracefully for over a century, and even today, it's possible to drink Madeira wine from vintages before, say, Abraham Lincoln's presidency.

What's the difference between Madeira wine vs. Port?

Madeira wine vs. Port is one of the great, age-old questions that fans of both wines ponder frequently and passionately. The answer is that both are great and have their own distinct merits, but they are produced in different ways. Both Madeira and Port are Portuguese fortified wines, but whereas Madeira is grown on the island of Madeira and exposed to a heating process, port is produced in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal, aged in the city of Porto or Vila Nova da Gaia, and not heated.

What are popular brands of Madeira wine?

Blandy's Madeira is a perennial favorite, as are Henriques & Henriques, Justino's, Barbeito, D'Oliveiras, and the Rare Wine Company. Within each brand, it's worth looking for everything from aperitif-perfect Rainwater Madeira and lighter Sercial and Verdelho Madeiras, to sweeter, richer bottlings of Bual and Malvasia.

What is Madeira wine used for?

Madeira wine is used for drinking on its own, as an aperitif or digestif, pairing with food, or cooking. The best Madeira wine for cooking is a matter of personal preference, as is your preference for drinking. You can buy Madeira cooking wine, but the non-cooking-specific bottles are usually best. Taste as wide a range as possible before making a final determination.

What is the good substitute for Madeira wine?

As far as finding a Madeira wine substitute, some people like using Colheita (or single-vintage) Tawny Port or classic Tawny Port instead. Others find enough in common between Madeira and Sherry to use them interchangeably, though some argue that they don't have quite enough in common to be swapped out with one another.

Is Madeira wine red or white?

Madeira can be made from red grapes (Negra Mole, which is the most popular one) or white (Malvasia, Bual, Verdelho, and Sercial). Bastardo, Moscatel, and Terrantez are also used for making Madeira.

Should Madeira wine be refrigerated?

The Madeira wine alcohol content, which typically falls between 18% and 20% by volume, means that it is relatively shelf-stable once it's been opened. Still, dryer styles of Madeira may retain a bit more freshness if they are refrigerated after they've been opened.

How do you serve Madeira wine?

Madeira wine is typically served in wine glasses similar in style to those used for Port or Sherry, with shorter stems and smaller bowls into which the liquid is poured. Generally, drier styles of Madeira are best enjoyed with a bit of a chill, and sweeter ones express themselves best, in general, at closer to room temperature. Just be careful—serving sweeter Madeira wines too warm will make them taste overripe or even stewed, and allow the alcohol to play too prominent a role, making each sip less balanced than it should be.

Browse our full selection of Madeira wine online or check out our selection of highly-rated Madeira wine for a great new Madeira wine to try this week!