Often called “liquid gold” – because of its color and price – Madeira was the libation used by our forefathers to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Moreover, George Washington was reputed to have downed a pint of this purposely oxidized, fortified beverage daily. During the past 300 years, however, consumption of this colonial elixir has gone the way of tricornered hats and powdered wigs.
“We rarely have people buy Madeira other than for cooking,” says Dodd Farber, proprietor of Dodd’s Liquor City in Millwood, echoing other area retail shop owners and managers.
There are a number of historic reasons why, says Mannie Berk, a leading U.S. authority and award-winning author on the topic. Made since the 17th century on the lush Portuguese archipelago of the same name and fortified with alcohol to withstand the rigors of the sea journey to America, Madeira was hampered by a three-fold increase in import duty in 1800. Next, the grapes were infected with a fungus (Odium) in the 1850s and then by a plant louse (Phylloxera) in the 1870s, with an overall decrease in quality. Then came Prohibition, followed by a trend toward lower-alcohol wines.
On the up side, Berk and others closely involved in the Madeira trade note that adventurous U.S. consumers, many of whom seem to favor higher-alcohol content in their libations, are rediscovering the product with a jump in sales of more than 6 percent in the last year. But to increase this rush for the liquid gold, Berk strongly feels that American consumers need to understand the basics of this product and be open to tasting it.
Madeira is still made on the same Portuguese island as in the 1600s, from any of a number of grapes but primarily the Sercial, Verdelho, Boal, Malmsey and Tinta Negra Mole varietals. During fermentation, brandy is added to fortify the wine and then it’s “cooked,” by either heating the wine to a temperature of about 120 degrees Fahrenheit for a few days or preferably by exposure to the heat of the sun for a period of three to more than a hundred years. Generally, the final product contains about 20 percent alcohol and varying degrees of sweetness, depending on when the brandy was added to stop the fermentation of grape sugar into alcohol.
When labeled with the name of a particular grape varietal, such as Sercial or Malmsey, the wine must contain at least 85 percent of the juice of that grape and generally has a prescribed degree of sweetness. For example, Sercials are relatively dry, while Malmseys (Malvasas) are quite sweet, with Verdelho and Boal (Bual) intermediate in sweetness.
Once bottled, the wine should be stored in an upright position, because the high-alcohol content and generally long-storage periods can cause deterioration of the cork. Once opened, the wine can be stored in the bottle or in a lead-free decanter and will usually not diminish in bouquet and taste even after months. When serving Madeira, it should be at room temperature so as to present as much aroma as possible. While many use port-type glasses for serving, I find little difference in the effect of glassware on the wine’s aesthetics.
As to tasting, the following are brief descriptions of some of my favorites from recent samplings of Sercials,Verdelhos and Buals held at Felidia Restaurant in Manhattan, sponsored by the Wine Media Guild (a New York-based organization of professional wine communicators). Prices listed are typical retail for 750ml bottles.
1977 Blandy Bual ($135)
1968 Blandy Bual ($150)
Too sweet to match with most appetizer and main-course fare, these two wines show a deep bronze hue with a thick, honeyed bouquet and a taste of apricots and ripe pineapple. Try them with bread pudding or chocolaty desserts or as dessert on their own.
Nonvintage Rare Wine Company Charleston Sercial ($47)
An excellent choice as an aperitif or with a range of hors d’oeuvres, this wine shows a golden hue with a bouquet and taste of almonds and figs and a dry finish with a touch of acidity.
1912 D’Oliveira/Verdelho ($395)
Not for the faint-of-wallet, this spectacular golden-colored liquid shows an intense bouquet and moderately sweet taste of ripe peaches, pears and honey perfect to mate with paté and rich triple-crème cheeses.
1910 Barbeito Sercial ($350)
For those willing to pay the tariff, this wine is a step or two up from the Charleston Sercial. It exhibits a vivid caramel color, a heady bouquet of ripe apricots and plums and a dry, concentrated taste of ripe honeyed fruit that enhances the taste of summertime favorites like pasta primavera, cold, poached salmon and even barbecued chicken.