There’s a wine out there that you can’t kill. “Wait,” you say, “Kill a wine? Is that a thing?” It is. Try returning to an opened bottle of Tempranillo after it sits a few nights on the kitchen countertop. Alas, poor Spanish-red, to be unceremoniously washed down the drain, done in by time, that unrelenting nemesis of wine. Nothing but foul vinegar remains!
That’s wine. All of them will oxidize, i.e., slowly turn from something beautifully delicious into something that must be thrown out. But what about this indestructible wine? I’m glad you asked.
It’s Madeira, the now-forgotten, centuries old fortified wine wildly popular with aristocratic and bourgeoisie types of the 18th century. Jefferson and other Founding Fathers are known to have toasted the Declaration of Independence with Portugal’s finest.
Cultivated and produced on the archipelago of Madeira, approximately 400 miles off the coast of Morocco, this fortified wine is region specific. The islands were first discovered by a trio of Portuguese explorers in 1419. By the 17th century, vineyards were already being tended. Due to the scarcity of cultivatable land there exist, even today, a mere 400 hectares of viticulture, making this “dessert” wine an exceptionally low yield product.
Madeira is classified on a dry-to-sweet continuum, ranging from extra dry (49 grams to liter residual sugar) to sweet (100+ g/L RS) with three intermediate designations in between: dry; medium-dry; medium-sweet.
The key to Madeira’s immortality is the production method behind it. Unlike Port wine, that other Portuguese fortified wine which generally must be consumed within 60-ish days, Madeira is oxidized during production, a unique process of alternatively heating and cooling the wine while it ages (sometimes spending over a half-century in oak casks). This oxidation method works because Madeira grapes are harvested far earlier than those used in other wines, and thereby have higher acidity. The punch line? An opened bottle of Madeira will last indefinitely because oxygen exposure is a non-issue. Visit Madeira and you will see prominent displays of their fortified wines dating back to the 19th Century. You could still drink this stuff! Assuming you could afford it.
If you choose to take up Madeira as a hobby here in the 21st century, you’ll be ever the hipster. And because the production process has gone virtually unchanged for over three centuries, a taste of Madeira is like a taste of history. So you’ll kinda be like a hipster-historian.
However, the real reason to venture a dip into this oxidized-fortified-wine is its captivating flavors and aromas of orange peel, peach, hazelnut, walnut and toasted caramel, plus its full bodied, low tannins, lively acidity and non-cloying sweetness (even an extra-dry Madeira is still a dessert wine). Be sure to jump in before Madeiras move from hipster to back to mainstream.