Like stilettos, skinny jeans, and high-protein diets, wines go in and out of fashion. Eulogized one moment by a respected critic, a bottle, varietal, or region will often soar in popularity so that the industry must scramble to keep up with demand. Out of the spot light, anther wine will just as frequently lie untouched, collecting dust in a corner. Deservedly or not, this bottle has no buzz, no clamoring paparazzi or tweeting masses to sing its praise. Even though it may be a genuinely good wine, this forlorn tipple might wait decades until rediscovery by a new, unprejudiced generation. I believe that Madeira is one such viticultural victim. And I also think, for myriad reasons, it is due for a second coming.
Firstly, of the so-called ‘sweet wine’ category, Madeira is unique. Aged in a hot solera system, Madeira is the only wine that is subjected to significant heat and ‘cooked’ in the winemaking process. This gives it deep caramel-rich and nougat laden notes and contributes to the wine’s phenomenal ability to age. In fact, Madeira’s requires up to fifty years maturation. Furthermore, due to its high level of acidity and cask aging—which oxidizes the wine—a good specimen of its class retains stunning brightness and life, even when it is 150 years old.
Secondly, these factors of wine-making also make Madeira an eminently user-friendly wine. Once a bottle is uncorked, it can be enjoyed for months—a virtue indeed for a sweet wine! Buy a bottle of Madeira now and enjoy it all winter long.
Thirdly, Madeira deserves a place on the American table since the history of this wine is inexorably linked to our history. The island of Madeira is located west of Morocco and was first settled by the Portuguese in the early 1400s. They lost no time in establishing vineyards and by the 1600s—while European settlement of America was still in its infancy—wine making was well established on Madeira. In 1665 British authorities banned the importation of products made or grown in Europe, unless shipped on British vessels from British ports. Goods from Madeira, however, were specifically exempted and British merchants on the island took full advantage, establishing close ties with merchants down the length of the Eastern seaboard. A steady trade developed in which wine from Madeira was traded for such American products as indigo, corn, and cotton. This trade continued unabated until the 1800s, apart from a brief interruption during the American Revolution. For two hundred years, Madeira was the wine of choice for the elite in America.
With the current revival of American bourbons, ryes, and bitters, not to mention our adoration for evoking Prohibition era aesthetics, Madeira is ripe for a renaissance. It is increasingly being sipped at table, shaken into cocktails, and used in the kitchen (try a splash with sautéed wild mushrooms—gorgeous). With a flavor profile that includes toasted almonds and hazelnuts, butterscotch and burnt caramel, turrón, nougat, cocoa and coffee, it is also startlingly bright, leaving the palate clean and fresh—the perfect finale to a good meal.
Within our diverse selection of Madeiras, some of my favorites are The Rare Wine Company’s Historic Series which highlights the four Madeira varietals and four major historical import cities. From driest to sweetest we have Charleston Sercial, Savannah Verdelho, Boston Bual, and New York Malmsy ($50). We also carry the limited edition New Orleans Special Reserve. Inspired by a now extinct 19th century varietal, this wine relies on a blend of classic Madeira grapes to recreate the rich yet dry style of the historical Terrantez ($75). Whether you swoon for a dry, iridescent Sercial or if Malmsy’s more your style, we got many fantastic bottles in stock.
- Rachel Adams