A wine lover’s guide to Madeira

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Holidays to Madeira have many attractions – good weather, beautiful countryside and lovely beaches.

And in between relaxing on the sand in the sunshine or walking alongside the levadas in the mountains, you’ll no doubt want to sample some of the local cuisine.

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Food-wise, this means plenty of fresh fish, meat fried with garlic, and soups served with bread – dishes to tempt all tastes buds. Drink-wise, while you’ll be able to order standard beverages such as Coca-Cola and the local Coral Lager, if you’re a wine lover, this is where the island really comes into its own.

That’s because Madeira, of course, is the home of Madeira wine – although that’s not the case for Madeira cake, which is actually British! This fortified beverage comes in several varieties and is drunk as both an aperitif before dinner and as an a digestif after dinner with a dessert.

Wine tours

Madeira wine has a fascinating history and those who have booked accommodation in Funchal can explore it in detail at the Old Blandy Wine Lodge, which was converted from a 17th century annex to a Franciscan monastery in the mid-1800s by Charles Ridpath Blandy.

The wine lodge is still used today to store all the premium wines during their natural ageing process, and some of the casks hold vintages dating back to the last century. Madeira wine’s longevity is one of its unique properties, with bottles retaining their flavour for some time even after opening.

This robustness is a by-product of the way Madeira wine is made – a process you’ll learn about in detail on your trip to the wine lodge.

History

Much like Champagne, Madeira wine is an accidental invention. Originally, the locals created regular wines for the passing ships heading for the New World and the East Indies. To help the wines survive the long journey, they add a little spirit to boost the alcohol content and off they went.

As they passed through the tropics, the wine heated up, giving it a mellow, burnt flavour. This was only discovered by the islanders when an unsold shipment returned to port and they named this soon to be popular drink vinho da roda (wine that has made the round trip).

Of course, today it would be far too much effort to have a fleet of tall ships sailing around with cargoes of wine, so the tropical effect of the original voyages is now artificially recreated using one of three methods, ranging from quick (low quality) to long (high quality): heating in concrete tanks for 90 days; warming by a sauna-like process for up to a year; or by the canteiro method, using only the heat of the sun over tens of years.

There are also four main grape varieties used for Madeira production (from sweetest to driest): Malvasia, Bual, Verdelho and Sercial.

Shopping for wine

So if you’re looking to buy a good wine to take back home with you, decide first on the type of grape you’d prefer and then look out for the age of the wine on the label. Henriques & Henriques is considered one of the best brands.

Even if you’re not normally a fan of wine, Madeira wine has a totally unique taste, so make sure you try it at least once on your trip – you never know, you might love it!