Most Americans don’t know that Madeira (pronounced ma-DIE-ra in Portuguese; we’ve been wrong all these years) is a Portuguese island, and if they have heard of the wine, they often believe that it is a version of port. But the wine is stand-alone in its recipe and production. In the 500-plus years that madeira has been produced, it has inspired plenty of cerebral dalliances, for walking a line between the subtle and the outrageous, its dark cellars in the tropics, and its ability to last longer than any of us will. But it’s also infinitely satisfying in all the ways the palate wants: sweet and densely soothing, with a spine of acidity that calls us to finish the glass.
On madeira, a grapevine can produce 8 kilograms of fruit (in other wine regions, it’s closer to 3). Here, the vines are cultivated for maximum production largely because land space is tight—and growers are paid by weight. There are around 3,000 grape growers on Madeira (who, on average, tend to around one-third of an acre of vines), who sell to the eight producers of madeira that remain on the island. Most buy from at least 100 growers. Vines are grown on tall pergolas to allow good airflow, necessary in the summer’s heat and humidity. The majority of vineyards, concentrated along the coasts, are planted with the red tinta negra grape, but certain areas are best for the coveted white grapes that give the different varieties their name: sercial, verdelho, bual, and malvasia.
That this place would produce unparalleled bottles is hard enough to fathom, but the process used to make the wines is divergent too: They’re not only fortified—in which a neutral grape spirit is added after fermentation to prolong the shelf life—they’re also intentionally heated and oxidized, both processes that most winemakers vehemently avoid. The best madeiras are left to age in-barrel for 20-plus years.