The lush, spectacular island of Madeira lies way out in the Atlantic Ocean, 600km west of the coast of Morocco.
It was discovered at the very beginnings of a Golden Age of Portuguese exploration in 1419 by Joao Gonçalves Zarco, whose his ships were blown off course to beautiful, densely wooded island. They named it ‘Madeira’ — the Portuguese for wood. Because of its sub-tropical climate and fertile, volcanic soil, the island was perfect for growing vines. And not long afterwards, a distinctive local wine, also called Madeira, began to flourish.
The unique character of Madeira wine also came about by accident. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the wine was exported on long sea voyages to far-flung European colonies like the Caribbean and the Americas. Grape brandy was added to slow fermentation, and the barrels warmed in the ships’ holds, which could reach considerable temperatures passing through the Tropics.
By the time the fortified wine reached its destination, the taste and bouquet had changed radically. At first, people were unsure, but then they developed a taste for it. Before long, barrels were sent halfway around the world purely to enrich and improve the flavour. Demand for this special vinho do roda (round trip wine) was huge, and its
fame spread quickly.
After the great sea voyages died out, Madeira producers searched for a way to create the same effect more efficiently. At first, they simply exposed wine to the sun by building large storehouses with glass roofs – hence vinho do sol (sun wine). Then they developed a more sophisticated method of warming the wine in estufas (stoves). Using pipes to circulate warm water, the wine is gently heated in stainless-steel vats to temperatures of 45°C. This process lasts three months, and is called estufagem.
For premium wines – canteiro – another technique is used. Here, the casks are placed on wooden beams (called canteiros) in the warm eaves of wine lodges.
The wine gently ages and develops its unique character over many years.