With mince pies and Christmas cake looming, it's time to crack open a bottle of Madeira, writes Christine Austin

‘Have a mince pie’, I said to the gathering of neighbours clustered around my kitchen table as we discussed local issues ‘and would you like to try this?’ I poured small amounts of a dark, rich liquid into their glasses. No one objected but some did smell it carefully as if I was trying to poison them.

I had poured them a terrific value Madeira, full of dark raisiny fruit, definitely sweet but because it was full of the flavours of dried orange peel, walnuts, figs and a distinct impression of cinnamon spice, it was not overwhelmingly so. The reaction was immediate. One neighbour went through his whole ‘have some Madeira m’dear’ routine while the others just sat there quietly, sipping carefully. The proof was evident when I cleared up the glasses. There were no mince pies left and all the glasses were empty. Madeira had been a new experience but they liked it.

Madeira sits on the fortified shelves of the supermarket, so once you have bought a bottle of sherry for granny and some port to go with the cheese, you have probably spent enough. But I urge you to go find a bottle of Madeira, take it home and open it for you and your guests. Don’t make a big thing of bringing it out. Everyone around the table will probably do exactly the same as my neighbours and look at it with suspicion. Just pour it alongside mince pies, rich fruitcake, a chocolate pudding or a cheeseboard and wait for the reaction – if any.

Madeira used to be the wine that sat on sideboards for years, the bottle getting dustier year on year. Now Madeira has been revamped. The vineyards are being cared for in a more organised way, the grape varieties are being targeted to the correct wines, and the whole complicated process of making Madeira is being improved. There are new relatively low-cost Madeiras on the shelves that will act as an introduction to this fascinating wine.

Harvest on Madeira

Madeira wine owes its existence to its position 400 miles off the coast of Morocco and the favourable trade wines and deep sheltered harbour of its capital Funchal. It was an ideal stopping point for ships heading west to America and south to Africa. The ships loaded up with food and the local wine, and with the prospect their wines spending several months at sea, merchants on the island added a bucket of brandy to each cask to stabilise it. Ships travelling the trade route to India headed south through the tropics to the icy waters of the Cape, then back across the equator before reaching their market. Despite the double heating and cooling of the wine as it travelled around the globe, it was found that the wine tasted better on arrival that it did when it set out.

This started the most bizarre period in any wine’s life when casks of Madeira wine were sent on long journeys to aid maturation. Wines which had made a voyage, called Vinho da Roda were sold with the name of the ship they had travelled on to authenticate the quality of the wine, and those that had made a return trip to India before being shipped to the UK or America were especially prized. Eventually someone had the bright idea of leaving the wine in one place and maturing it in conditions which mimicked the slow rise and fall in temperature experienced by the wine on a long journey.

Those heated lodges are still there in Funchal – several stories high and each floor slightly hotter as you climb the stairs. Wine starts its cask ageing process at the top and is gradually brought down the levels as time goes by. The longer a wine is intended to be kept, the slower and cooler the maturation process. Wines for early drinking are often heated in tanks which are a lot less romatic than casks and a lot less expensive, but still the quality is good.

The key features of Madeira are its stability and the styles it comes in.

Once the wine has been through the ageing process it is shelf stable for months, possibly years, although it will tend to lose its top-notes so don’t wait for the bottle to get dusty. Buy, open and enjoy before springtime to get the best flavours.

Madeira comes in four distinct styles. Sercial is the driest, and they climb in sweetness through Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey. You need to drink the Sercial versions chilled as an aperitif and the richer ones after dinner – but frankly, anytime you light a fire in the grate or turn the central heating on, that is the perfect time to drink Madeira.

Here are a few to try.

Henriques and Henriques 3-year old Full Rich Madeira, Majestic 50cl £11.99 down to £9.99 on a mix six deal

This was the Madeira that my neighbours lapped up with enthisiasm. It is a great value introduction to this gorgeous wine. Try it with mince pies or chocolate puds.

Blandy’s Alvada 5-year old Rich Madeira, Waitrose 50cl £13.49

A blend of Malmsey and Bual makes this just a touch less rich, with savoury apricot notes and a clean streak of freshness on the palate. It is the best choice to go with fruit cake. If you are near Halifax call in to The Halifax Wine Co. who are selling this for £11.95.

Justino’s 10 year old Madeira Malvasia, Marks and Spencer £27

Aged in the traditional cask system this is a glorious wine, with marmalade, toffee, figs, chocolate and coffee notes on the palate. Sip alongside cheese.

Barbeito Sercial Old Reserve, Roberts and Speight £29.99

A drier style of Madeira, with citrus peel, hazelnuts and a light dusting of ginger and cinnamon on the palate. Balanced with linear acidity, this is an aperitif style to be served with charcuterie and savoury canapés.

Blandy’s 20-year-old Terrantez Madeira, Halifax Wine Co., £49.50

The traditional Terrantez grape is now extremely rare on the island but it still produces some of the best Madeiras. This has the dryness of Sercial with the spice and nutty complexity of Bual. Time for Madeira cake, a bowl of nuts and the afternoon movie.

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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