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Discover Madeira Wine: The History of Madeira Wine from the Isle of Madeira, Portugal:

Updated on February 24, 2019
Gabriel Wilson profile image

Gabriel lives with her family on the Island of Madeira, where a warm climate provides the perfect environment to enjoy the outdoor life.

A Typical Ship That Would Have Carried Wooden Barrels of Madeira Wine

Santa Catharina Ship
Santa Catharina Ship | Source

The Discovery

For centuries there has been an exotic sabor surrounding Madeira Wine. From the good old days of exploration when passing sailors stopped to load the deck of their ships with barrels of fortified wine to sell on their travels, to today's tourists who eagerly fill their suitcases with the very same fortified wine to bestow as holiday gifts to family and friends.

It was in the 17 century that Madeira Wine was first discovered. A voyage with a shipment of wines returned to the Island. Having crossed the equator, the wine aboard had experienced extensive heat and cold. Legend tells of a barrel of wine left forgotten in a corner of the ship. On it's discovery by a meagre sailor, the wine was thought to be surely spoiled and he was permitted to drink it. To the delight of this ship mate, the wine was delicious and pleasantly mature. Luckily for the merchants of Madeira the sailor shared his find and indeed his palate was verified. From that day on, Captains were asked to store barrels on their ships to repeat the process of heating and cooling the wine. The wines were known has vinho de roda (wines of the round routes). The Madeira Wine of the future had made her entrance and became one of the favorite wines of the American colonies.

To day the wine is heated and cooled in a similar fashion. Cheaper wines are heated to intense degrees in ovens (estufas), while the more elate and expensive wines are nurtured through gentle heat in warm rooms over a period of months. Brandy was originally added to halt the fermentation thus fortifying the wine to for a sweeter palate.

The 19 century brought devastation to the Island in the form of Oidium Tucker and Phylloxera Vastatrix. In other words mildew and fungus which destroyed most of the grapevines: throwing Madeira into despair. The wine merchants closed up shop and left the Isle. Poverty drove the Islanders to Brazil. The slow growth of the wines return didn't begin until The First World War.

To day the vine growers and wine producers strive to engage the world with this magnificent tipple through original and new varieties. Vineyards are mainly on the eastern side of the Island, although plots are scattered in other areas. The traditional way of walled terraces is still very popular. Houses are often seen with vines trellised over the roof. No space is wasted. The locals make their own wine for home consumption. The old fashioned cement presses are very much in use today. Many back yards have their wine presses proudly displayed as a main feature. Families and friends gather together to make their years batch of wine. They bare their feet and crush the grapes every September. The day long activities are celebrated with good food and plenty of wine tasting. By the end of the day the merriment is just beginning. September sends the whole Island into a whirl of grape harvesting and wine festivals celebrated throughout the land. The wineries receive the grapes: pour them into hoppers; fortify and leave the rest of the expertise to Mother time. The vintage wines are left to mature naturally in the casks. A traditional tasting of the wine takes place months later to prove the wine is good enough to drink. Once the tasting is over, everyone can enjoy the celebration.

Typical Madeiran Wine Presentation Bottle

Typical Madeiran Wine Presentation Bottle
Typical Madeiran Wine Presentation Bottle | Source

The Four Main Types of Madeira Wine

Madeira Wine has a distinct flavor of caramelized sugar from wood aging. The four wine varieties are specifically named after the their vine type. The four wine types are listed below; the darker the colour the sweeter the wine.

  • Boal (Bual):

Is a tortoiseshell colour; a darker shade than the other varieties. A delightful dessert wine. Light on the palette with a wonderful bouquet of caramel.

  • Malvazia (Malmsey):

A tawny blond colour. A sweet wine enjoyed as an after dinner digestive. With a delicate hint of marmalade and vanilla adding a smooth finish to this wine.

  • Sercial:

Is the driest and palest of the wines. Tasting of fresh citrus; an ideal introduction at a dinner party to accompany fine canapes.

  • Verdelho:

A golden colour and quite dry tasting. The subtle hint of maple flavor and a fresh taste compliments a light starter of dainty flavors for example pan fried fish fillets or delicate cured meats. Of course this wine is very good served on it's own.

Serve your Madeiran wines in these elegant sherry glasses. Strong and eloquent and highly recommendable, perfect for a pre dinner drink.

Other Varieties

  • Bastardo:

A rather heavy wine with a sweet taste. The same grape is used in producing Port.

  • Moscatel:

A more expensive grape as it is a popular table wine. The grapes are quite large and are a very pale green/yellow colour. Very good to eat.

  • Tinta Negra Mole:

Is mass produced, providing most of the grapes used in Madeira wine. Introduced from France, it takes on the qualities of different grapes depending on the altitude.

  • Terrantez:

First recorded in the 18 century, comes from a rare grape variety and is a very fresh and sweet wine.

Traditional Madeiran Wines in Cellar Storage

The History Of Madeira Wine
The History Of Madeira Wine

Famous People Who Drank Madeira Wine

The 18 century placed Madeira at the centre of seafaring trading routes. Ships passed on their way to the West Indies with scientists and explores on their decks.

Captain Cook passed by and Charles Darwin visited many times. Queen Adelaide of England enjoyed a visit as did Karl I Emperor of Austria when he was exiled here in the early 1900s. His remains are buried in the Igreja do Monte.

A story goes that Napoleon docked in Funchal harbour in 1815 whistle being taken to exile on the Northumberland to stock up on food and wine. Napoleon didn't manage drink all the wine and some of the wine was later returned to the Isle. The left over wine was bottled by the Blandy Wine company and served to Winston Churchill while he holidayed in Reid's Hotel: on the balcony no doubt with a cucumber sandwich in hand. Churchill would have sipped his Madeira Wine overlooking the Atlantic watching the boats sail by.

Cream of Mushroom Soup
Cream of Mushroom Soup

Mushroom Soup with Madeira Wine


  • a splash of olive oil
  • a large knob of butter
  • 1 white onion peel and diced
  • 2 garlic cloves crushed
  • 1 Ib of chopped fresh mushrooms
  • a pint of chicken stock
  • Madeira Wine
  • 150 ml of pouring cream
  • cracked black pepper
  • snipped fresh chives to serve (optional)


Heat the oil and the butter in a deep pan. When the butter is melted fry off the onion and garlic. Cook the onions till they are translucent, add in the mushrooms and continue to cook. Once the mushrooms start to brown add a good slug of Madeira Wine. Follow with the chicken stock and bring to a simmer, continue cooking for 15-20 minutes or until the mushrooms are just soft but not too soft. Take of the heat and blitz to a smooth creamy texture. Place back on the heat and add in the cream. Warm through.

To Serve:

Pour into warm bowls add cracked black pepper and sprinkle with the snipped chives if using.

If like me, you like to cook with wine: this book is a perfect guide to improve your culinary skills introducing you to several dishes enhanced by wines.

© 2010 Gabriel Wilson


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