You may have heard the word maderized (MAD-uh-rized) before and if it came up in reference to a table wine, it probably wasn’t a good thing. It’s a winetasting term that refers to a wine with over-the-hill characteristics – a heavy, stale smell, often of overripe apples – usually caused by oxidation, often combined with overly warm storage. The French would say maderisé and the English might say sherrified.
If we’re talking about a fortified wine called madeira, however, hot controlled oxidation can be a beautiful (and tasty!) thing. It’s named after a Portuguese volcanic island, 400 miles off the coast of north Africa. Its location in the middle of the Atlantic made it an important port of call for ships traveling to Africa, Asia and South America.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, wine was shipped in cask and routinely fortified with brandy or neutral grape spirit to help it survive the voyage. This additional alcohol helped prevent re-fermentation as well as microbial spoilage. The constant rocking of the ships accelerated the aging process and the heat of the tropics slowly cooked the wine into an amber, nutty, caramelized beverage. When the sailors consumed the wine at the end of the journey it was a heck of a lot tastier than when they had first loaded it aboard.
Today, a process called estufagem is used to simulate the long tropical sea voyages. Estufa is a Portugese word meaning “hot-house” or “stove”. The three basic ways to do this are as follows:
1. Heat the wine directly. The wine sits in concrete vats or stainless steel tanks (cubas de calor) and hot water circulates either through a submerged coil or a jacket on the tank. It’s heated to a maximum temperature of 130°F for at least 90 days. This is the quickest and cheapest method.
2. Heat the room that the tanks are in. This is a gentler process where the wine is stored in wood casks and the room (armazen de calor) temperature is around 86°F to 104°F. The wines develop over a longer period of time, usually 6 months to 1 year.
3. Apply no artifical heating at all. As you might guess, this is the most expensive and time-consuming method, yielding the tastiest results. The madeiras are left in barrels to age naturally (heated by the sun) under the eaves of lodges in the capital city of Funchal. They mature in cask for at least 20 years and some for a century or more!
Tune in soon for styles of madeira.