Now that you know a little history and winemaking, here are some common styles of madeira:
1. Sercial – made from the grape Sercial, which goes by another, catchier name on the Portugese mainland, “dog strangler” (Esgana Cão). These are the driest styles, with residual sugar of 0.5% to 1.5%. The touch of sweetness is offset by searing acidity and you’ll find plenty of almond aromas.
2. Verdelho – made from the grape Verdelho, which also is planted in Australia. These are moderately sweet (1.5% to 2.5%) with a pronounced smokiness and a tangy acidity.
3. Bual – made from the grape Bual, or Boal in Portugese. Ripens more to achieve higher sugar levels than Sercial or Verdelho (2.5% to 3.5%) and is dark in color, with notes of raisins.
4. Malmsey – made from the Malvasia grape. Malmsey is an English corruption of the word Malvasia. The sweetest of the lot (3.5% to 6.5%), but rarely cloying because of their high acidity (notice a theme, here?).
These 4 grapes are the principal noble grapes grown on the island of Madeira. Many of the best vineyards were destroyed by a vine-eating pest called phylloxera at the end of the 19th century causing American hybrids or the less-distinct, local Tinta Negra Mole grape to be planted in place of the noble varieties.
Insufficient quantities of the noble varieties have forced some producers to label their standard blends as follows; dry, medium dry, medium sweet, medium rich, rich or sweet. So, check the label – if the varietal is listed, it will constitute at least 85% of the wine.
A great thing about madeira is that once it’s opened, it can last for many months. It’s already been oxidized and cooked, right? Try some with chocolate and you may be a changed person afterward.