A wine as flavorful, nuanced, and storied as Madeira ought to get a lot more attention than it does. It may not be the flashiest wine at the table, but this 400-year-old wallflower, with naturally high acidity, subtle sweetness and an eternal shelf life, is about as perfect as they come and deserves another shot to shine.
Broadbent Madeira continues the centuries-old tradition of using white stenciled lettering instead of a paper label, which can be damaged from humidity and age.
Madeira is produced on a jagged Portuguese island of the same name about 400 miles west of Morocco. Situated here, Madeira became a natural port of call during the 15th to 17th centuries’ Age of Exploration. Ships sailing to Africa, the West Indies and the Americas would stock up on this wine (fortified with grape spirits to prevent spoilage) for the long voyage.
One time, as the legend goes, a cask of Madeira was misplaced and not discovered until the ship had returned. Surprisingly, the wine was much tastier than when it had left. Contrary to all we know about storing wine, Madeira was tossed and turned on the open sea and subjected to 100-plus degree sunshine for months, yet somehow benefited from it. Producers started sending their wine on trans-Atlantic joyrides, labeling the best wines “vinhos da roda,” or “round-trip wines.”
Today, Madeira producers emulate these sun-baked journeys with a process called estufagem, during which the wines are slowly heated (up to 140 degrees) for at least 90 days and then oxidized (see Winespeak 101) through barrel-aging. Madeira’s grape varietals (Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia) lend their names to the wine’s various styles, with Sercial making the driest wines and Malvasia (called Malmsey on the island) making the sweetest. But, even a 10-year Malmsey bestows vigorous acidity and flawless balance, making it dessert’s model partner—divine with everything from baked brie to Baked Alaska.
Vintage Madeira, requiring at least 20 years of aging, is scarce (only 100,000 cases of Madeira are produced each year), but since neither age nor poor storage conditions are its enemy, it’s not uncommon to find bottles from the 18th and 19th centuries that are not only drinkable, but absolutely exquisite. And, when a 200-year-old bottle treats you to everything from dried apricots to molasses to dark chocolate yet tastes as fresh and alive as a 20-year-old bottle, you can understand why Madeira-lovers hoard their vintage bottles. There’s something tremendously romantic about drinking a bottle that predates our country. In fact, Madeira was present at the signing of the Declaration of Independence as well as the inauguration of George Washington (who was purported to drink a pint every night with dinner).
Full of contradiction and totally low maintenance, Madeira seems too good to be true. As Bartholomew Broadbent, one of the most acknowledged authorities on Madeira, says, “You can even keep an opened bottle of it in your trunk all summer without doing it any harm.” I certainly wouldn’t recommend it though—Madeira may be invincible, but it’s still too pretty to be ignored.
Mad about Madeira
In 1996, Richmond-based Broadbent founded Broadbent Selections, which specializes in the selection and importing of sought-after wines from around the globe, including its own brand of Madeira. Broadbent Madeira is recognized as one of the best on the market and was inspired by Barth-olomew’s renowned father, wine writer and Christie’s director Michael Broadbent, who calls Madeira his “desert island wine.” Because vintage Madeira is so expensive, Madeira producers petitioned regulators to allow Broadbent Selections to ship a Madeira that has a vintage date (marked colheita on the label) but can be sold younger (at between 7 and 19 years) for more affordable prices. These are available locally at Wine Warehouse and Market Street Wineshop for around $50-60.
Oxidation (n.): The chemical term relating to the reaction of wine with oxygen. The result, unintended and unwelcome in most wines, turns a wine brownish and gives it a stale, cooked, nutty taste. Deliberately oxidized wines include sherry and Madeira.