I think this will be a first for Malt: discussing and reviewing a fortified wine. This feels like a must, since there’s a great disconnect between fans of spirits matured or finished in ex-wine casks and the wine themselves.
Think about it: we’ve all had a whisk(e)y that’s been influenced by an ex-Sherry or ex-Port or ex-Madeira or other ex-wine casks. But have you drunk any of these wines? What do you actually know about these wines? How many of your fellow whisky drinkers have tried them? In my case, very few. Despite this, the majority of my whisky-loving friends and acquaintances keep pining for sherry cask whisky.
This is my attempt at convincing more whisky drinkers to get into fortified wine. I’ve heard that in America, fortified wine was consumed more before the 1960s. This was due to the pace of life being slower. People spent more time at the table; with that, they drank more. Maybe a cocktail or wine as an aperitif. Wine or a spirit with the main course. A Port, Vermouth or Madeira as the digestif. But, as the popular saying goes, everything went to shit in the 60s. People started drinking more vodka. Life’s pace became faster. Aperitifs and digestifs became less of a trend. This resulted in less wine and fortified wine being drunk. As the demand for them dipped, production dipped, hence today’s lack of good quality ex-wine casks, and forcing the prominence of seasoned wine casks.
If you want your whisky finished or matured in ex-wine casks to be better, drink more of that specific wine. Ideally, more casks will be made to be filled up with their wine and aged for longer, thus potentially increasing the amount of “old” wine casks and reducing the need for seasoned casks.
The best example would be bourbon. The boom means more people drinking bourbon. More demand equals more casks being emptied. More emptied casks mean there are more ex-bourbon casks for the other categories to buy and fill up. In short: if you want to drink better sherry cask matured or finished whisky, do your part. Buying overpriced whisky matured or finished in overrated seasoned wine casks will just encourage companies to continue so. Also, what’s wrong with learning more?
Today’s topic is Madeira. The word can mean plenty of things. In Portuguese and Spanish, it means wood. It also refers to the islands of Portugal by the northwestern coast of Africa. Most important of all, it’s a type of fortified wine from the islands.
The Madeira islands wer, I think, so-named due largely to how many trees there were when the Portuguese found them. When the Earth was still believed to be flat, the sailors thought Madeira was the end of the world. Legend says that the island was so lush with trees that it took decades to burn them down and make space for arable land. It was later on that grape vines were brought to the islands.
There are six types of grapes grown in those islands for Madeira production. The one red grape is called Tinta Negra. It’s the most used variety due to how easy it is to grow and how much fruit it bears. These make up 50% of the vines and produce 90% of the wine there. This is also the least regulated grape variety there. Thus, it’s allowed at any sweetness level.
The other five grapes are white. These grapes are more controlled, compared to Tinta Negra. Sercial is the driest. Verdelho, Terrantez and Boal/Bual are medium sweet. Malmsey/Malvasia need to be sweet. It’s said the Terrantez is the rarest of these, as the total area of land the vines occupy only equals about two track and fields.
To know which variety of grape has been bottled, you just read the label. Any of the five white grapes will be mentioned on the label. If Boal wine is in the bottle, the label will say Boal. The exception is Tinta Negra, which isn’t allowed to be mentioned on the label.
With Tinta Negra being the most used grape, this is most likely the cooking Madeiras you see in your supermarkets and groceries. Majority of ex-Madeira casks used in spirits maturation will also have contained Tinta Negra.
Some of you might be wondering if Madeira is the same as Port, since both are Portuguese fortified wines. I’ve also heard of cases wherein restaurant menus would mix Port and Madeira together. The answer is no.
The largest difference between the two is that grapes for Madeira are picked early, making them underripe and acidic. Port is made from overripe grapes, making them sweet. Madeira is also fortified with a 96% ABV spirit, but the wine is diluted less. Port, manwhile, is fortified with a 77% ABV spirit, but more diluted.
Like other fortified wines, Madeira wasn’t initially fortified and aged that long. According to legend, a few wine barrels made a round trip, meaning some wine barrels weren’t taken down from the ship at the port of destination. Upon returning to Madeira, the wine was found to be better. Aside from being in casks longer, they think the heat and being shaken around helped.
In the 1700s, when distillation was more popular, Madeira was eventually fortified. Historians aren’t sure if it was by brandy or sugarcane spirit (yes, Madeira also makes rum). This allowed Madeira to not go bacterial and to be aged longer. Madeira wine also started being taken into round trips more. Wines were marketed with their ports of destination. For example, if the wine traveled to and from Boston, it would be called Boston Madeira. This would tell consumers where the wine went, which should indicate how long it was aged.
My favorite aspect of Madeira is that it’s being cooked until dead. Remember, oxidation and heat are some of wine’s greatest enemies… asnd that’s what made them better. Essentially, you can treat Madeira wine like a spirit. It doesn’t go bad as quickly as other table wines and fortified wines. If you’re a slow drinker like me, this is the ideal wine for you.
Taking barrels of wine on ocean-going voyages just to age them isn’t sustainable these days. So, modern methods have been devised to emulate the ocean voyage. The easier way to heat and oxidize Madeira is to put it in estufagems. These are brew kettles you see in beer breweries, but they’re jacketed and are vented. Generally, it takes about six to twelve months for the process to complete. The longer and better process is called Canteiro. This refers to Madeira being put in 620L barrels and put in attics. These attics are hot; it takes about eight to ten years to be completely oxidized.
This website shows images of what the grapes, estufagems and Canteiros will look like. I also credit this Shift Drink podcast episode with Jake Parrot for igniting my interest in Madeira. Richard Seale of Foursquare Distillery is fond of using ex-Madeira casks in their Doorly’s 12, 14 and limited edition releases such as ECS Redoubtable and Sagacity.
I don’t know much about Broadbent. All I know is they’re family-owned and have only been around since the mid 90s. The grape for this bottle is Tinta Negra. Colheita means a single vintage.
Broadbent Madeira Colheita 1999 – Review
19% ABV. USD $46.99 from K&L Wines.
Color: Pei pa koa syrup.
On the nose: I get a short coating of sweetness before bitterness takes over. A range of light to medium aromas come out. Among them are walnuts, banana bread, figs, ginger, blood orange, black sesame, dates, and pei pa koa syrup.
In the mouth: Very similar to the nose except the sweetness is more dominant. The flavors are light but range from short to medium in length. I get black sesame, dates, figs, black walnuts, cacao, blood orange, ginger and blood orange.
Sweet, fruity and acidic. Drinking regular wines, which are lower in ABV, makes it hard for my senses to pick up different flavors. But something like this, which is higher in ABV, is something I can pick apart and enjoy easier. Being mainly a wine, this is something I enjoy when I want something light to drink. To sum it up: Madeira is the best of both worlds for a spirit and wine drinker.
Do note that not all Tinta Negra Madeira are going to taste like this. I don’t know how old this is, but this is a vintage release, which makes it above standard. Different brands will also have varying sweetness. The grocery store expressions are, to my memory, more on the bitter and acidic side.
I’ll admit that this is something that a lot won’t instantly like. I guess it’s safer to say that Madeira will grow on them. In case you’re really not a fan, use it for cocktails or for cooking. The other grape varieties of Madeira are also different from this. Some are nuttier and/or fruitier than others.