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07 November 2005

Indestructible Wine

Everything shiny and new seems to break.  This was painfully illustrated during my recent kitchen remodel.  Within one day after the new cabinets were installed, someone scratched them.  Later, I stood admiring the fabulous cork flooring and noticed it was scratched all to hell by an overeager appliance installer.  I was worries that any more damage, would cause me to begin pulling out my hair – by the handful.

Then there were my poor wine bottles, all wearing dusty coats of drywall particles.  I started to wonder if, like me, my wine was going to be permanently tainted by this experience.

Blandys5_yr_verdAfter the cabinets were finally repaired and re-installed, I began rummaging around and unpacking the dozens of boxes containing kitchen items.  In what was formerly the dining room (it had become a graveyard of stacked kitchen boxes), I found my bottle of 5 year Madeira (Blandy's 5 Year Old Verdelho Madeira).  It was dumped, unceremoniously upside down in a box with olive oil and tuna fish cans.  The box had been sitting in an unforgiving sun-baked location on the floor for well over a month.  I almost threw out the half empty bottle, but decided to have a schluckl.  It still tasted grand.  A tart sweetness bathed my tongue while a heady, roasted almond and caramel aroma filled my nose.  This Madeira was neither broken nor tainted!  To celebrate, I had a second glass.  After my third, I began to wonder what made Madeira so hearty and downright indestructible.

Many wine drinkers may not have heard of Madeira, let alone had a chance to taste it. Madeira has been around for quite some time.  It’s rumored to have been G.W.’s favorite wine (by G.W., I mean John_hancockGeorge Washington, of cherry tree axing fame).  Madeira is also said to have been present at the signing of the Declaration of Independence - allegedly, John Hancock's giant John Hancock was an attempt to cover up a Madeira spill.

Map_madeiraThis age old wine is made on the islands of Madeira, a Portuguese property in the Atlantic Ocean, north of the Canary Islands.  None other than Prince Henry the Navigator came up with the bright idea of growing wine grapes on Madeira Island in the 15th Century.  Soon, Prince Henry and his band of undoubtedly merry men began sailing their prized wine all over the globe.

Like Archimedes skinny-dipping in his tub and discovering the principle of displacement (you just have to admire a scientist who streaks through the streets shouting, "Eureka!"), Madeira wine traders serendipitously noticed how much better unsold Madeira tasted after bouncing around in their ships’ holds for months on end.  One bright Portuguese soul made the connection between estufa (the unintentional semi-cooking of Madeira that occurred under the steamy, sweaty, sweltering conditions of a ship’s belly) and increased tastiness.  Indeed, madeirized wine became the drink of choice for pirates, colonists and powdered wig wearing gentlemen around the world.  In no small part due to its phoenix-like emergence after a journey through fiery, unforgiving conditions that would have destroyed most any other wine.

Sadly, nowadays, bottles of Madeira often lie quietly in lonely wine shop corners gathering dust.  On the bright side, the lack of popularity means Madeira has an affordable price tag.  Perhaps a Madeira renaissance is in order.

How does it taste?  It truly is one of the most unique wines around. Let’s begin with Madeira’s appearance.  It’s often described as having an “orangey-brown” color.  Sometimes it appears coppery, while at other times it looks like liquid rust.  To me, Madeira’s appeal lies in the aroma.  Smoke, toffee, wood, caramel and citrus all come to mind as I poke around a glass with my nose.  There are both dry and sweet styles of Madeira.  Both are delicious.  The sweet versions are the most common.  Unlike many dessert wines, Madeira doesn’t taste the slightest bit like cough syrup.  It has a crisp, tangy-woody flavor that I believe everyone needs to experience at least once in life (if only so you can use the word, “tangy-woody” in a sentence).  In my opinion, Madeira is best savored by itself.  If you happen to own a velvet smoking jacket, then a Madeira drinking session is the ideal occasion on which to wear one.  If you are currently sans velvet smoking jackets, drink your Madeira with almond biscotti.  Remember to sip Madeira.  It is a fortified wine meaning additional alcohol is added.  So Madeira-chugging is not recommended.  Many wine shops offer a fine selection of Madeira.  For starters, I recommend two:  Blandy’s five-year-old Sercial Madeira is dry in style.  It’s tangy and nutty.  Serve it either chilled or at room temperature.  This Madeira is $20, but the bottle will last quite a while.  And, as I said earlier, Madeira is virtually indestructible.  This means once the bottle is open, you don’t have to worry about your wine going bad.  For a sweeter style, try Blandy’s five-year-old Malmsey (also $20).  It’s darker, richer and makes a fine dessert-in-a-glass.  For a unique Madeira experience, try Blandy's five year Verdelho Madeira.  It straddles the off-dry line admirably well.  Go on, dust off a bottle of Madeira at the wine store and discover how good cooked, indestructible wine can be.  Saude!

More Madeira Info at (all about Madeira)


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Madeira is what hooked me on wine. One of my first wine tastings was an eight bottle almost-vertical flight of Madeira spanning the 20th century. It's an experience I'll never forget.


Now that would've hooked me as well. I've heard there are still bottles from the 19th century kicking around. That's something I really want to try.


Nice Article. Thanks for the Madeira lesson. Dry and sweet Madeira? I've only tasted sweet, now I know how to tell them apart. Thanks.


Glad you enjoyed the piece Jeff. The next time you try Madeira, let us know what you think and we'll add your thoughts to this article.


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european wine always is good , their bottles are so fashionable and I have been tasted similar wines.So I will buy a bottle in my next trip araund europe.

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Glad you enjoyed the piece Jeff. The next time you try Madeira, let us know what you think and we'll add your thoughts to this article.

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