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The History of Madeira Wine

Nobody could deny that there’s something deeply special about Madeira wine, just as nobody who has visited the idyllic island could claim it’s anything short of a paradise. Madeira wine, for most of us, is a taste of utter sophistication and celebration; it’s packed with the full, spicy, sweetness of Christmas memories, of notes of unctuous toffee, dried fruits, dates, caramel and nuts. Ranging from the super-sweet to the surprisingly dry, Madeira is an important member of the fortified wine family, and one which – once tried – is never forgotten.

Let’s take a little look into the history and fascinating features of this special wine, and discover what it is that makes it so unique.

Stormy Seas and Sweet Flavours

The small island of Madeira sits in the Atlantic Ocean, around three hundred miles north of the Canary Islands. It has been the home of thriving wine industry ever since it was discovered and colonised by the Portuguese, way back in 1419.

Due to its favourable position, it quickly became a site of significant naval importance, and was seen as a vital stopping point on the trade routes linking Europe, Africa and the Americas. Unsurprisingly, the success and popularity of Madeira wine fluctuated pretty wildly across the ages, with the island’s exports booming during peacetime, and extended periods of free trade and prosperity, and suffering somewhat during decades of imperial conflict, territory disputes, and other international upheavals. Despite its ups and downs, Madeira continues to fascinate to this day, not least because the story of its creation tells us plenty about the history of wine and winemaking as a whole.

Indeed, it is generally believed that the beginnings of Madeira wine were something of a happy accident (as is also believed to be the case with both Sherry and Port, two other key players of the fortified wine scene). In the late 15th century, European ships would frequently sail around the Cape of Good Hope, their cargo holds laden with treasures and riches from Africa and Asia. During that time, the Spanish and Portuguese courts were obsessed with the acquisition of various exotic delights – furs, jewels, silks, spices and gold were in enormous demand – and this led to the seas being filled with tall ships, intent on exploiting the riches of far-flung countries. The seeds of empire were being sewn, and Madeira the island, and Madeira the wine, were both to play a significant role.

According to legend, it was during these long and rocky voyages across the ocean that Madeira wines were first created. One ship – whose name was lost in the mists of time – was stocked full of barrels of wine made from the fine grapes which grow on Madeira. However, the hold of the ship was tossed about on the rough waves, and the motion of the ocean had a dramatic effect on the character and flavours of the wine. Upon tasting it appeared that the wine had been transformed by the journey; it had condensed, aerated, vaporized and aged, and the heat of the equator had steadily warmed the barrels, too.

Upon arrival in port, the sailors were instructed to dispose of the supposedly ruined wine. However, being sailors, they weren’t about to let go of such a large quantity of booze without first giving it a try… and they discovered that the wine – although not as intended – was nonetheless very palatable. In fact, the sailors developed a real taste for this ‘spoiled’ wine, and the many new flavours and aromas it contained.

How Madeira Became Fortified

Word spread, and it wasn’t too long before this new wine style was highly popular all across Europe. The British, especially, were really fond of the drink – and they loved the idea of a wine being created by the stormy seas and long ocean voyages. This liking for Madeira wine created huge demand… and suddenly, ships were being sent on long tropical voyages, with the sole intention of replicating that initial ‘accidental’ discovery. Merchants could massively up their profits with Madeira, too, as trade journeys would be supplemented by stacking their holds up with Madeira wine barrels, which were then sold on at inflated prices.

However, at this point, Madeira wines were not ‘fortified’ with the addition of grape spirits, as we know them to be today. This came about through another strange series of events; the Napoleonic wars led to a series of naval blocks, vastly slowing down the transport of goods from Madeira. The wine was blended with grape spirits as a practical measure to help prolong its life… but this led to even more wild praise from the UK, where tastes for stronger alcoholic drinks have never really faded. Over the next century or so, the blending and fortification process was perfected, and the rest – as they say – is history.

The Fall and Rise of Madeira

Unfortunately, the permanent success of Madeira wine was by no means assured. Although the product itself remained popular, the importance of Madeira as an island and stopping point for ships was slashed enormously by the creation of the Suez Canal. Because ships no longer had to cross the Cape to get to Asia, Madeira became increasingly quieter and quieter as a port. Passage via Madeira became costly and unnecessary, and the trade route on which the fortunes of the island were based ceased to exist.

Thankfully, however, the 21st century has seen a revived interest in this historic and unique wine style. More and more drinkers across the globe are turning to Madeira wine, keen to discover new flavours and produce with a genuinely fascinating story behind it. This renewed enthusiasm has seen historic Madeira wineries up their game in recent years, and several of the more recent releases from the island have made big waves all over the world. Antique Madeiras have started fetching enormous prices at auction, and new styles are being created as the island wineries have gotten back into the spirit of innovation and leading the field of fortified wines once again.

To sip a fine Madeira is to take a voyage into a whole new world of flavour, and to experience history by the glassful. If you haven’t yet discovered this unique and truly delectable wine, there’s never been a better time to check it out.

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