When William Shakespeare mentioned Madeira wine in his late sixteenth century play ‘Henry IV, Part 1’, it seems he was already very well aware of its intoxicating virtues.
In the play, Edward ‘Ned’ Poins, one of the king’s closest friends, remarks about the comic character Falstaff with the line: ‘How agrees the devil and thee about thy soul, that thou soldest him on Good Friday last for a cup of Madeira and a cold capon’s leg’.
It’s popularity continued to increase and by the end of the 17th century there were around thirty wine shippers operating on the Atlantic island of Madeira.
The boom period started about one hundred years later when around 650,000 litres were being shipped annually to destinations as far and wide as Great Britain, Brazil, West Indies and the United States, with demand quickly starting to outstrip supply.
A good bottle of Madeira tastes beautifully creamy and nicely mellow with a full, rich texture without too much sugar or alcohol. Unlike most other wines, you can open a bottle and sip at the contents for months without any reduction in quality. Vintage Madeira is not even released before it is twenty years old and will still be in its infancy even then.
It comes in four different varieties, each traditionally made with a single grape and ranging in taste from dry to sweet.
Sercial is the lightest, driest, most delicately tangy and slowest of them all to mature. It is typically grown at the cooler heights of 900-1,000 metres where it ripens very gradually to reach an alcohol volume of 11º.
Nuttier and fuller but still quite dry, Verdelho grows predominantly on the lusher north side of Madeira island, in the areas around Porto Moniz, Ribeira da Janela and Santana. Verdelho is riper and therefore more sugary than Sercial and makes a more balanced and sometimes creamier wine.
Cultivated in the warmer regions of the south side of the island, Bual is made from the Malvasia Fina grape and generally blessed with a rich raisin and almond flavour. This popular medium-sweet wine is often served as a digestif.
The best-known of all the varieties of Madeira wine, and most likely the one referred to by Shakespeare, is Malmsey, the richest of them all. Made with different strains of the Malvasia grape, which are grown at lower altitudes in the warmer parts of the island, Malmsey is rich and concentrated and can be drunk either before or after meals as an alternative to Port and is the perfect accompaniment to cheese.
Madeira keeps for a very long time and old bottles continue to be snapped up by collectors all over the world. A few still remain in circulation from the 18th century, which prompted Winston Churchill on one of his frequent visits to the island to comment: “My God, do you realize this Madeira was made when Marie Antoinette was still alive?!”
Visitors to Madeira can try the various types of wine at Blandy’s Wine Lodge after a tour of the Madeira Wine Museum located on Avenida Arriaga in the heart of the island’s capital, Funchal.