Madeira: A Fortified Gem

MadeiraCC image courtesy of Porto Bay Hotels & Resorts Events.

Posted by Jon Underwood on February 25, 2013.

Sherry is one of the greatest wines known to mankind.  For aroma, flavor, complexity, price, quality, and longevity it is hard to find an equal to the delicious drink from Jerez.  It is on par with Claret and Champagne, and I urge you to try sherry, or revisit it if it has been a while.  But this post is not about sherry­—did I mention I like sherry?—but rather its less well-known cousin, Madeira.1 Madeira is another fortified wine, produced on the  Portuguese island of Madeira in the North Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of Africa.

Although Madeira may be underappreciated now, it has a special place in U.S. history.2  John Hancock, a leading Bostonian political figure during the revolutionary era, was also a businessman who imported foreign goods.  On the evening of May 9, 1768, his ship Liberty arrived in Boston Harbor carrying a shipment of Madeira.  The ship was inspected by customs officials just the next morning, but they found that the hold contained only one quarter of its total capacity of wine.3  When a report indicated that Hancock had secretly unloaded the majority of his Madeira shipment to avoid paying a duty, Liberty was seized by the customs officers.  Tensions between the local Bostonians and Royal Navy were already running high because of the Navy’s habit of press-ganging,4 and a riot broke out when customs officers began towing Liberty to a nearby Royal Navy warship.  Customs officials then started two lawsuits: one in rem against Liberty, and one in personam against Hancock.  The suit against Liberty was successful and the ship was confiscated.  The suit against Hancock eventually petered out, and the charges were dropped without explanation in March 1769.5  The end result of the Liberty affair was to galvanize anti-British feeling (and exacerbate later tensions over another excellent beverage, tea).

A few years later, Madeira was used to toast the Declaration of Independence.6  This is not only a testament to the quality of Madeira, but a hint at why fortified wines existed and were so popular in the first place.  During the days of European empires, the colonial forces would naturally want their home comforts, including beer and wine.  The long voyage to the colonies was a problematic; the wine and beer just couldn’t make the voyage without spoiling from the less than ideal storage conditions and wide variations in temperature.7  This problem was overcome by adding a spirit—typically brandy—to raise the alcohol content to levels that kill off most bacteria.8  In fact, the fortified Madeira was found to improve from a bit of hot weather on the long voyage across the Atlantic.  The spirit can be added to the wine at any time during fermentation, allowing the winemaker can control the amount of sugar still present in the wine and determine whether the finished product will be sweet or dry.  This explains the variety of styles found among Port, Sherry, Marsala, Madeira, and other fortified wines.

Where to start with Madeira?  I recommend that you choose a style that is similar to what you enjoy in a table wine.  Madeira has four basic styles ranging from dry to sweet: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, Malvasia (also called Malmsey).9  As you move from Sercial to Malvasia the depth of flavors in the wine increases and the naturally high acidity is balanced out by the residual sugar.  You may also see another style called Rainwater.  Legend has it this lightweight style was created when a shipment of Madeira was left outside on the docks in Savannah, Georgia.  The wine became diluted by rainwater but was perfectly drinkable.  Do try it!

Each Madeira style can be aged.  The designated ages are Finest (3 years), Reserve (5 years), Special Reserve (10 years), Extra Reserve (15 years), and Vintage (20 years).  As you’d expect—and just like Port wines—aging leads to greater complexity.

If you have a choice, please don’t skimp on price.10  For a first attempt, go for something costing at least $15.  If you think about it, this is not expensive.  Madeira typically contains 20% alcohol, allowing you to keep the wine for longer than a table wine.  You can enjoy it as an aperitif or a desert wine without having to guzzle the whole bottle in one go.  With a little budgeting you can amass a small selection in a only a few weeks, and then can compare the styles side-by-side.  Notable labels include Blandy’s, Broadbent, Justino Henriques & Filhos, Leacock, The Rare Wine Co., and Sandeman.  Madeira has been through ups and downs over the years, but the market appears to be growing—join in the trend!



Jon Underwood is a J.D. candidate at Cornell Law School and the Treasurer of The Society of Wine and Jurisprudence.  He has a B.Sc. and Ph.D. from Southampton University, U.K., where he studied chemistry and specialized in synthetic organic chemistry.  His favorite wines are left bank Bordeaux, Champagne, and, of course, Sherry.

For a PDF of this post in its original version, click here.

  1. See generally Madeira Wine Guide at http://www.madeirawineguide.com.
  2. C. James Taylor, Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses,Massachusetts Historical Society (2007), http://www.masshist.org/publications/apde/portia.php?id=LJA02d042.
  3. Officials originally had no proof that Hancock had unloaded the wine, but according to one source, the master of the ship so overexerted himself unloading Madeira during the night that he died in the morning.  Benson J. Lossing, Our Country, Vol. II (1877), available at: http://www.publicbookshelf.com/public_html/Our_Country_vol_2/johnhanco_bd.html.  The prosecution began a month later when a tidesman who had been working on the ship came forward to report that the shipment had been secretly unloaded.
  4. The Royal Navy was infamous for forcing men with sailing skills into service aboard Navy vessels.  Often they abducted unwilling sailors who, having consumed enough alcohol, would stumble out of a tavern and down a dark alley only to be hit over the head and taken aboard the Navy’s ships.  See Gary Nash, The Urban Crucible, The Northern Seaports and the Origins of the American Revolution 151 (1986).
  5. See Taylor, supra at note 2.
  6. Rick Spillman, Happy 4th of July—A Toast to Madeira, The Wine of the Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Riots, The Old Salt Blog (July 4, 2012),http://www.oldsaltblog.com/2012/07/happy-4th-of-july-a-toast-to-madeira-the-wine-of-the-declaration-of-independence-and-the-liberty-riots/.
  7. India Pale Ale (“IPA”) is the style of beer created to satisfy British thirsts in India.  The addition of hops helped to prevent against spoilage.  Cliff, Beer 101: What is IPA?, Beer Utopia (Aug. 13, 2008),http://beerutopia.com/2008/08/13/beer-101-what-is-ipa/.
  8. Murli Dharmadhikari, Lactic Acid Bacteria and Wine Spoilage, 7 Vineyard & Vintage View 4 (1992), available at http://www.extension.iastate.edu/NR/rdonlyres/173729E4-C734-486A-AD16-778678B3E1CF/73946/LacticAcidBacteriaandWineSpoilage.pdf.
  9. Legend has it that George, Duke of Clarence, chose to die by being drowned in Malmsey wine in 1477.  In 1571, Michael Harslob of Berlin chose a similar death, leading to the following inscription on his tomb:

    In cyatho vini pleno cum musca periret,
    Sic, ait Oeneus, sponte perire velim.
    When in a cup of wine a fly was drowned.
    So, said Vinarius, may my days be crowned.

    See Drowned in a Butt of Malmsey, InfoPlease (last accessed Feb. 25, 2013),http://www.infoplease.com/dictionary/brewers/drowned-butt-malmsey.html#ixzz2JUl2butL.

  10. One only has to try a cheap sherry to realize the false economy.

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