Madeira, the Portuguese archipelago in the North Atlantic, gets the prize for creating the most ironic wine style. Most wine is destroyed when exposed to oxygen or heat. Madeira is made by exposing wine to oxygen and heat.
Bual grapes are harvested before they develop much sugar and while they still have plenty of acidity. After crushing, fermentation is induced but is stopped by the addition of grape spirits before fermentation is complete, boosting both the alcohol level and the sweetness. Then the process gets interesting. The wine is stored in large wooden casks in a room heated to 80-100 degrees Fahrenheit for 6 months to a year, which gently cooks the wine. The wine is then exposed to oxygen and gradually reduced temperatures until ready to bottle in 5 years, allowing evaporation to concentrate the wine. (This is Blandy’s method for 5 year Bual. Other producers and other styles of Madeira use methods of vinification that differ slightly from this one)
Because the wine has been thoroughly cooked and oxidized it Is virtually indestructible—an open bottle can be kept for years with no adverse effects.
What’s the result of this heat and oxidation?
The wine has a lovely gold color with orange highlights. The nose is packed with appealing aromas of golden raisin, apricot, and burnt orange peel against a background of caramel and almond. Despite considerable sweetness, it treads lightly on the palate. Good Madeira should not lay in the mouth like syrup but should show considerable life and finesse, as this 5-year does. And the finish is gloriously long with bristling acidity providing tart counterpoint to the more dominant dulcet flavors.
Quality Madeira comes in four styles from dry to sweet: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey. The Bual is sweet but less so than the Malmsey; for me it hits my “sweet spot”.
Balanced and elegant, this is a wonderful aperitif that cries out for a good Stilton cheese as accompaniment. 5 years of aging only begins to express the depth of Madeira. But this is a great introduction at a good price.
Style: Sweet but balanced with acidity
A wine cooked and exposed to the elements, beaten and unsheltered, it leads a life of sorrow, yet it expresses the tang of resistance, spirit and vivacity despite travail. Just like that other magnificent product of Portuguese culture—Fado, a music full of world-weariness but nevertheless life affirming. Who better to accompany a good bottle of Madeira that the incomparable Maritza.