Although once so popular it was the chosen beverage of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other colonial luminaries, Madeira has fallen off the wine map with currently very modest sales in the U.S. Yet it is an extraordinarily versatile wine and has the additional benefit of being virtually indestructible—you can open a bottle and forget it for years with almost no loss of quality. This indestructability is in part what made it attractive in the colonies. Madeira is an island about 350 miles off the coast of Morocco situated on the trading routes between East and West and with a long history of wine production. In the 18th century someone discovered that if they fortified the wine with spirits, a trip through the hot, tropical weather of the South Atlantic actually improved the wine while protecting it from further oxidation. Those at the receiving end had a reliable product no longer having to worry that the hogsheads of wine being shipped from Europe would be full of expensive vinegar.
Today, Madeira wine is heated during the vinification process to mimic the conditions of those early shipments through the tropics.
Although Madeira has long been popular as a cooking wine and is too often assumed to be sweet, in fact there are a variety of styles that range from very dry to the very sweet. But when well made even the sweet Madeira has a refreshing acidity that keeps the wine in balance. Most commercial Madeira is made from the Tinta Negra Mole grape although the better quality producers use Sercial for the dry style, Verdelho for the medium dry, Boal for the medium sweet and Malvasia (aka Malmsey) for the dessert wine. Truth be told, the level of sweetness on the label doesn’t mean much. I’ve had Sercial that was austere and Sercial that seemed almost cloying. You have to know the producer and their house style to be confident about what’s in the bottle.
This Justino is a “Rainwater” meaning it’s a lighter style that got it’s name because a barrel was allegedly mixed with rainwater. By law it must be aged 5 years. A dark gold color in the glass, aromas of maple sugar, allspice and dried, candied apple are prominent with a background almond note. It’s labeled medium dry but with 69 g/l of residual sugar there is plenty of sweetness. Yet this is not a dessert wine as the swelling acidity takes over at midpalate launching a savory, almost saline finish with good length. The wine becomes almost racy with a filigree of top notes as it finishes.
This is a great buy at 12.99 because of its versatility. You can sip as an aperitif but the balance of fruit and acid will work with a variety of dishes. I served it on 4th of July with barbecued spare ribs (a peppery rub with a slightly sweetened sauce) and elotes and the pairing was quite good.
This wine has lots of life and exotic flavors, a melange of weight and playful ornament that brought to mind MIA’s Down River.
Price: $12.99 (available at Bevmo)