It is unfathomable to think that a winemaker would place casks of wine on large ships to be carried overseas to intentionally subject the product to tropical heat for a significant period of time. But that is exactly what was taking place back in the 18th century by winemakers who produced Madeira, a fortified Portuguese wine. However, it all started by accident.
Madeira is a sub-tropical island situated in the Atlantic Ocean about 400 miles off the coast of South Africa, so the only way to deliver wine was by ship. Barrels of Madeira wine would be placed on ships destined for trade in places like India and China and would make the long trip by crossing the equator which subjected the wine to extreme heat during their travels. Once the barrels reached their destination, not every barrel would be sold causing some barrels to make the long trip a second time. In tasting wine from one of those barrels, winemaker discovered that the heat had a profound and wonderful effect on the way the wine tasted. So barrels were loaded on ships solely for the purpose of making a round trip through the hot tropics.
Eventually, special rooms were built at the wineries to heat the wine in a controlled environment, which is still the practice today. These rooms are lined with hot water pipes to keep the temperature at 115 degrees or more for a minimum of three months.
John Blandy founded Blandy's Madeira Wine Company in 1811 and are the only producers of Madeira still being run by founding family members. While Blandy's produces a number of different blends as
well as vintage Madeira, their five-year blends are a great place to be introduced to fine Madeira wines.
Blandy's 5 year Malmsey is a rich tasting wine with a spicy fruit aroma, followed by raisin and toffee flavors. While Malmsey is tasty all by itself, it is enhanced by pairing it with chocolate cake or pudding. If you want an aperitif, try Blandy's five-year Sercial that should be served slightly chilled. This wine contains citrus flavors and ends with a nutty finish.
These wines are fortified meaning that the winemaker added a distilled spirit such as Brandy to the grape must (the newly pressed grape juice along with skin and seeds) during the fermentation process. The additional alcohol from the Brandy stops the fermentation of the must, thereby killing the yeast and leaving residual sugar in the wine. This residual sugar determines how dry or sweet a wine will be, and the addition of Brandy increases the alcohol content. While most regular wines contain 13 to 15 percent alcohol by volume, the five-year Blandy's contain around 19 percent and they retail in the low $20 range.
One benefit of Madeira wines is that they last for quite some time once opened, mainly due to the fact that the addition of alcohol (Brandy) acts as a preservative and they should last at least eight weeks after your first taste of any of these wonderful wines.
Jim Rawe, a family attorney in Bradenton, is an avid collector of fine wines. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.