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Wine Witness To Notable Toasts

Diana C. Gleasner Special To Travel

You have to admire the Duke of Clarence for choosing to ride out eternity sealed in a cask of Madeira wine. Granted, his options were limited. Locked in the Tower of London and sentenced to die, the prisoner, the story goes, was given a last request.

He chose Madeira. The man probably never did tarry over a wine list.

And then there’s Shakespeare, who was no slouch when it came to sipping. In Henry IV, Part I, this question was posed to Falstaff: “How agrees the devil and thee about thy soul that thou soldest to him on Good Friday last for a cup of Madeira and a cold capon’s leg?”

Brave American patriots toasted the Declaration of Independence as well as the George Washington’s inauguration with amber glasses of Madeira. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were connoisseurs of the drink, Daniel Webster was known to polish off more than a few pints, and the legendary frigate “Constitution” was christened with a bottle of the precious stuff.

In the 1950s, Brits Michael Flanders and Donald Swann composed the playful tune “Madeira, M’Dear.”

So have a Madeira, my dears. But keep in mind its noble heritage. This is no ordinary wine, napping in cool cellars a few years and then carelessly foisted on your unsuspecting palate.

This is one of the world’s longest lived wines - a wine of ancient traditions patiently seared by tropical heat and worthy of your utmost attention.

To understand its origins, consider both the geography and the history of the island of Madeira. Three hundred miles off the west coast of Africa and 500 miles from its parent, Portugal, this remote island is blessed with a perpetual spring-like climate and incredibly fertile volcanic soil.

This lush subtropical gem was discovered in 1419, thanks to the efforts of the renown Portuguese navigator, Prince Henry, and his mariners. Sixty years later, the Genoese sailor Christopher Columbus made his home in Madeira, having married the Portuguese daughter of the neighboring island’s governor.

Early Portuguese settlers brought the Malvoisie (called Malmsey by the Brits) grape from Crete, which flourished in Madeira’s year-round sunshine. Later, Jesuit priests, owners of vast properties and vineyards, introduced other varieties - Sercial, Verdeho and Bual.

Four styles of Madeira wine each proudly carry the name of its primary grape. Sercial, pale and dry with a “nutty” tang, is often served chilled as an aperitif. Medium dry Verdeho has a subtle toasted aroma with a delicate hint of fruit. Slightly chilled, it is delightful with the soup course. Bual is medium rich (connoisseurs use the word rich for sweet) with a tinge of smoke, fine with dessert or cheese. Malmsey, the richest of all, is full-bodied and robust. It is usually served with coffee, and perhaps a bit of chocolate, as a meal’s grand finale.

How does one small island produce enough grapes to slake the world’s thirst for Madeira? It’s a good question, answered best by an island tour. Dizzying switchbacks crisscross precipitous mountainsides terraced with vineyards that cover every scrap of earth.

Viticulturists, who know the sweetest grapes are grown nearest sea level, are fond of saying “high is dry and low is rich.” During the fall harvest, grapes are carefully hand-picked, gathered into large wicker baskets, then transported to wine lodges for pressing.

A felicitous discovery during the 17th century was responsible for the unique taste and remarkable longevity of this wine. Due to its strategic location on Atlantic shipping lanes, Madeira became a natural port of call for long sea voyages to Africa, India, Asia and America.

Schooners stopping at Madeira took on provisions, including casks of island-made wine, which were fortified with natural grape brandy to halt fermentation. As the ships sailed through the tropics, these casks of wine literally cooked in the torrid sun, day after blistering day.

What would have ruined most wines added the perfect finishing touch to the Madeira. Compared to the same wine left on the island, these graduates of long sea voyages were smoother and richer, with a subtle burnt taste. The heating process and the addition of high-quality brandy (which increases the alcoholic content to 17 percent) transformed the finest vintages, enabling them to remain in excellent condition for well over 100 years.

Before they figured out how to replicate these conditions in the winery, casks of Madeira were loaded as ballast aboard schooners bound for distant lands. Shipped back and forth across the equator and then stored in warm lofts, they eventually developed the depth of character and special flavor that Madeira lovers prized.

Today, the wines are gradually heated in a process known as “estufagem” to temperatures as high as 120 degrees, then transferred to oak casks for a long maturation, usually three to 15 years. Vintage Madeiras, made from a particularly fine year, must remain in cask for a minimum of 20 years (much longer periods are common), with an additional two years in the bottle.

You’ll want to savor the unique product of this luxuriant, sun-drenched island, but don’t forget to raise a glass to the Duke who chose to spend perpetuity soaking up Madeira.

By the way, there is a “Duke of Clarence” Madeira described as rich and, yes, full-bodied. But, no, the good Duke has never resided therein.

Or so they say.

MEMO: The annual Madeira Wine Festival takes place the second week of September and includes all the traditions associated with the harvest, including the pressing of the grapes, parade of harvesters and folk dances. For information contact the Portuguese National Tourist Board, 590 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10036. Telephone: (212) 354-4403; fax: (212) 764-1637.

See related story under the headline: Endearing Madeira

The annual Madeira Wine Festival takes place the second week of September and includes all the traditions associated with the harvest, including the pressing of the grapes, parade of harvesters and folk dances. For information contact the Portuguese National Tourist Board, 590 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10036. Telephone: (212) 354-4403; fax: (212) 764-1637.

See related story under the headline: Endearing Madeira

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