Why You Should Be Drinking Madeira

Why You Should Be Drinking Madeira
Lauren Mowery

The Terroir wine bars have always been known for championing unsung wines of nobility, most notably Riesling. But this winter, Matt Stinton, the corporate beverage director of Hearth and Terroir, converted the cause of Madeira into a personal campaign while helping to manifest Paul Grieco's vision of a Madeira mad Manhattan.

Each Terroir hosted Madeira Month in February, offering classes and tastings and a selection of distinguished pours. Although the scheduled festivities have expired, there's no reason not to carry a little impromptu Madeira madness into March.

Stinton's infectious enthusiasm for Madeira ignited my curiosity and left me devising plans to call on this odd little volcanic island: Madeira is known as much for its incredible vinous history as its curiously juxtaposed brazen holiday resorts catering to tourists looking for sun and surf, vacationers with no knowledge of the historical value of the adjacent local wine industry.

Belonging to Portugal but lying closer to Africa, Madeira formed 20 million years ago by the eruption of lava spewed from the sea. Grape growers living on the lush, dizzyingly vertiginous hills must utilize steep terraces called poios in order to plant and harvest vines. The scheme seems crazy, but the residents have been doing it for nearly 400 years, thus enabling these unique wines to be produced in an otherwise seemingly impractical landscape (see also Port). The altitude helps to minimize the effect of the tropical climate, one that often produces rainy, steamy conditions -- not classically ideal for vitis vinifera.

Madeira is a fortified wine, but unlike port, it ranges from dry to richly sweet. The best stuff, although the smallest share of the total Madeira production, is made from white grapes. Winemakers fortify the wine with a neutral spirit to stop fermentation once the desired level of sweetness has been reached. The next miracle of Madeira lies in the fact that the wine ends up cooked, ultimately providing stability and a long shelf-life.

In addition to Terroir's unusually long list of 15 labels, Stinton sourced a few epic bottles to encourage a Madeira renaissance. He pulled out a 1907 D'Oliveira Malvasia ($44 a shot) and a 1954 D'Oliveira Malvasia ($24 a shot) during my visit (both are still available at the Park Slope location; both still haunt my palate). We settled in over a short pour of each and discussed why the world should be drinking Madeira again. A few good reasons:  

The wine refuses to spoil. Did your mother ever accuse you of failing to care for your things? If so, Madeira should be at the top of your alcohol shopping list. Imagine getting in your car, throwing a few bottles of wine in the trunk, and driving from New York to L.A. via the deep South in July. Along the way your AC fails. You take your time, lingering over too many Sazeracs in New Orleans, detouring for a few snapshots of the Grand Canyon, swinging through Austin for a concert. Upon arrival in Hollywood, you pop the trunk and -- oh damn! -- remember you'd stashed your wine in there.

Unless you are an alcoholic, most juice cooked in a car during a three week jaunt across America would be immediately tossed in the garbage. But not Madeira -- it would survive. In fact, a long, hot journey (in a 17th century boat) was how Madeira initially came to be discovered as improving and stabilizing with exposed heat treatment.

Nowadays, the wines are stored in wooden casks of varying sizes that undergo a process called canteiro. The casks are left to age on the top floor of high-level lofts (because heat rises!) for many years, allowing the warmth of the ambient temperature and oxidation to change the flavors and darken the color of the wine: primary fruit develops into the fragrant, hedonistic flavors of dried fruits, caramel, spices, and nuts.

Madeira was a favorite tipple of Washington and Jefferson. Did you know the signing of the Declaration of Independence was toasted with a glass of Madeira? How about the Louisiana Purchase? The U.S. Constitution? Apparently Madeira Madness had befallen our Founding Fathers -- they consumed gallons of it; quite logical considering the British Empire's affinity for both Madeira and for spreading her customs to her colonies.

The wines run from dry to sweet, but acid keeps it all refreshing. Unlike port or sherry grapes, Madeira varieties retain a striking natural acidity that provides a perfect palate foil to the sweetness of the wine. The grape used generally dictates the residual sugar, so look for varietal names on the bottle to predict the style. From driest to sweetest, the best wines are made from four principal white grape varieties: Sercial, Verdelho, Boal, and Malvasia (also called Malmsey). Finding a wine made from the Terrantez grape is rare because production nearly dried up, but since 2009, Terrantez plantings have been on the rise. The grape fits somewhere in the middle of the sweetness scale, and lucky for us New Yorkers, Terroir carries two of them.

Vintage Madeira will probably be the oldest wine you'll ever drink. To taste a wine from 1907, head to Park Slope Terroir and bring $44 with you. Stinton gives a very compelling case for why you should consider it: "Think about what was happening in the world in 1907, and how drastically the world has changed since. The Ford Model T wasn't even released yet [that was in October 1908]. Two World Wars went by. The moon landing. The internet. Cell phones. This wine sat in a barrel, off in a corner of the winery for 100 years while the world underwent exponential change. That's 10 decades! Then it was bottled in 2006. That's nearly 10 more years in bottle before this wine made it to this bar. I decanted it two weeks ago, and now we are sharing a glass of 110 years worth of history together."

Stinton pointed out that wines this old just aren't available in the market -- what few exist are locked-up in someone's cellar; even if they were on the consumer market, they'd be ferociously expensive and quite fragile. Wineries on Madeira, however, are set up to hold back their wines as they age and release them when they believe they are ready, even if that means 100 years later.

Rather than buying a shot of 1907 D'Oliveira Malvasia at Terroir, consider investing in a bottle from Vintry Fine Wines for $660. The beauty of owning the bottle? You can open it, savor a taste, and save the rest for another night; as we've already learned, you can't spoil the wine.

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Terroir Park Slope

284 5th Ave.
New York, NY 10001

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