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Madeira, An Island’s Liquid Jewel

I have a confession. I had never tasted Madeira until now. Oh. My. Goddess. I am in love with this fortified wine. I have missed out on so much, but trust me when I say I will make up for it now.

Photo by Bekky Bekks on Unsplash

Madeira – The Island, A Very Brief History

You can not talk about the beverage until you talk about the island. So, the first thing to know is that Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal. It is an archipelago comprising four islands about 300 miles off the northwest coast of Africa (Morocco). It was found uninhabited in the early 15th century by Portuguese sailors and quickly became part of the Portuguese empire. There is archeological evidence of previous “discovery,” which is not integral to this post. Portugal began populating the island in 1420, and the Malvasia grape was planted to produce wine. The island became a port of call to stock up on goods around the Cape of Good Hope at the base of the African continent.

A Happy Accident in Winemaking

Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

The first Madeira wines were inadvertently created during one of these early, long voyages. A ship full of wine was tossed and thrown about on the turbulent waters while warming, oxidizing, and evaporating as the barrels baked in the sun.

We now know that the tossing in the waves had little to do with the transformation; instead, the baking in the sun caused the wine to vaporize and condense. Combine that with the oxidation, and the wine creates notes of spices, roasted nuts, toffee, caramel, and dried fruits.

During the 18th century, the wine was fortified with brandy to ensure it would not spoil on long journeys. Fortification with brandy stops fermentation at the desired sweetness level and raises the alcohol content from 10-12% to 19-21%. At such levels, they increased this very popular wine’s aging potential by decades, if not centuries.

Although the wine no longer spends months on a ship in the tropics, this distinctive maturation process continues today, making Madeira unique in the world of wine. Today, the method used for the finest wines is Canteiro: aging the wine for years in buildings exposed to the sun.

About Madeira


Madeira is made from both white and red grapes, including Tinta Negra Mole, Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malvasia (aka Malmsey). Each grape variety bears distinct designations to identify their different styles. These designations include Indication of Age, Frasqueira, or Garrafeira (indicating the vintage year and a minimum aging of 20 years in casks) and Colheita (marking the vintage year and a minimum aging of 5 years).
Similar to port, Madeira is either Non-vintage or Vintage. Madeira wine comes in four sweetness levels: Seco: Dry, Meio Seco: Medium dry, Meio Doce: Medium sweet, and Doce: Sweet.

Sercial creates the driest Madeira wine. Sercial wines offer bright, citrus flavors and high acidity. They can be an excellent aperitif, but they must age for many decades to reach their full potential.

The sweetest Madeira wine is made with Malvasia, also known as Malmsey. It’s rich and has complex flavors from black walnut, Sichuan pepper, and pink peppercorn to citrus and green apple. Malmsey pairs well with chocolate desserts, ice cream, and cheese.

The Rare Wine Co. Historic Series of Madeira

Our first wine was from The Rare Wine Co. Historic Series of Madeira. This is a collection of six different wines. To emphasize America’s deep historical connection to Madeira, the name for each wine in the series is for a U.S. city where Madeira was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Thus, Charleston Sercial and Savannah Verdelho celebrate the South’s love of drier Madeiras, while Boston Bual and New York Malmsey acknowledge the North’s appreciation of sweeter Madeiras.

I was provided the Charleston Sercial Special Reserve.

Tasting Three Madeiras

Vinhos Barbeito Charleston Sercial Special Reserve
ABV 19.5%

The Rare Wine Co. Historic Series: Vinhos Barbeito Charleston Sercial Special Reserve

As a Charleston resident, I felt honored that they made the effort to send me the Charleston Sercial wine over the other options. It was fun to taste a wine similar to the most popular style in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Of all variations, the Sercial is the driest of the entire Vinhos Barbeito Historic Series lineup. Dry is a relative term with Madeira, as I have found varying sweetness levels in everything I have tried.

Setting aside that this wine is the “Charleston” version, I liked it most of the three I sampled. I loved the racy acidity melding with the sweetness, flavors, mouthfeel, and texture.

The color is a lighter reddish caramel, most resembling the color of a quality cup of tea. The nose is nutty and slightly sweet, with cedar, brown sugar, and butterscotch candy notes. Upon my first sip, the blazing acidity overcomes my mouth. I love this reaction. This mellows as you continue, but it sure gets the juices flowing.

There is richness and a cleansing mouthfeel. I taste citrus peel, burnt sugar, slight nuttiness, and almond skin. This is an excellent aperitif on a warm day, and I would pair this win with aged creamy cheeses.

Three thumbs up from me. (I realize I only have two thumbs, but I really like it.)

This wine is available in the Charleston marketplace and sells for approximately $61.00. Please note that fortified wines like Madeira and Port are not sold in wine shops due to their high alcohol content. These wines are purchased at liquor stores only. It can be specially ordered at Seven Star Liquor on Folly Rd. 843-795-5055.

Henriques & Henriques Single Harvest Malvasia 2001
ABV 20%

This wine is a single harvest, Colheita, aged over 20 years in aged 700L casks.

The color is medium-dark brown. A side view resembles the color of a Porter beer. At the same time, a side view appears more like a super strong cup of tea or perhaps a darkish amber beer. The aromas, including salted caramel, rich chocolate, uncooked Toll House cookie batter, sun-dried orange, and a malted waffle, seemed expansive.

This wine is sweeter than the Sercial but only medium-sweet—the sweetness balances with the rich flavors and pleasing acidity. The acid brings brightness, while the rich flavors of toffee, brûléed candied orange peel, allspice, and general nuttiness add to the velvety texture and mouthfeel.

Did I also love this wine? Of course, I did. Madeira is my new go-to fortified wine with its various styles and sweetness levels.

Sadly, this wine is not available in the Charleston market. If you find this wine in your market, expect a price of approximately $112.00 a bottle.

Broadbent Colheita Tinta Negra 1999
ABV 19%


The last of my three samples is the Broadbent. It is the oldest of the three wines and the only one made from Tinta Negra, aka Negra Mole, the primary red grape for Madeira.

Side Note:

Some 85%+ of all the grapes grown on Madeira are this variety, although most are for everyday Madeira and cooking wine. Rainwater Madeira is primarily made with Tinta Negra. It is a lighter style that supposedly was left on a dock or ship in the rain, and the barrels absorbed so much rainwater that the rainwater diluted the wine. It ultimately found a considerable following, is affordable, and makes up a significant volume of all Madeira.

Back to Broadbent:

This wine is the sweetest of the three samples – designated “Doce” or Sweet. Gary’s favorite surprised me because he is not big on sweeter wines. Perhaps it is because the acidity in Madeira balances the sweetness, so it seems less sweet.

The color is the darkest of the three. An aerial view presents a color similar to medium-brewed diner coffee. A side view offers dense, dark chocolate. Toasted brown sugar, dried prune, nut brittle, and spiced honey are on the nose. The palate follows with similar nuttiness, burnt sugar, caramel, dates, prunes, and mild cacao.

This wine is also sold in the Charleston area. Expect a price of $71.99. Special orders are accepted at Seven Star Liquor on Folly Rd. 843-795-5055.

We thoroughly enjoyed this experience. I shared these wines with several clients and made a few sales.

Remember – these wines last a long time, even once opened. So go for it. And as they say in Portuguese – “Deliciosa!”




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