by tirial

Madeira is a fortified wine named after the Portugese Island where it is made. It has a unique production process which involves heating the wine to give it a distinct flavour.

Madeira is a fortified wine named after the Portugese Island where it is made. It has a unique production process which involves heating the wine to give it a distinct flavour.

Less well known than Port or Sherry, the other fortified wines, Madeira can be kept in poor conditions for long periods without significantly degrading, even once opened. Once extremely popular in the US, it was even used to toast the Declaration of Independence.

About Madeira

The fortified wine

Madeira is named after the Portugese Island where it is made. A fortified wine like Port or Sherry, madeira has a unique production process which involves heating it to change the flavour. Good quality vintages are heated in lofts, while cheaper ones are subjected to steam pipes.

As with all fortified wines, it is supplemented with Brandy which increases its strength and adds to the distinct flavour. Available in flavours ranging from dry to sweet, the best known Madeira is Malmsey, the sweetest.

One of the rare wines that improves with rough handling, Madeira became popular with the British for naval voyages. Even today it can be stored in conditions where other wines degrade and still be drinkable. It has the longest life once opened of any wine, up to several months.From personal experience, not being a great drinker, the author has a bottle that is opened once a year at Christmas. It has been drinkable for the last few years - the rest of the year it's in a drawer.

Due to the high sugar and alcohol content (14-23%), Madeira also has a high calorie count so probably isn't a drink for dieters! Traditionally, Madeira was also drunk by either gender like sherry, while Port was reserved for men.

A 300-year old tipple

"fresh, clean, lively and a remarkable find" - one taster's comment on sampling a 1670 vintage discovered in London, in a testament to the staying power of madeira.

BBC News

Grape types for Madeira

The four varieties

There are four main types of grape that can be used to produce Madeira, which are considered "Noble" grapes. Arranged from Dry to Sweet these are:

  • Sercial - Dry
  • Verdelho - Dry/Sweet
  • Bual - Medium Sweet
  • Malmsey (also called Malvoisia) - Sweet
Each gives its name to the type of Madeira produced from that grape, and the extremely sweet Malmsey is probably the best known.

In a talk for Decanter Magazine, Andrew Jefford explains the differences.

A Dessert Wine?

Madeira has been suggested for use as a desert wine, although some may be preferred as apperatifs, or with fruit and cheese. They are also often used in cooking to give a firmer flavour to the food.

There are four main types of Madeira, traditionally named after the grapes they are made from.


The Sercial grape has a number of strains, which share the characteristics of late ripening and high acidity. They grow at the highest altitudes and are harvested late, in September. Its highly acid taste apparently earned the grapes the nickname ""The dog choker"

Sercial is the dryest variety of Madeira and takes the longest to mature. Older sercials are richer and much prefered to recent vintages.


Verdelho Grapes are small, hard skinned and golden. As well as being used for Madeira, some acres have been planted in Australia which produce a dry table wine. It is vulnerable to frost and if harvested late may produce too much alcohol.

Verdelho is a medium dry Madeira. Many tasters describe it as "smoky", a tendency which apparently increases with age.


Bual has a number of sub-variaties of grape that use the name. The grapes have a high acidity which whe turned into Madeira, produces a rich sweet drink.

Sometimes spelled Boal, Bual is a sweet or medium sweet madeira. Buals from the 1800's have been drunk, still in good condition.


Malmsey was the first of the noble varieties, planted in the 16th century. It is grown in lower-lying vinyards, harvested between August and October.

Also called Malvoisia, Malmsey is the sweetest of the madeiras and also the most popular.

Lesser Grapes

Other grapes are used in making Madeira, however, and one in particular must be mentioned: Tinta Negra Mole

Not strictly a madeira grape, this needs to be mentioned in context, as it is used in madeira production. Considered a good grape, not a great one, it is a pale-coloured red grape. This variety was used by a number of producers to allow them to produce more madeira than they otherwise could.

For example, a Verdelho Madeira may not be made entirely of that grape. Lesser grapes, like Tinta Negra Mole may be used to supplement the Verdelho in it. EU-regulations mean that any wine labelled by a grape's name has to contain at least 85% of that grape, the remaining 15% may be the lesser variety. Those labelled -style however, which may contain a majority of the lesser grape. This change in the law resulted in a few complications in naming, as some producers had created blends of different types of grape to give unique flavours.


More about Madeira
A useful introductory page about madeira can be found online at the Symington Family Estates

Naming laws

As an example of a Madeira hit by the change in EU law, Blandy's "Duke of Clarence" is another madeira that uses a blend with Tinta Negra Mole. Originally sold as a Malmsey, the drink was so popular that rather than change the drink, the producers changed the name and kept the grape blend.

This decision has lead to a range of Blandy Madeiras called "Duke of...", ranging from the Duke of Sussex Dry Madeira, Duke of Cumberland Medium Rich and Duke of Clarence Full Rich.

These can be mapped roughly against the existing types, with Duke of Clarence corresponding to Malmsey, Sussex to Sercial and Cumberland to Bual.

Also, as the process of making the wine has spread the rules - which state that the name can only be used for wines made at the location - have resulted in Madeira-style wines: wines made using the same heating and fortifying process but not made on the island.

The Madeira Wine Company

The Madeira Wine Company is the main producer of Madeira:
The Official Site

Madeira, M'Dear?

A fortified wine of dubious reputation

Madeira is a lovely wine, but also somewhat strong and therefore perhaps of a dubious reputation for the ladies.

At least, it was in this well-known song by Flanders and Swann (covered by the Limeliters and Jody Applebaum) where it is the tool of seduction for a less than honorable gentleman...

Madeira in History

The Americas, Shakespeare and more
"that Malmsey-nosed knave"
William Shakespeare on Falstaff

Madeira has a very long and storied history. In the early days of the US colonies, wine was brewed on Madeira and transported to the US. The sea voyage changed the taste considerably, but Madeira was one of the rare wines that improved with rough handling, and it became very popular. History records that it was used to toast the Declaration of Independence, although history does not record the vintage.

In the 1970s there was an outbreak of grape mould (rust) on the island that destroyed many of the vines and reduced the output, making madeira expensive and hard to get hold of. Some producers compensated by making blends, or introducing new grapes to compensate. In recent years it has begun to make a comeback, particularly in Europe, where many good alcohol sellers can provide good vintages, and standard drinks can be found on supermarket shelves.

Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste (The Lewis Walpole Series i...

This innovative book examines how, between 1640 and 1815, the Portuguese Madeira wine trade shaped the Atlantic world and American society. David Hancock painstakingly reconstru...

View on Amazon

A Method of Execution

Why Duke of Clarence?

Blandy's "Duke of..." Name may seem random, but it has a very strong link with Madeira. In 1478, the Duke of Clarence was executed for treason by being drowned in a barrel of Malmsey Madeira. Apparently this was at his request.

Instead of down playing this association Blandy's, one of the foremost Madeira producers, has named their Malmsey "Duke of Clarence" in his honour. The Madeira known as "Duke of Clarence" was originally sold as a Malmsey, but the high proportion of "Tinta Nigra Mole" grapes meant this was banned by EU law.


Cooking with Madeira

For Flavour

Madeira is extensively used in cookery, and there are a range of recipes available. Often used as a flavouring for sauces, gravy, and deserts, the good thing about cookery is that you don't need an expensive vintage Madeira.

As well as specific recipes, in many cases, Madeira can be used as a subsitute for recipies that would normally include sherry. However, Madeira can be substantially stronger than some sherries, so it is as well to take this into account.

If you are cooking with Madeira for the first time, consider the type you are using - a sweet Malmsey may be what you want in a trifle, but a very dry Sercial could give you an interesting taste! However that same dry Sercial used in a grape jelly can produce a nice contrast when served with cheese.

The recipe book below contains a range of recipes which feature Madeira, dating back to the early days of the US.

City Tavern Cookbook: Two Hundred Years Of Classic Recipes From America's First Gourmet Restaurant

In May 1774, soon after City Tavern opened for business, Paul Revere arrived at its doors to announce Parliament’s closing the port of Boston. In 1777, the Tavern hosted America...

View on Amazon

How do you like Madeira?

There are a lot of different types of madeira, so I'm limiting this to the four main groups. Share your opinions - do you like yours sweet, dry or don't you drink it? If you want to leave more detailed feedback, the guestbook is below.

Buying Madeira

Out of fashion - in 1888

As far back as 1888 there were concerns that Madeira was going "out of fashion".

NYTimes Archive 1888

Given its long links to the US, it can be quite hard to find Madeira for sale in the US, particularly online. There are some supplies available through Amazon, but not very many.

Ironically, giving how tricky vintages can be to find in the US, in the UK and Europe Madeira is comparatively easy to get hold of. Even one of the main supermarkets stocks a range of the lesser vintages (through to some quite expensive ones). For a range of good madeira in Europe you can even buy from

Old Guestbook

Comments for the last five years

This was originally a purple star lens of Squidoo, but was moved when the site closed. Hubpages deleted it for low quality three months ago (?) so it's now on Wizzley. Here are the comments for the last five years: The new guestbook is below.

SusanDeppner profile image

SusanDeppner 5 years ago from Arkansas USA Level 7 Commenter

Very informative. Congratulations on another purple star!

CoolFoto profile image

CoolFoto 5 years ago

Congrats on your Purple Star! :)

evelynsaenz1 profile image

evelynsaenz1 5 years ago from Royalton Level 1 Commenter

Congratulations on the well-deserved purple star!

PromptWriter profile image

PromptWriter 5 years ago from Eastern Ontario

Congratulations on your purple star!

kateloving profile image

kateloving 5 years ago from Lancaster PA Level 1 Commenter

Get the wine lovers over here to appreciate this lens!! Of course, the purple star says it all!!

KimGiancaterino profile image

KimGiancaterino 5 years ago from California

Very nice lens... Congratulations on the purple star!

anonymous 5 years ago

From all the places I’ve been to in Portugal, Madeira is one of the best! Their food is an excellent partner to their wines. Their unique wine process is famous because of the process where wine is heated to as high as 60°C (140°F) for a prolonged period. The wine is also deliberately exposed to oxidation, providing the wine that robust taste which stays on long after the bottle has been opened

anonymous 5 years ago

The best place to enjoy Madeira wine is in the island’s famed beach. Though their gorgeous beach is a tourist spot, I believe it has not been discovered by a lot of people and foreign visitors, letting it maintain its laid back feel


MacPharlain profile image

MacPharlain 5 years ago

I love a good madeira...although I didn't know anything about the different types. Thanks for explaining it.

Tagsforkids profile image

Tagsforkids 4 years ago

Nice lens on Madiera. It's not one I've had, but there's a first time for everything! :)

missbat profile image

missbat 4 years ago

I've never had Madeira but after reading your lens, I'm going to have to try it!

zentao profile image

zentao 3 years ago

I am a real wine neophyte, you make madeira sound so good though I wamt to go get one and try it!

anonymous 3 years ago

Yes Madeira is a wonderful wine although not bought as much as Port or Sherry. If you are looking for a good UK source then check out

BlueTrane profile image

BlueTrane 2 years ago

I will have to give Madeira a try.

jlshernandez profile image

jlshernandez 2 years ago

I like port the most because I have a swee-tooth. I have used Madeira for cooking once.

PortugalBestPro profile image

PortugalBestPro 22 months ago from Portugal

Great lens!!!

Updated: 01/24/2015, tirial
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