When Alice returned from her tour of Wonderland, I’m certain that—upon reaching drinking age, of course—she poured herself a glass of Madeira. There is probably no style of wine that defies convention (or anything approaching normalcy) than this export from the Portuguese island it is named after.
It’s sweet. It’s dry. It’s tart. It’s old. It’s new. The process by which it’s made is confounding and, unlike any other wine, it really never goes bad after opening. The world of Madeira exists on the other side of the rabbit hole.
Perhaps appropriate for Halloween, this is the sort wine that scares the bejeebers out of most wine drinkers. But it wasn’t always that way. When England ruled the seas in the 1600s, sailors found the super-heated, oxidized wines in the belly of their boats plying the waters of tropics took on a nutty, caramel, dried fruit quality that they liked. It became quite popular in Britain and its many colonies. George Washington was quite fond of Madeira and the gentlemen who crafted the Declaration of Independence toasted their efforts with this beguiling fortified wine.
Its popularity only grew through the 1800s. Madeira clubs up and down the Eastern seaboard celebrated this wine. Sadly, its cult of personality dried up in this country during the unfortunate social engineering experiment called Prohibition. Today, there has been a tiny spike of resurgence as inventive mixologists find uses for the four (or five) types of Madeira. The styles of Madeira, named after their corresponding grapes, run the gamut from the dry, tart sercial to the sweet, unctuous malmsey. The two in between, verdelho and bual, are sweet and sweeter in the climb to the sweetest malmsey, otherwise known as malvasia.
The fifth classification, rainwater, is a bit of a hybrid and, if you believe the legend, has a Georgia connection. Apparently, barrels of Madeira were left on the dock in Savannah and were somehow diluted during a storm. Rather than dispose of the wine, the merchant explained that this was a “new style” Madeira called Rainwater. This style, somewhat like verdelho, caught on in the U.S. and remains mostly an American phenomenon.
As today is Halloween, three Madeira producers—which are doing their level best to re-introduce America to these fascinating wines—would love it if you’d pop a bottle of malmsey as you riffle through your children’s bag of confectionary loot later tonight—especially those chocolaty, caramely, nutty candy bars . Broadbent, The Rare Wine Company and Blandy’s are the three names to look for. And if you think a bottle of cooking madeira that comes from some place other than the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (where the island of Madeira is located) will light your fire, you’d be mistaken.
Remarkably, you could drink half the bottle tonight and finish the rest next October 31. Due to Madeira’s alcohol level (approximately 19 percent), acidity and rough-and-tumble way it is aged (these days it is kept in hot attics instead of wooden, sailing ships), the wine is bulletproof. It will not go bad.
Each of the producers mentioned above makes a variety of styles that can and should be enjoyed with different foods. Try the sercial with light, tart dishes like ceviche; the verdelho or bual pair nicely with Asian dishes that may have sweet, sour or spicy components. Bual with blue cheeses? Fo’get about it! As soon as I finish this column, I will be enjoying a Broadbent 10-year-old Malmsey with a homemade sweet potato tart with toasted and candied, chopped walnuts. Well, gotta run!
Gil Kulers is a sommelier and maitre d’ for an Atlanta country club. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.
— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog