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The enduring story of Madeira wine is a rich, sweet one

Dave DeSimone
| Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Blandy's Bual Madeira, 5 Year, Portugal
Blandy's Bual Madeira, 5 Year, Portugal

What delicious aperitif wine also pairs beautifully with holiday desserts including aged cheeses, nuts, dried fruit, spice cakes and chocolates? Most likely you did not name Madeira, an underappreciated, yet terrific fortified wine with a long history in America.

Madeira wines hail from volcanic, subtropical islands of the same name lying in the Atlantic Ocean, about 400 miles west of the north African nation of Morocco. In the Age of Exploration in the 1400s, Portuguese settlers discovered islands dense with trees. In Portuguese, Madeira means wood.

After vineyard planting, the islands became a regular port of call for merchant ships. Fresh water and fruit, along with Madeira wines, filled the ships' hulls as ballast for oceanic travel.

Eventually, Madeira producers discovered that wines heated from crossing the equator developed mild oxidized traits and marvelous, fruity concentration because of evaporation. The classic Madeira style took flight — a pleasantly oxidized nose leading to rich, refreshing flavors and a lingering, complex finish.

Madeira's popular zenith began in the late 1700s with robust sales in England, Russia and America, where it accounted for 70 percent of imports. Thomas Jefferson toasted the signing of the Declaration of Independence with Madeira. George Washington, Ben Franklin and John Adams sang the wine's praises.

At the height of popularity in 1811, John Blandy, a young Englishman in ill health, arrived to take advantage of Madeira's attractive year-round temperatures and sea breezes. He became a shipping agent, cargo handler and wine producer with a company that still bears his name.

By mid-19th century, outbreaks of mildew and phylloxera spelled disaster for Madeira's vineyards. Undaunted, Blandy's son, Charles Ridpath Blandy, risked financial ruin by purchasing large stocks of older wines as a hedge against continuing hard times.

Troubles persisted even after the vineyards recovered. American Prohibition closed an important market. Many producers debased Madeira's worldwide reputation by offering cheap cooking wines. But Blandy's persevered by banking on Ridpath Blandy's stocks and pursuing diversified businesses.

In recent decades, Blandy's led efforts to replant classic grapes varieties while investing in the traditional winemaking and patient, aging techniques required in producing high-quality Madeira wines. Chris Blandy, the seventh generation, serves as CEO. Re-establishing Madeira's reputation as one the world's great wines remains the prime goal.

“Our family has interests in hotels, media, real estate, travel and shipping in Portugal, Brazil and elsewhere,” Blandy says. “But Madeira wines remain an extremely important emotional part of our group and the backbone of our business.”

Collaborating closely with the Symington family of Portugal, Blandy works to expand worldwide distribution while communicating Madeira's enduring story. He and his winemaking team also exercise direct involvement in buying grapes from more than 500 Madeira grape growers to produce classic wines.

Each year, after carefully sorting the harvest, fermentation occurs in stainless steel with natural yeasts. After fortifying the wines with natural grape spirits to raise alcohol levels to around 19 percent, Madeira's trademark style emerges through the traditional “Canteiro” process.

“The wines age in American oak barrels left in the heat in our wine lodges at high temperatures for five, 10, 15 and even 80 years,” Blandy says. “We still have wines from 1920 aging in barrel.”

Slow evaporation develops tantalizing concentration until the wines still in barrels eventually end at cooler lower lodge levels. Madeira's terroir provides the key to enduring the heat.

“All the wines have refreshing underlying acidity that comes from the soils and climate,” Blandy says.

Try the following delicious wines at your holiday celebrations:

Blandy's Alvada 5-year-old Madeira , Portugal (Specialty 11359; $19.99 for 500 ml.). Made from a combination of Bual and Malmsey grapes, the wine's amber color unfolds caramel and brown spice aromas. Rich caramel flavors with citrus notes balance with Madeira's classic fresh tang balancing an off dry finish. Highly recommended.

Blandy's, Verdelho Madeira , 5 Year, Portugal (Luxury 11231; $22.99) comes primarily from Verdelho wines aged on average for five years in barrel. The amber color offers beautifully balanced dried apricot and brown spice flavors with just a hint of sweetness. Recommended.

Blandy's, Bual Madeira, 5 Year, Portugal (Luxury 11229; $22.99) has an amber gold color offering dried fruit, vanilla, and toffee aromas. Bright acidity balances the medium sweet finish. Highly recommended.

Dave DeSimone writes about wine for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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