Madeira is a volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic, a wine, and a miracle. Good-quality madeira is the world's longest-living wine. Its high alcohol and natural acidity and the fact that it has been virtually boiled during the production process mean that it is indestructible, whether in a wooden cask or glass carboy maturing under the rafters of a lodge in Funchal or in a bottle at home, however long ago it was opened. Madeira is the only wine that can be kept in a decanter on a sideboard for months without deteriorating. I also reckon that this unique fortified wine also has the strange property of protecting the drinker, well this drinker anyway, from a hangover (unlike port).
The trouble is that most of the madeira produced today is rather ordinary – very good for cooking and adding richness to meat reductions, but hardly fine enough to savour by the thimbleful. This is partly because so many of the so-called ‘noble’ grape varieties Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, Malvasia (for Malmsey) were replaced by the easier-to-grow, much more prolific but coarser Tinta Negra Mole. A shortcut to seriously good-quality madeira is to look for one of the four noble varieties on the label. (There is a fifth variety, Terrantez, but that is virtually extinct on the island). Blended wines made from the Tinta Negra Mole and/or Complexa varieties are labelled by average age (eg 3 year old ‘Finest’, 5 year old ‘Reserve’, 10 year old ‘Special Reserve’ or 15 year old ‘Extra Reserve’) and style (see below).
Sweeter madeira is made very much like port in that it is fortified halfway through fermentation while drier styles are, like sherry, fermented fully to dryness before grape spirit is added. But madeira's real distinction is that the young wine is subjected to extreme heat, either artificially in a heated vessel or more naturally and slowly in hot lofts, which is where its deep caramel colour comes from.
Understanding madeira labels
Bual/Boal, rich, dark, sweet madeira that ages well but can be drunk younger than Verdelho and, especially, Sercial. Drink with or after cheese. Lesser imitations made from Tinta Negra Mole and Complexa are labelled Medium Sweet.
Colheita, denotes a varietal madeira from a single year bottled after at least five years in cask.
Frasqueira, denotes a vintage madeira from one of the noble varieties which must age for 20 years in cask before release.
Malmsey, the sweetest, darkest madeira, for drinking after a meal. Lesser versions are labelled Sweet or Rich.
Sercial, the driest style of madeira which can make an extremely fine aperitif but demands many decades of ageing before it reaches its full potential. Lesser versions are labelled Dry.
Terrantez, a historic variety producing sweet or dry styles of madeira. Most commonly encountered in rare vintage bottlings but making a tentative comeback.
Verdelho, the second-lightest, driest madeira with a delicious tangy nuttiness. Lesser versions are labelled Medium Dry.
Vintage madeira, a (very rare) madeira labelled, say, 1944 without any mention of the word Solera should contain nothing but wine harvested in 1944.