Madeiran wine and more

Mad topography (3)

Discovering Madeira, the island, not the wines….yet!

zarco vMadeira was first discovered by the Portuguese navigators João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira in 1419. With its high cliffs and mountains, and often with a cloudy top as in the illustration above, it must have been visible to Zarco for many miles before he arrived and put ashore.

A statue of Zarco stands proudly in central Funchal. He may just give you a gentle nod in appreciation for visiting his beautiful island.

Madeira was settled rapidly by the Portuguese, with its abundant fish stocks to support the settlers whilst the heavily wooded island was cleared for agriculture. Indeed the literal translation of Madeira means “Wood” and Funchal (the capital city) means “fennel” in Portuguese.

In the enviable climate of the cleared island agriculture and viniculture quickly took hold, and the island grew prosperous as it was especially suitable for sugar production. The vestiges of this are still visible today.

Madeira soon became an important calling off point for the growing number of ships plying the Atlantic in the 16thcentury onwards. Indeed as the drawing above shows, Madeira can be seen by mariners from great distances due to its topography and the clouds that gather around the mountain peaks of the now extinct volcanoes that created this wonderful island.

Mariners are well known worldwide to be “thirsty” individuals, and as well as food stuffs wine was an important part of any voyages victuals. The desire for “alcohol” was not however the principle reason for taking barrels of wine from Madeira on a voyage, but the fact that wine will keep in barrels far longer than water will.

Wine being delivered and shipped out to the waiting cruise liners of the day!

Funchal Bay P1080084

Buying Madeiran wine when not in Madeira

The good news is that it is now quite easy to buy Madeira when not visiting the island as many specialist wine merchants will deliver Madeira to you without to much trouble.

Some of the best wine merchants are to found on the Internet.

The Discovery of Madeira wine

It became noted that the quality of the wine much improved on the voyages, especially those through warmer climes. Contemporary thought was unclear what caused  the improvements to the quality of the wine….the heating by the sun or the agitation of the wine caused by the rocking motion of the sea were the two principle theories.

Eventually the practice emerged of shipping Madeira wines on long effectively circular voyages where the wine was gently heated through and agitated.  The result of this was firstly an improvement in the wines drink-ability,  but crucially due to this oxidisation process it was discovered that the wines of Madeira will keep to great ages….even when opened they will keep in excellent condition for you to enjoy for several weeks! And so Madeira wine was discovered, and soon became one of the worlds first luxury goods, renowned for its sweetness and smoothness, and  revered for its ability to age!

Quite who discovered that it was the heat that had the desired effect on the wines, and not the motion of the sea is not known, but the practice of sending Madeira wines on long voyages of maturation has now ceased. This was known as “vinho da roda” – wine that had been transported to India and back and means “Round trip Wine”. Now you only have to make a trip to Madeira.

Instead, the wines are now matured in warehouses on the island itself. These warehouses are in the roof spaces of the Madeira wine shippers. This process continues today and is known as the Canteiro method, where the wines are stored in barrels and gently matured by the Madeiran sun. This process is still used today and produces the highest quality of Madeiran wines.

Madeira wines slumbering in a typical loft warehouse

Blandy barrles
Blandy barrles
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Wines in the Blandy’s winery in central Funchal  A Malvasia or Malmsey maturing Canteiro style


You can read about how Madeira wine is made  and understand why these old barrels are slumbering in the roof tops in downtown Funchal where many of the producers are based, a little about the Madeiran menu and importantly what food on the menu best accompanies the differing styles of Madeira wine: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey and what to look for on the labels of Madeira wine bottles.

Here is a wonderful, if over the top Madeira wine promotional video.

The  Madeira wine producers are BarbeitoBlandy’s (who also include Cossart and Gordon,  Leacock’s and Miles), BorgesD’OliveiraFariaHenriques and Henriques and Justino’s and it is possible with some organization and planning to visit them….indeed it is strongly advised.

If you cannot visit take a look at some recommendations of where to buy Madeira wines online.