Madeira is a fortified wine produced on the island of Madeira, off the western coast of Africa.
Madeira is produced in the same way as sherry – brandy being added to the wine at the end of its fermentation period, thus ‘fortifying’ it and adding to its potency. Madeira ages well and may be kept almost indefinitely.
There are four main types of Madeira, all named after their grape of origin – Sercial, Verdclho, Bual and Malmsey. The first two are light and rather dry to taste and are therefore usually drunk as an aperitif; the latter two are lusher, sweeter to taste and are almost always used as dessert wines or after-dinner drinks.
The history of Madeira is an interesting one. When the island was discovered by Henry the Navigator, a Portuguese prince, in the fifteenth century it was uninhabited. Notwithstanding that, however, vines were planted almost at once and peasants were imported to nurture the grapes to maturity. Thus Madeira’s wine industry was born.
Although the island was, in fact, a Portuguese possession, the bulk of its wine has always been directed towards the British market, facilitated in the early days by treaties between the two coun-tries. Madeira became the fashionable drink of the English mediaeval aristo-cracy, an early popularity which culmin-ated rather uneasily in the death of George, Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV and Richard III, who is said to have expired in a butt of Malmsey. For a time after that, the wine, rather under-standably, declined in popularity but by Victorian times its use had spread to the emerging middle classes and – as a clincher to its place in history – it was supposed to be the drink with which wicked squires tempted innocent young maidens to forgo the paths of unsullied virtue!