class="text">The common wisdom about wine, especially white wine, is that it is a fragile thing, best drunk young and fresh before it fades—like a pinot grigio, for example—or else carefully barrel-aged into something complex and graceful and expensive. Wine must be coddled in caves or in cavelike buildings; if not, if it gets too much oxygen or sun, or bacteria creep in, or the cork gets infected, you get something sour, rusty or rotten.
The idea of throwing barrels of white wine into the holds of sailing ships and sending them around the world through hellishly hot climes, letting the wine slosh and cook in the stinking belly of the boat until coffee brown—the idea that this might improve a wine—well, that's wacky. Sail a wine to India and back?You wouldn't boomerang a brie to Brisbane, would you?
Meet madeira, weirdest wine in the world. Also among the most delicious.
Mind you, madeira tastes about as much like white wine as sour-mash bourbon tastes like the corn from which it comes. It packs a boozy wallop because, like port and sherry, it's fortified with extra alcohol. Madeira is sweet, but even the sweetest versions carry an acidic/sour/bitter quality that makes the sugar admissible. And it's intensely flavorful—again, think whiskey as much as wine—due to a concentrating process that no longer occurs in ships but in heated buildings that replicate the effect.
As with the story of rum, this is an island tale, one that's as much about trading routes as it is about drinking habits. The isle of Madeira sits 610 miles off the southwest coast of Portugal, about 450 miles from Africa. During the age of sail, it was a port of call for boats heading to tropical destinations. The boats took on wine, but wine suffers in heat; fortification emerged in the eighteenth century to stabilize the drink. Eventually drinkers noticed that this fortified wine emerged from its sweaty ride transformed, like a seafaring Cinderella, into something gorgeous.
Another character comes to mind: Dorian Gray. Through its long cooking process, madeira turned into a bizarrely long-lived thing. I have in front of me a 1934 madeira made from the verdelho grape, as well as a ten-year-old verdelho. By any wine standards, the 1934 is ancient. Yet it shows no sign of losing its muscle tone. Moreover, it isn't nearly as different from the ten-year-old as you would expect. It's deeper, a bit leaner and sharper, but not old. This is not like a delicious thirty- or forty-year-old red wine, charming in part because it's getting a bit funky and brick-colored around the edges. The 1934 tastes as if it could last another 200 years. This is genie wine; it comes out of the bottle doing a sailor's jig.
How does it taste?I could ask you to imagine a fine old oloroso sherry, then add the pungency of a great barbecue sauce, but if you haven't tasted an oloroso, that won't help. Unfortunately, sherries and madeiras (even more than ports, with their macho cigar-fad association) are considered a little twee, a bit pinky-in-the-air, a bit unmanly, fusty and altogether irrelevant to the good life. It's a long tumble from the days when madeira was raised to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
What a madeira tastes like is a heady mixture of toasted things (nuts, coffee beans, orange peel) along with peachy fruit, all bursting into your mouth with ferocity amid swirling sweetness, sourness and bitterness. While a ten-year old Taylor Fladgate tawny port makes for a sweet, plummy, raisiny after-dinner drink, a ten-year-old Henriques & Henriques bual madeira kicks ass. Nearly as dark as coffee, it has the sort of burnt-caramel smell associated with profound oxidation and seems to set up camp in a space between sweet and sour you've never entered before.
There are lighter and heavier styles associated with several single-grape varieties. Sercial is the lightest and driest, though the ten-year-olds I've tasted aren't as bone-dry as, say, a fino sherry: A very dry sherry tastes good before dinner, but madeira is basically a cheese, dessert or cigar wine. Verdelho and bual are heavier. Malmsey is the madeira most likely to remind you of a raisiny port; the young ones carry a cooked-jam taste that strikes me as clumsy. Ten-year-old varietals from Henriques & Henriques are a great starting point at about $30 a bottle; fifteen-year-olds from the same house are also delicious. After that, search wine stores or such Internet stores as the Wine Exchange (winex.com) and the Rare Wine Co. (rarewineco.com) for vintage bottles. Madeiras from the fifties and sixties can set you back $70 to $200. Exotic bottles like a 1795 Barbeito Terrantez might cost $1,400—you're drinking Constitution-era history. My Broadbent verdelho from the highly rated 1934 vintage was a hard-to-swallow $234—hard to swallow since the ten-year-old H&H verdelho, at $30, is almost as fine. At least there's a bonus for the less thirsty among us: Madeira lasts in the bottle for a long time after you've uncorked it.
Is very old madeira worth its price?For $30, the cost of a good ten-year-old, you'll get a superb drink. But the 1957 D'Oliveira "Old Wine," a $95 blend, is one of the best wines I've tasted—balanced, concentrated, sinfully delicious. India?Hell, this wine tastes like it went on a round-trip to heaven.
Fine Wine Online
Madeira is so rare that many wine stores stock a pitiful selection. Ordering from such web sites as winex.com and rarewineco.com is often the only option. The catch: Some states ban interstate shipping of wines. In theory this means that if you live in one of them, you can't receive wines from a web-site order. In reality, many web sites ship anywhere, stipulating that it's your duty—wink, wink—to know whether you live in a legal state. (Reputable ones will locate a bottle in your state and arrange intrastate shipping.) For a summary of the issues and a map of which states allow what, go to wineinstitute.org/shipwine.