Madeira and Marsala


From the Madeira Islands – a couple of hundred miles from the Portuguese coast and at one time a key stop-over port on the way to far flung Portuguese outposts around the world. Again, the point of fortifying the wines was almost certainly introduced as a way to preserve them before their long sea voyages (both extra alcohol and the extra sugar it leaves in the wine have this effect).

The story goes that one batch that was still on board a ship when it returned to port was found to have been greatly improved after being roasted by heat in the tropics. Thereafter the custom was introduced of heating the wine as part of the production method (for three continuous months – much like a voyage in a wooden ship in Tropical waters). This process makes it even better preserved and its worth mentioning that madeira can be kept for a long time after opening – although why you’d want to keep it instead of drinking it is hard to fathom.Leacock-Sercial-1870

As you may have read in our feature on Whisky, madeira was a major factor in the American revolution – beginning when cargo sloop The Liberty was impounded in Boston harbour for non-payment of duty on the 3000 gallons of madeira it was carrying – causing mass rioting by Boston residents. presumably desperate for drink. The later ditching of Tea into the harbor makes more sense in this historical context, alcohol taxes were really what it was all about.

George Washington symbolically toasted the signing of the Declaration of Independence with the same Madeira wine and is said to have drunk a pint of it with every meal thereafter – a fact which didn’t stop him taxing it for everybody else and marching on Kentucky with 17000 troops when the people rebelled against the new booze taxes all over again.

On land or at sea, the traditional custom, as with most wines, was to serve drier varieties as an aperitif before a meal and sweeter ones with the dessert. Since most of us in the modern UK don’t get to sit down for a civilized two hour lunch any more these customs have died the death.

Another thing to be aware of is that there are cheaper versions of Madeira that are intended for cooking only. You can’t drink them because they have salt and pepper added – so take a Portuguese dictionary when you go shopping for Madeira.

Let them eat cake
Three bad things have happened to madeira – cake, americans, and phylloxera.

Much to many people’s disappointment, there is no madeira in madeira cake – and never has been. The only connection the cake recipe seems to have to the wine is that they were often eaten together – and the name of one was cruelly and deceitfully transferred to the other. There is a traditional cake from Madeira – it’s now called bolo de mel – honey cake, but it was originally made from molasses, and not a drop of madeira wine goes into that either.

Also know that in defiance of European rules, the Americans sell stuff they label as “Madeira”, just as they do “Port” and “Sherry”. Needless to say they could contain anything except madeira (although some contain madeira).

Alas, the phylloxera epidemic that hit other wine growing regions of Europe so hard in the late 19th Century also struck Madeira – decimating the traditional grape varieties. So most of the madeira sold today is made from a different grape and will be subtly different that those that excited our forbears so much (as is true of nearly all wines today). However the original grape varieties are not completely extinct and it may still be possible to find madeira made from the Terrantez or Bastardo grape varieties.

Madeira comes in many varieties. The following is an introduction to the terminology.

Cuba de Calor – The name refers to 90 days of heat-aging.
Armazém de Calor – uses a gentler heating process for a longer period of time (as much as a year).
Canteiro – the highest quality method uses no unnatural heating at all but stores the wine in a warm room for as much as 20 years, or even much longer (100 year old canteiro is rumoured to exist).
Sercial – is fermented until nearly dry before being fortified – it has almond flavours but is quite acidic.
Verdelho – fermentation is stopped a little sooner so has a slightly sweeter smoky flavor (but still quite acidic).
Bual (or Boal) – a little sooner still and you get a dark colour, medium-rich texture, and raisin flavours.
Malmsey (or Malvasia or Malvazia) – sweet, dark, rich and with coffee or caramel flavours.
Finest – is at least 3 years old and used for cooking (especially popular in cake – but what cake nobody knows – not madeira).
Reserve – once bottled has been kept for at least 5 years
Special Reserve – bottled for ten years
Extra Reserve – 15 years
Colheita (or Harvest) – wine from a single vintage (year), aged at least 5 years before bottling. In effect it is like a “late bottled vintage” port (although when the word colheita is applied to port it means it is at least 7 years old before bottling).
Frasqueira (or Vintage) – wine from a single vintage that has been aged at least 19 years before bottling.

A bottle of madeira may be any combination of several of these terms, so the range is quite complex.

Well known in the US is a version popularly called “Rainwater” which is lighter, sweeter and made from a less approved grape – the Negra Mole – but popular as an aperitif (amongst that kind of people).


Marsala is based upon Sicilian white wine and is named after the Sicilian city of Marsala. That’s a very good start in my books because Sicilian wines – both red and white – are some of the most enjoyable wines in the world (and my personal favourites).

Curiously, once again we find that the British played a major hand in the development of a fortified product from these local wines. In 1773 an English trader John Woodhouse visited the port of Marsala and recognized a similarity between some of the local wines and those being used in Iberia to make sack (sherry) which was hugely popular in England. So he encouraged the native producers to age their wines in a similar way to the method being used in Spain – adopting the solera system of gradually adding fresh wines into a succession of more aged barrels (this is sometimes still used and sometimes not).

The huge advantage of processing it this way from his point of view as a trader was that the extra alcohol preserved the wine during the long sea voyages of the day to get it to market. The Woodhouse connection is still proudly attached to the product by its Sicilian inheritors.Woodhouse-marsala

Marsala is usually produced from white grape varieties like Grillo, Inzolia, and Catarratto but there are also red variations. There now exists quite a few varieties of marsala based mostly on aging and sweetness. You will see it labeled as either secco (dry), semi-secco or sweet. The words that denote aging and other variations are as follow –

Oro – a golden colour.
Ambra – an amber colour derived from mosto cotto which sweetens it.
Rubino – a ruby red colour, because it’s made from red instead of the usual white grapes.
Fine – aged a minimum of just one year.
Superiore – aged at least two.
Superiore Riserva – aged at least four.
Vergine e/o Soleras – at least five
Vergine e/o Soleras Stravecchio e Vergine e/o Soleras Riserva – aged ten years or more.

In Sicily it’s usually served as an aperitif in the middle of a meal – often with cheese, such as Parmesan, and the younger varieties used a lot in the local cooking – it would still beat British “cooking sherry” if it weren’t for the added salt.