Winston Churchill painted here, Margaret Thatcher honeymooned at the Savoy here but what this little- explored, Portuguese island of volcanic origin is internationally
renowned for is its wine.
Welcome to Madeira, with a population of 250,000 and a land area almost double the size of Mumbai. In the winter months, the mild weather of this idyllic island creates the senior citizen’s Shangri-la. It’s the perfect haunt for those in search of a tropical island paradise that isn’t noisy or too hot and still covered in lush green foliage. But there is something here for wine connoisseurs of every age with an interest in the origins of Madeira wine.
IN VINO VERITAS
The unique wine-making techniques that create the flavours of Madeira wine can be traced back to the 16th century but were developed more accidentally than by intention. Back then, early wine traders on the island would head over to India, China and Japan where early European communities and their military were prime customers for their products. The story goes that one shipment passed the equator and was returned to the capital city of Funchal unsold. Thinking the shipment was spoiled, the ship’s captain instructed his crew to throw the entire load overboard but the sailors decided to sample a bottle and found it was still of very good quality and indeed had improved greatly during the voyage. For many years, it was believed that the swaying motion of the ships matured the wine in a unique way. For decades, casks of wine were sent on return sea voyages from Funchal to far-flung countries. These bottles were called Vinhao da roda to indicate wine that had been on a round trip, and were in great demand from the European colonies. Each load of wine was named after the ship it journeyed with. It was only in the 1800s that the secret of Madeira wine was discovered. The changing temperature of a ship’s hold as it moved to and from the equator on its voyages, was reproduced inside a building. Now known as an Estufa, wine is stored within this building and heated in different compartments at varying temperatures within different time periods.
The ship carrying Napoleon to exile in St Helena docked at Funchal in 1815 and history has it that the British consul on Madeira persuaded the famous prisoner to take on board a pipe (equal to 418 litres) of 1792 vintage Madeira wine. When he arrived at St Helena, Napoleon’s barrels of wine were found to be too young, so remained unopened. They were still unopened at his death and were reclaimed by the British consul in 1822 and sold to the Blandys, who put it into demijohns in 1840. When Sir Winston Churchill visited Madeira in 1950, the story goes that an authentic demijohn of Napoleon’s Madeira was opened for him. Apparently, he was so touched by the gesture that he personally poured a glass for each guest at the table, pointing out that the wine was vintaged when Marie Antoinette was still alive.
The first vines were brought over by Jesuits when the early settlers began to populate the island, and the plants loved the rich volcanic soil. Madeira island has one of the longest grape harvests in Europe because of the different altitudes where the grapes grow. The lower slopes are harvested for sweet grapes from the end of August, then again in October or November, when Muscatel grapes ripen. The upper slopes produce the Sercial vines, which grow up to altitudes of around 700 metres above sea level and are the last grapes to ripen, producing a drier wine. Visitors to Madeira in autumn will see trucks laden with fruit filling the roads on their way to the wine producers. Visit the Wine Festival in Estreito de Camara de Lobos in September to see the foot-pressing techniques used to persuade juice out of the grapes, careful not to crush the pips or stems of the grapes as they add a bitter taste to the juice. The juice is then placed in huge vats, wooden ones for better quality, spirit is added to fortify it and it is gently heated to equatorial temperatures, then cooled in a process that can take months. Madeira wine is the only kind that can be left open to the air resulting in an improvement in its taste. The wine that finally emerges is categorized into one of four types. Malmsey is a dark, brown, sweet wine usually drunk after meals. Boal is lighter and less sweet, more popular as a dessert wine. Verdelho is a medium dry that turns a beautiful golden colour and can be served either as an aperitif or a dessert wine. Sercial is the driest of the four and usually drunk as an aperitif.
FLAVOURS OF FUNCHAL
Visit the Madeiran Wine Institute, a yellow and red
building designed by British consul Henry Veitch
who gave Napoleon the Madeira wine. It houses a
small wine museum where photographs of wine production
on the island and pieces of old wine-making
equipment are on display. The 45-minute tour at the
Old Blandy Wine Lodge is more informative. It is
housed in the remains of a 16th-century convent
which today forms the headquarters of the Madeira
Wine Company, a merger of the four largest Madeira
wine families on the island: Blandy, Miles, Leacock
and Cossart Gordon. Guided tours start off in the
vintage cellar where barrel upon barrel of fragrant
maturing wine can be found and end in a winetasting.
A great start for any Madeira wine virgin.
Prices stretch from as low as $23 for a three-year-old
bottle of Madeira wine to about $950 for a bottle of 1908 Boal.
GETTING THERE | Fly to Funchal airport from Portugal or
any other major European city
_ STAY AT | Many luxury resorts offer package deals from
$100 a night upwards. If you want to stay in the room George
Bernard Shaw occupied in 1925, ask for number 770 at the
Reid’s Palace luxury hotel. A 7-day package is $320 a night
_ FOOD | Try the swordfish at any restaurant with a good
selection of seafood. Have a coffee at the Golden Gate
Grand Café on Avenida Arriga for a 19th century atmosphere
and watch the world go by from the terrace. For a bit of
celeb-spotting, try afternoon tea at Reid’s Palace or visit their
cocktail bar one evening
_ GIFTS | Madeira is known for its embroidery besides wine
_ WHAT TO SEE | Cabo Girao is one of the highest cliffs in
Europe at 589 metres above sea level. Take the funicular up
to Monte Palace Tropical gardens and take a traditional
touristy toboggan ride down the Monte
_ BEST SEASON TO VISIT | It is warm throughout the year
with showers occasionally. Visit during the wine festival in
September or for fireworks on New Year’s eve
(First published 25th December, 2010, TimesCrest edition)