The first time I tried Madeira wine was on a sweltering summer night in the middle of East Texas wine country. Tara Vineyard & Winery was full-swing into one of their weekend parties; a raucous jazz quartet provided a lively backdrop to the laughter and conversation blanketing the patio. In the distance, past the vineyards, Tara Inn’s lights glowed warmly in the darkness.
In the kitchen, we were taking turns running out to refill glasses of wine and arranging dinner plates for the patrons. It wasn’t unusual for the owners to duck into the kitchen to joke with us, snag some food, offer us something to drink, or plan something special for a friend or regular customer. That, night, though, the owner dipped into the kitchen with a particular gleam in his eye strongly reminiscent of a great inventor on the brink discovery. Brandishing a small, dark bottle of wine, he had us dig into the freezer to unearth some vanilla ice cream, which we then scooped into little bowls. Then, with a grand flourish, he poured some of the wine over the melting vanilla ice cream.
“There!” he exclaimed. “A Madeira float! Give it a try!”
The Madeira itself was a rich caramel color that had a varied, deep array of smells. The tasting notes describe it as having aromas of coffee, caramel, walnuts, dried fruits, and complex spices. Paired with the vanilla ice cream, it was as sweet, overwhelming, very nearly hedonistic sensory experience.
I’d never heard of Madeira before that night, and it turns out there’s a solid reason why. Madeira wine originated on the Portuguese Madeira Islands and was the happy accidental result of 15th century traveling with casks of wine with neutral grape spirits added in order to preserve the wine during long journeys.
It turns out that the extended exposure to excessive heat and movement during the long trips fundamentally changed the flavor of the wine, oxidizing it and giving it a sweeter, denser, and more complex flavor.
It’s not a sound business strategy to send 15th century ships to sea with casks of wine anymore, but fortunately the winemakers of the Madeira Islands have found a workaround. Today, Madeira is made through a unique process that involves heating the wine. And, like champagne, which can’t properly be called champagne unless it originates in the Champagne region of France, EU PDO regulations stipulate that Madeira wine can only be called such if it originated from the Madeira Islands.
Regardless of EU PDO regulations, the Haak Winery of Texas proudly makes wine in the same traditional fashion as Madeira Island winemakers, marketing and selling their wine as Madeira. They’ve seen a huge amount of success, likely due to the fact that Madeira is a versatile wine that can be enjoyed as both an aperitif and a digestif, and it has high enough acidity that it can pair with a wide variety of foods. Additionally, it’s one of the longest-lived wines, surviving even up to 200 years after being opened.
That’s great news for both me and the bottle of Haak Winery Madeira I’ve been hoarding for the last several years. Dessert, anyone?
SOURCE Wikipedia contributors. “Madeira wine.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 Feb. 2019. Web. 11 Mar. 2019.