Madeira wine grape varieties

The wines from this small rustic Portuguese island, located nearly 400 miles off the coast of Africa, enjoy a legacy of popularity with wine lovers spanning nearly 600 years of history. The Portuguese Embassy recently hosted a tasting to show off how enthralling these wines can be.

The reference to foodies in the title is not so much about food pairing (although I am told many can be conjured), it is more to do with the experience of taste sensations that these wines can offer. I would call it food replacement therapy.

History, process, personality, flavour

There is so much history associated with Madeira wine that it is better to read a book about it with an open bottle at your side. However, a part of that learning from history has contributed to the beauty and brilliance of flavour we enjoy today.

It is to do with how the old wines, after fortification, were stored in casks in the hold of ships during long journeys to the tropics, where super hot conditions dramatically complexed and enriched the flavours of the wine.

When this effect of the heating was understood, Madeira wines destined for America or Britain would undergo the long journey in order to achieve the highest possible quality. Wines that had completed these round trips were named vinhos da roda and were in supremely high demand.

In modern times this heating process has been emulated by developing a piping system within the tanks that heats the wine. This process is known as estufagem and contributes to (among others) the caramel qualities that result in the flavour profile. 

Grape varieties:

Rubina Vieira, the Madeira Wine Tasting Institute Director, summarised how the grape varieties are expressed in Madeira wine:

RV: "Madeira wine is known for their traditional grape varieties and those traditional grape varieties are associated with certain styles of wine.

So if we are talking about the Sercial, it can be extra dry or dry style. If we talk about Verdelho, we know that if you buy a Madeira wine made with Verdelho, you are buying a medium dry style. If you buy a Bual, it is a medium sweet wine. It can only be that! If you buy a Malvasia, it will always be the sweetest style for a Madeira wine.

These are all white varieties. There is one that is very very rare because we only have 2.9 hectares, and that is called Terrantes. With Terrantes, we always do medium-sweet, or medium-dry. All white varieties.

But there is one, a recommended variety, that is called Tinta Negra, and it is red. You will find it everywhere on the island, on the south, or on the north at different levels of altitude. With Tinta Negra you can make all the styles of Madeira wine, it depends only on the time that you stop the fermentation.

If you stop in the beginning you will have a sweet style and if you stop in the end you will have a much drier style."

madeira grape varieties

Other style factors influencing Madeira wine:

Aside from the bulk wines, the Three and Five Year Old Madeira wines are made largely from Tinta Negra and have a generally lighter style. There is a type of Madeira called Rainwater that falls into this category, so-called because years ago the casks unintentionally let rainwater seep into them whilst left on the beach to be loaded aboard ships.

The Barbeito Rainwater Reserva has a sweet and zesty aroma but on the palate combines caramel, almonds, and fruitiness wrapped in a fresh impressive acidity. A perfect aperitif wine, an exciting the sensation for the tastebuds.

The Five-Year-Old Madeira wines indicate that the wine has had 5 years in cask, and if blended then the five years will apply to the youngest component of the blend. If the bottle is labeled with a particular variety then it must contain at least 85% of that variety.

The same is applied for the Ten and Fifteen Year Old Madeira wines. The Vintage Madeira must be aged for at least 20 years in cask after the deliberate heating of the estufagem process that brings the magic to the wine.

madeira wine mapMap of Madeira Island showing vineyard producing areas with varietal proportions (click here for large PDF version)

Unique acid profile & terroir combined

Freshness in wine is the mantra heard at just about every wine tasting I attend and this is (justifiably) no different. I asked Rubina what she thought lent these wines a modern relevance to wine drinkers:

Rubina Vieira (RV): It is a fortified wine, but it is a different kind of fortified wine because it has the expression of the island. It is all about freshness. This is a sweet wine with a lot of freshness because of the acidity, and the acidity is all about terroir, about the conditions of the island and how we produce the wine.

So everything is so unique and different.

Nick Breeze (NB): In the tasting today freshness has been one of the distinctive characteristics, is this purposeful? You say it comes from the terroir, is it something that is purposefully kept in the style?

RV: Yes it is!

NB: That plays into modern [winemaking].

RV: Madeira was always a fortified wine. It was different because of that and we want to keep that characteristic and we don’t want it to change. Some producers keep picking the grapes a little bit earlier to keep the freshness and the acidity of the wines. It is something that we want to maintain.

So who is drinking Madeira?

This was an insightful tasting because it opens another door of pleasure for flavour orientated hedonists. Food lovers and wine lovers are sensation seekers, and what I learned here is that Madeira offers a unique richness that can really excite the mind. For example, it is not hard to envisage doing away with fidgety snacks when hosting a party and simply serve a dry Sercial, or medium-dry Verdelho to guests. After dinner, it would amount to a natural follow-on to serve something older, richer, and more complex and see the faces of your discerning guests crescent in appreciation.

On a more sober note I asked Rubina how other tasters were responding to the Madeira spell:

RV: It was great. It has been amazing. They have enjoyed the wines a lot. The wines are perfect wines in different styles. We only have eight companies and we have a lot of different styles, so it is interesting, it is challenging!

NB: Did you feel that from today, and from other tastings, that there is a new generation of Madeira drinkers?

RV: Yes, yes, I did. That is true. Nowadays I see that we have younger people drinking and appreciating Madeira wine. We have a lot of students, young people who are studying WSET or to be Masters of Wine, they are coming and they want to know more.


The producing and exporting companies of Madeira are as follows:




H. M. Borges, Sucrs, Lda. 


Justino’s - Madeira Wines, S.A. 



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