T USUALLY only comes out at this time of year and Madeira is not the most fashionable of wines - if you visit the island it comes from you can understand why - but like the place itself it's replete with history and deserves to be savoured. The island is lush and luxuriant, the wine accordingly luscious and luxurious.
At 375 miles from Morocco, the island of Madeira rises so steeply out of the blue Atlantic Ocean that incoming flights need to take care to avoid overrunning Santa Catarina's short runway. The busy capital, Funchal, exudes an air of timelessness and discreet good manners symbolised by Reid's Hotel, a Winston Churchill favourite once caricatured as a place for "newlyweds and nearly deads". While other European hotspots boast bars full of 18-30-somethings, the younger couples in Funchal's brightly lit restaurants sit holding hands, eyes twinkling in contemplation of grandchildren yet to be born.
Portugal's time-warp island has a minimum temperature in winter of 13C, and a humid, sub-tropical climate that is mild pretty much all year round. Although only 285 square miles, Madeira's dramatically varied terrain explains why the island can, and does, grow anything from tropical produce like bananas and oranges to vines. As John Cossart, president of the Henriques and Henriques label, puts it, "Everything grows on Madeira; it's a floating manure heap."
Madeira was discovered in 1420 by Joao Goncalves Zarco. The island was originally forested and uninhabited, hence the name, meaning wood. But the Portuguese torched it and settled there, planting vines. Originally unfortified, the addition of spirit enabled the wines to withstand lengthy sea journeys. Given Madeira's strategic importance as an Atlantic port, ships en route to India called regularly at Funchal to pick up casks of Madeira wine. As the ships crossed the equator, the wine was affected by and benefited from the tropical heat captured in the holds. By the 18th century, there was considerable demand for "vinho de roda", wine that had undergone the round trip.
In the 19th century a simulated system for heating the wines was developed. Estufas - literally, stoves - became commonplace, and are still used today. After fermentation is stopped with spirit, the wines are heated to 45C and higher. The sauna-like environment then produces a similar effect in three months as two to three years in cask. The best madeiras, however, are still aged naturally in oak casks and placed on wooden racks in scented lofts in the more labour- intensive canteiro system.
By favouring heat and air, the Madeira process turns the norm of wine ageing on its head. The keys to the Shangri-La effect are, firstly, preserving spirit; secondly, heating and oxidation; and, finally, its natural acidity. After 10 years, Madeira comes into its own as an aged wine of considerable complexity. Genuine vintage madeiras of 20 years upwards in cask, known as garrafeira or fresqueira, are far removed from any other known wine in their physical and sensual impact. Imagine a super-concentrated marmalade or creme brulee. They are among the most aromatic wines in the world with sweet, smoky, nutty fragrances, an incredibly fresh, tangy backbone uniting the richly complex flavours, varying from citrusy marmalade, through crystallised fruits to flavours of toffee, raisins, nuts and coffee. Perfect for Christmas.
The unique flavours and virtual indestructibility of Madeira ensured that markets steadily grew for these rich, fortified wines. …