A wine named after an island

The harvests in September may be a celebration but in the vineyards it takes a year’s worth of work to produce one of the world’s most famous fortified wines.

A dry Madeira with tonic or a fortified Madeira with ice and orange juice? There is a different flavour to the coming of summer and with it the spotlight shifts to mixed beverages, those that so often fall under fire by critics. And when it comes to nights out, suggestions multiply, from glass to glass, from place to place. Those who enjoy the wine bearing the island’s name recognize its palate and distinctive aroma. But where does the production of that which was once the most popular wine in the United States start?

Around 1450, just thirty years after settlers came to the island, wine was already being produced. Madeira is physically larger than the bottle that contains the wine with which it shares its name. It is as big as the world. At least that is the feeling one gets when visiting the island.

Between late august and early September, the time when harvests start, there is plenty of celebrations in honour of wine, bringing entertainment to several spots on the island. These events relate to the harvests and early production.

The Wine Festival, set for August 27th to September 10th, and the Grape and Farmer Festival, set for September 2nd and 3rd in Porto da Cruz, are examples of these celebrations. Around the same time the Quinta do Furão hotel in Santana invites those yearning for a bit of romance to come and dine in the hotel’s vineyards. But in other places on the island there are other events with a common theme.

Entertainment is meant as a means for paying homage to tradition and the work which sometimes goes unnoticed but is developed for the whole year in the vineyards, away from everyone’s eyes, so that wine can come out perfect.

Vineyards in Madeira are not visually as large as those of the Douro or Alentejo regions. Built on rugged slopes the vineyards are almost like appetizers teasing the unique character of this fortified wine taken by Man from an impossible landscape. Vineyard production for fortified wine totals only 400 hectares, distributed mostly between São Vicente and Santana, on the north coast, and Câmara de Lobos, on the south.

Some vineyards are as old as human presence on the island. Such is the case of Quinta Grande, in Câmara de Lobos, where there lies one of the largest single areas. There, vineyard is devoted solely to the growth of grapes fit for Madeira wine, with 10 hectares being dedicated to the growth of the Verdelho variety of grape.

Much like the Preces estate, comprising 1, 3 hectares, the vineyards of Quinta Grande belong to Henriques & Henriques winemakers. Permanent care is required over the entire year. The specs of this process have long been identified. ‘Vineyards in Madeira entail committed care’ because the volcanic soil ‘requires analyses of organic and mineral material’ so that the adequate corrections can be made, says Maria Luz Aguiar, from the firm founded in 1850.

Ensuring the fertility of the soil, following ‘good practices throughout the vine’s life cycle’ and sometimes correcting the soil’s pH values, always taking care not to take away the character of the grapes borne by these vines are some of the concerns of those who live and breathe this industry for the whole year, adds Francisco Albuquerque, oenologist for Madeira Wine Company, the firm in charge of exploring 7.5 hectares of vineyards divided amongst Quinta de Santa Luzia, in Funchal, Quinta do Bispo and Quinta do Furão, the latter two in Santana.

After preparing the land, vines are then pruned, tied and, in some cases, replaced. Throughout the entire year farmers take care of the vineyards as they face every possible obstacle, mainly in terms of the climate. Because Madeira is an island, special care has to be taken in terms of using up space for vineyards.  

‘Caring for vineyards is tremendously important because this is how we ensure healthy and productive grape harvests that justify further investment. Without that, we take the risk of having plants fall ill and even dying’, says Maria Luz Aguiar.

When it is time to pick the grapes there is a certain charm involved between fruit and farmer. A trained eye is a must to pick and choose the grapes with an adequate degree of maturation. Healthy grape bunches must be kept separate from damaged ones and everything has to be done as quickly as possible since ‘the time between the harvesting of the grapes and their processing should be as short as possible’ to avoid ‘unwanted fermentations’ explains Francisco Albuquerque.

And how can one tell that the end product is a quality Madeira? Maria Luz Aguiar explains: if ‘the fruit is good then so will the juice be and, logically, it follows, so will the wine’.

Good structure, an acidity fit for its preservation, enough freshness for it to be aged in casks for years, a capacity to resist the effects of oxygen, temperature and the influence of oak wood. Simple. That is how a Madeira looks like, sitting in your glass, waiting to be enjoyed.