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Wine Selections


roybunyan1.jpg (6832 bytes)November 2003

Enjoy laterlife Wine Selections with Roy Bunyan

Roy has been interested in wine for over 30 years and has travelled the world in search of good wine. Roy firmly believes that a glass of wine everyday is good for health and well-being. He takes great pleasure in finding good wines at a reasonable price for laterlife visitors.

As well as this months feature take a look at the Introduction and Index to laterlife Wine Selections.

This month’s feature - Madeira

Madeira is a fortified wine with an 18% alcohol content and many may think of it as a sweet tipple that granny used to drink with a piece of cake. In reality is a fascinating wine with many varieties. Its keeping ability is legendary and the finer wines can and are kept for more than 100 years. Madeira is so resilient that it is the only wine that should be stored standing up. I recently fulfilled an ambition and visited the wine lodges of Madeira. A wonderful experience and an eye opener to this classic wine. The island of Madeira is about 400 miles off the west coast of Morocco. It is a mountainous, volcanic island and grapes are grown in small terraced vineyards. The vineyards are supplied with water by the Levadas - a complex network of irrigation channels that traverse the island. The steepness of the terrain make mechanisation difficult and despite its sub-tropical climate it is not an easy place for viticulture.

The origins of Madeira

Because of its location Madeira was a stopping-off point for 17th century sailing ships on passage for the East Indies and the Americas. Part of the cargo of these ships were pipes of wine. ( Pipes were 400litre wooden casks and wholesalers, as with Port still buy Madeira by the Pipe) Despite months of rolling about and being baked in the holds of the ships as they crossed the tropics, amazingly, it was found the wine developed a new character and actually tasted better when it  reached its destination. These wines became popular and there was even a fashion for "round trip" wines. It was clearly an expensive process and so the Madeirans set about finding a way to create the same result without having to ship the wine on a 10 month tropical cruise.

Making Madeira

The Madeirans achieved this effect by heating the wine in Estufas - rooms containing barrels  that were heated  by the sun. This method is still used today for some of the finer wines. The barrels are stored in the sun heated roof space of the wine lodges. These wines then spend at least 20 years in cask - some as much as 100 years before bottling. The modern day alternative used  for the most of the wine is to store it in large tanks that are heated by a coil containing hot water - much like a domestic hot water system. These wines may be stored in cask for 5 to 15 years prior to bottling 

The different Styles of Madeira 

Many will think of madeira as a sweet, fortified wine, maybe similar in characteristics to port to be drunk after dinner. However there are, in fact 4 different styles of madeira,  determined by the grape varieties


Sercial is one of the classic madeira grape varieties. It is a very acidic grape and produces a dry wine more similar in style to a fino sherry. One would normally drink this as an aperitif.


The Verdehlo produces a medium dry wine. This could be drunk as an aperitif or could accompany, fish or white meat.


Dark rich and luscious - definitely an after dinner digestif           


Made from the Malvasia grape and produces the sweetest style. But the sweetness is balanced by the acidity.


Having chosen the style the next decision is the quality level. Even the lowest quality  wine is aged for 18 months. This accounts for about 50% of production. Fortunately most of the wine shipped to the UK is of the higher quality levels . 

Finest: A blended 3 year old wine. Probably not aged in wood

Reserve: A blended 5 year old wine some of which will have been aged in oak

Special Reserve:  Blended but with at least 10 years in oak casks 

Vintage: Wine from one of the above classic grapes from a single year. Unlike port vintage madeira is matured in cask for a minimum of 20 years, followed by a further minimum of 2 years in bottle.

Buying Madeira

Good madeira is not cheap, but when you consider the difficult growing conditions and the estufa ageing process it is not surprising.  You are unlikely to find quality madeira on the shelves of your local supermarket or off license.You are better dealing with a wine merchant. Having said that Waitrose Wine Direct offer a good selection and their Henriques 10 year old Sercial is a good price at 11.99.  They also offer a 15 year old Malmsey at 16.99. Berry Bros & Rudd have a long tradition of  bottling madeira and have an excellent reputation. They offer a 10 year Boal for 22.95. The Imperial Wine Co in Suffolk offer, amongst others a 1954 Verdelho at 39. You can  contact Imperial at Not every day drinking perhaps, but an excellent gift. Madeira is on my Christmas list!


Please note prices are correct at the time of writing but will inevitably change over time.


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