Wines from Madeira

The longest-lasting wines on the planet

Madeira, this small Portuguese island also known as "the pearl of the Atlantic", is the home of fortified wines which are practically "cooked". They’re fortified wines which come from the Estufagem and Canteiro systems, which apply heat during ageing, resulting in delicious wines that can survive for centuries.

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Barbeito 3 Years Dry

Tradition and essence of Madeira wines

Portugal   DOP Madeira (Madeira)

Barbeito 3 Years Dry
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Justinos Rich 5 Years

Elegant, rich and full of nuances

Portugal   DOP Madeira (Madeira)

Justinos Rich 5 Years
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Barbeito 3 Years Medium Sweet

A good example of the unique style of Madeira’s fortified wines

Portugal   DOP Madeira (Madeira)

Barbeito 3 Years Medium Sweet
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History of wine in the area

Madeira is a rugged volcanic island located in the Atlantic Ocean 1,000 km from Lisbon and 498 km from Tenerife.

It’s one of the autonomous regions of Portugal which was historically an important provisioning point for explorers making long voyages to the Americas, South Africa and the Indies, a time when its wines became popular, and surprisingly they haven’t changed much in the last 300 years. Madeira wines are capable of aging for over a hundred years and were considered by most European courts to be wines of great refinement.

But what makes Madeira wine so special?

As with Port wines, Madeira's characteristic fortified wines came into being somewhat by accident. It was common for wines to have to undergo long sea crossings to reach their destination. Wines were made from grapes with high acidity and low alcohol content and fortified to withstand the long journey. The oxidation process of the wine subjected to heat on board a ship and its passage through Ecuador gave it a very unique character that winemakers wanted to imitate but without having to go on these long journeys, so they built buildings with a structure that would allow the sun to heat the barrels during the day so maturation would be faster. This system is called Canteiro, and uses solar heat to accelerate ageing and caramelize the sugars the wine contains.

The youngest wines are placed in the highest part of the cellar, where the heat is greater, and continue by descending to the following levels of the building, where the ageing process develops more slowly. For the ageing process, very used barrels are used because in this way they don’t contribute foreign aromas to the wine. This system is considered very fine since it causes the wines to oxidize and caramelize at a slower rate. Nowadays the Canteiro system is used for high-end wines and varietal wines.

Some time later, the method known as Estufagem began to be used, which consists of heating the wine with stoves at temperatures ranging from 45ºC to 50ºC, a procedure where results similar to those obtained after 5 years of exposing the wine to the tropical heat experienced during long boat voyages is obtained in three months. Nowadays, temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks are used to imitate this process.

It’s incredible to know that exposing wine to heat, one of the factors winemakers avoid at all costs, is deliberately done in Madeira where you can practically say that the wine is "cooked". This method works because the grapes the wines are made from are usually harvested much earlier, so their must is more acidic than other wines, and this unusual ageing process means their wines have an extraordinary longevity that can even exceed one hundred years. They’re practically eternal wines.

Grape varieties

Four main traditional varieties are used to make Madeira wines: Sercial, Verdelho, Boal or bual and Malvasia (marketed as Malmsey), all of them white varieties.

During the second half of the 19th century, mildew and phylloxera practically wiped out the traditional varietal wines. Currently more than 80% of the vineyard corresponds to plantations of the tinta negra mole variety, which gives rise to light, sweet-tasting red wines.

Location, climate and soils

The island of Madeira and its neighbour, the small island of Porto Santo, are located in the North Atlantic, about 1,000 km from Lisbon and at a similar latitude to Casablanca in Morocco.

Madeira has a subtropical oceanic climate which results in mild and pleasant temperatures. It’s a mountainous region with steep slopes where the vines grow on high terraces with very fertile volcanic soils. The grapes are harvested early so they have a very high acidity, an important characteristic for the elaboration of Madeira fortified wines.

The island has about 400 hectares of vineyards, so its wine production is limited.


Madeira fortified wine is a wine where alcohol is added during fermentation, resulting in a fortified wine which can contain between 17% and 22% alcohol by volume.

These are the most common Madeira wine styles according to their characteristics:

Rainwater Madeira

It’s the freshest and fruitiest style, with a pale colour and pleasant sweetness. An ideal wine to get started in the wonderful world of Madeira fortified wines.

Madeira Rainwater is a wine that’s mainly made with the tinta negra mole and verdelho varieties. It’s a light-bodied wine with notes of caramelized grapefruit, preserved lemons and root beer.

It’s said that its name comes from the myth that once, while waiting to be picked up for their departure to America, the Madeira wine barrels swelled up on the beach because of the rain (it rains a lot in Madeira) and instead of getting rid of the wines, the merchants marketed them as a new style of Madeira, a delicate and light wine.

Rainwater Madeira wines age on average for three years and are quite accessible wines.

Sercial Madeira

The Sercial grape stands out for its acidity and gives rise to dry Madeira wines with high acidity. They contain a minimum of residual sugar (9 to 27 g/l). They’re delicate wines which work very well as aperitifs, to serve slightly chilled with fish or with food that is usually difficult to pair, such as artichokes or asparagus.

An unusual style but one that offers a lot of freshness and flavours reminiscent of citrus fruits.

Verdelho Madeira

These wines have vibrant acidity accompanied by flavors reminiscent of baked apples, mango, caramelized orange and spices such as paprika, with a delicious hint of volcanic minerality and notes of figs and dried fruit. They tend to be more complex and fuller-bodied than Sercial wines and have a residual sugar content ranging from 27 to 47 g/l.

It’s a very versatile wine, capable of enhancing the flavour of both sweet and savoury dishes. It can be served slightly chilled as an aperitif. It goes very well with intense cheeses such as Stilton or

Camembert and, of course, with typical Portuguese cheeses such as Azeitão, Serra da Estrela and Amarelo da Beira Baixa.

It has enough body to go with chutneys and sweet and sour preserves. It harmonizes very well with fresh fruit and can even be served with mild fish.

Boal Madeira

Also known as bual, it’s dark coloured and has intense aromas of caramelized apple, burnt sugar, raisins and cinnamon. It’s a sweet wine on the palate but without being cloying and retains an acidity that balances its sweetness and, the older it gets, the more interesting and complex the wine becomes. It has a residual sugar content that can range from 45 to 63 g/l.

Madeira Boal is ideal to serve with cheese and fruit and is the favorite wine of chocolate addicts, it’s the perfect harmony for chocolates with 75% cocoa or more. Boal wines go well with baked goods and are like a delicious ray of sunshine on a winter's day.

Most of these wines are made under the "Canteiro" process and you can find vintage bottles, which are known as "Colheita".

Malvasia Madeira

Also known as Malmsey, it’s the wine which Madeira is internationally known for. It can be made with different varieties of Malvasia such as Cândida, Cândida Roxa and Malvasia de São Jorge, as long as they have high levels of acidity.

This wine is dark in colour, rich in texture, aromatic, with a long and persistent passage where we can find notes of vanilla, nuts, coffee caramel, honey and chocolate as well as nuts, figs and notes of volcanic rock. It’s an ideal wine to serve with chocolate, fruit or ice cream, although there’s really no dessert that can resist it.

It has a residual sugar content ranging from 63 to 117 g/l. Its aromas, delicious complexity and, above all, high levels of acidity, balance its sweetness and make it less noticeable.

There is a fifth noble variety, the white terrantez grape, which was on the verge of extinction on the island but is currently being rescued and which produces wines in practically all ranges of sweetness, although never as dry as Sercial or as sweet as Malvasía.

Madeira wines according to their level of sweetness

Five levels of sweetness can be found in Madeira wines:

1.- Extra Dry (Extra Seco): It has less than 49 g/l. of residual sugar.

2.- Dry: contain less than ~ 59 g/l of residual sugar.

3.- Medium dry (Meio Seco): wines that have between ~ 54–78 g/l of residual sugar.

4.- Medium Sweet (Meio Doce): wines with ~ 78-100 g/l of residual sugar.

5.- Sweet (Doce): wines containing more than 100 g/l of residual sugar.

Madeira wines classified by ageing

Madeira wines made with at least 85% of the noble varieties are usually labelled according to their ageing time, with 5 years being the minimum allowed for each of these grapes.

Reserve: 5-year-old Madeira wines.

Special Reserve: Madeira wines with 10 years of ageing.

Extra Reserve: it’s an uncommon style of wines with 15 years of aging because producers prefer to extend the time to 20 years.

Colheita: single-vineyard wines aged for at least 5 years before bottling. They’re labelled with the vintage date.

Frasqueira / Garrafeira. These are very rare wines which come from exceptional vintages and must have been aged under the Canteiro system for at least 20 years. Great Madeira wines that are essentially for collectors.

Madeira wines labelled Fine/Fino can be found which are those that have been aged for at least 3 years and are usually used for cooking.

Some outstanding wineries


Vinhos Barbeito was founded in 1946 by Mário Barbeito de Vasconcelos who acquired vineyards in a state of neglect to produce wines, continuing the historical legacy of the Estufagem and Canteiro systems. A visionary who decided to commit to the long ageing of his wines with the certainty that time would improve them. Barbeito is one of the most renowned and unique wineries in Madeira, a forerunner in the production of wines without added sugars. Since 1991 the Barbeito Vasconcelos family has shared ownership of the winery with the Kinoshita family and continues to produce fortified wines renowned for their quality all over the world.

Justino's Madeira

"Do something, but do it well". This is the philosophy of Justino's Madeira, one of the oldest wine producers and exporters in Madeira. Although the company was formed in 1953, it had been established on the island since 1870. Founded by Justino Henrique Freitas, it produces wines that combine traditional methods with the most advanced technology. High quality products which can be found all over the world and meet the needs of the most demanding consumers. Justino's Madeira is undoubtedly one of the leading wineries in the Madeira wine production and export market.