|Madeira is a fortified wine which is produced in a variety of different styles from dry to sweet.
Vines were introduced to Madeira by the early settlers and there has been a long history of wine making. Unfortunately this wine didn’t travel well and had often gone ‘off’ by the end of a long slow journey by sailing ship. Adding a small amount of distilled alcohol from cane sugar helped to stop the wine from spoiling. One consignment of unsold Madeira was returned to the shippers after a round trip to the Americas. The casks of wine had been exposed to excessive heat during the trip which slightly oxidised the wine and transformed the flavour. Madeira was we now know it was born.
Shippers continued to send casks of Madeira on long sea voyages to mature but this was expensive and a method of artificially replicating the process was invented. Known as the estufa system, the wine is slowly heated to a temperature of 45-50˚C for a minimum of three months before being cooled slowly over another month.
Low cost Madeira wines are heated in stainless steel tanks surrounded by heating coils. More expensive wines are aged in wooden casks in specially heated rooms, a bit like being in a sauna. The best quality are left to age in warm attics, heated only by the sun. This can take up to eighteen months and the wines are very long lived remaining drinkable for over 150 years.
Blandy’s is probably the best known name in Madeira and Old Blandy’s Wine Lodge on Avida Arriaga in the centre of Funchal, is a popular tourist attraction.
The firm was established in 1811 in the buildings of the old Franciscan Priory. One of the oldest street in Funchal still runs through the premises. Casks would have been rolled down here on the way to the harbour.
Behind the modern shop is a maze of rooms, yards and cellars. It is possible to walk into the back of the premises and wander round.
There are azulejo mural tiles on the walls depicting the process of wine making.
Guided tours include visits to rooms not open to the public, including the cooperage and the warm rooms containing wines up to one hundred years old. It ends with a wine tasting.
Our guided tour of Funchal included a wine tasting at Pereira d’Olivera, in the former High School, next to the Jesuit College on Rua dos Ferreiros.
This was very much a tourist experience with groups being pushed through as quickly as possible. We hustled into our places and staff appeared with glasses of Madeira. We tasted three different Madeiras - medium dry, medium sweet and sweet. The sweet was accompanied by a tiny piece of ‘proper’ Madeira cake which is nothing like that eaten in England. Made from sugar cane syrup it is a lot darker and also has some fruit and almond nuts. It is more like a light fruit cake. There was no attempt to tell us anything about the wines and we had hardly finished our last glass before we were hurried out to make way for the next group.
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