Strange Magic



The mys­te­ri­ous wines of Madeira


whis­pers Luis D’oliveira to his as­sis­tant, “noventa quarto, se­tenta

e três, trinte e dois, doze.” Pre­sid­ing over our tast­ing in a pressed striped shirt, hair combed neatly across his fore­head, and with an in­trigu­ing cobalt blue ring on his right pinkie finger, D’oliveira speaks calmly and with authority.

Min­utes later, knobby, footed glasses of madeira—the sto­ried for­ti­fied wine that shares a name with the is­land its grapes are grown on—ar­rive at the ta­ble, along with the bot­tles they were poured from, each dated in white paint, by hand.

This game goes on for four rounds, start­ing with ser­cial, the light­est and dri­est (though still del­i­cately sweet) style of madeira. We make our way along the sweet­ness spec­trum, mov­ing to medi­umdry verdelho, then medium-sweet bual, end­ing with mal­va­sia on the darker, more con­fec­tionery side. Each flight of­fers bot­tles older than the last. The old­est we taste, 1907, was born four years be­fore my grand­mother. But it’s the verdel­hos—1994, 1973, 1932, and 1912— that have my at­ten­tion. The youngest one smells like fresh tropical fruit, brown sugar, and tof­fee, while the old­est, the dark color of chest­nut skin, has moved into a place of earth­i­ness and fig pud­ding, with a live­li­ness that I can’t rec­on­cile with its age.

On Madeira, we’re far away from the ad­mired crus of Bur­gundy and the fogged-in hills of Pied­mont. Closer to Morocco than its mother Por­tu­gal, the is­land is ac­tu­ally the tippy top of a long-ex­tinct vol­cano in the mid­dle of the At­lantic, where the D’oliveira fam­ily has been mak­ing the is­land’s name­sake wine since 1850. To­day, Filipe, Luis’ nephew, the sixth gen­er­a­tion, is the wine­maker. “We have a par­tic­u­lar si­t­u­a­tion that’s dif­fer­ent from other pro­duc­ers of Madeira,” D’oliveira tells me. “The wine­maker is al­ways part of our fam­ily. We al­ways have the same style be­cause we learn from other gen­er­a­tions.” I can taste this through-line in the wines.

This 306-square-mile hunk of ex­tremely lush, craggy molten rock sits on its own, ex­posed, save for a few tee­nier islets that make up a largely un­pop­u­lated sub­trop­i­cal ar­chi­pel­ago. Here, mi­nus­cule vine­yard plots com­min­gle with palms and ba­nana trees, sug­ar­cane, and umpteen va­ri­eties of suc­cu­lents that fill ev­ery crack of ev­ery blunt stone wall. The vol­canic soil is ex­cep­tion­ally fer­tile, giv­ing way to at least 15 types of pas­sion fruit, thick, sweet an­nona (cus­tard ap­ples), and the creami­est sweet pota­toes.

I’ve been to many wine re­gions, but I’ve never seen a ba­nana tree in one be­fore. Some­how, for the past sev­eral hun­dred years, Madeira has bal­anced its roles as be­ing a sto­ried wine pro­ducer—worl­drenowned for its for­ti­fied wine that’s un­matched in age­abil­ity—and a warmweather es­cape for mostly north­ern Euro­peans look­ing to whale-watch, sun­bathe, and hike its forested moun­tains.

Most Amer­i­cans don’t know that Madeira (pro­nounced ma-die-ra in Por­tuguese; we’ve been wrong all these years) is a Por­tuguese is­land, and if they have heard of the wine, they of­ten be­lieve that it is a ver­sion of port. But the wine is stand-alone in its recipe and pro­duc­tion. In the 500-plus years that madeira has been pro­duced, it has in­spired plenty of cere­bral dal­liances, for walk­ing a line be­tween the sub­tle and the out­ra­geous, its dark cel­lars in the trop­ics, and its abil­ity to last longer than any of us will. But it’s also in­fin­itely sat­is­fy­ing in all the ways the palate wants: sweet and densely sooth­ing, with a spine of acid­ity that calls us to fin­ish the glass.


8 kilo­grams of fruit (in other wine re­gions, it’s closer to 3). Here, the vines are cul­ti­vated for max­i­mum pro­duc­tion largely be­cause land space is tight—and grow­ers are paid by weight. There are around 3,000 grape grow­ers on Madeira (who, on av­er­age, tend to around one-third of an acre of vines), who sell to the eight pro­duc­ers of madeira that re­main on the is­land. Most buy from at least 100 grow­ers. Vines are grown on tall per­go­las to al­low good air­flow, nec­es­sary in the sum­mer’s heat and hu­mid­ity. The ma­jor­ity of vine­yards, con­cen­trated along the coasts, are planted with the red tinta ne­gra grape, but cer­tain ar­eas are best for the cov­eted white grapes that give the dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties their name: ser­cial, verdelho, bual, and mal­va­sia.

That this place would pro­duce un­par­al­leled bot­tles is hard enough to fathom, but the process used to make the wines is di­ver­gent too: They’re not only for­ti­fied—in which a neutral grape spirit is added af­ter fer­men­ta­tion to pro­long the shelf life—they’re also in­ten­tion­ally heated and ox­i­dized, both pro­cesses that most wine­mak­ers ve­he­mently avoid. The best madeiras are left to age in-bar­rel for 20-plus years.

In D’oliveira’s case, a good amount of the wines that were made by his fam­ily in 1850 are still kick­ing around in bar­rels, mor­ph­ing, deep­en­ing, find­ing themselves, wait­ing to be ready in the tem­po­ral sense of the word. The wines are made with the un­der­stand­ing that it might be a fu­ture gen­er­a­tion that sees them through to com­ple­tion. This spring, the 1988 bual was re­leased for the first time.

The only trou­ble with keep­ing so many old vin­tages around is that the bar­rels— well-aged Amer­i­can oak, painted with red rims—take up a lot of room. In 2017, the winery couldn’t pro­duce as much madeira as usual; de­spite own­ing five stor­age ware­houses around the cap­i­tal city of Fun­chal, they’d maxed out on space, with 5 mil­lion liters of wine.

Madeira, the is­land, is on the way to ex­actly nowhere, and yet it served as an im­por­tant pit stop along the spice route from In­dia to the Amer­i­cas—a nav­i­ga­tional star for sailors who took with them wine that had been for­ti­fied to give it dura­bil­ity on its long jour­ney. (The bar­rel ag­ing and heat­ing to­day mim­ics the wine’s time spent aboard those ships.) Madeira’s his­tory is long and bizarrely tied to world his­tory, in­clud­ing the early days of the U.S., when Thomas Jef­fer­son, a se­ri­ous madeira enthusiast, ar­ranged it so that cups were filled with the wine at the sign­ing of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence. Per­haps this is how madeira earned its fusty smok­ing­jacket rep­u­ta­tion. But as I stood on a cliff, eat­ing a red, finger-shaped pas­sion fruit at a road­side stand out­side São Jorge,

over­look­ing the crash­ing sea and ter­ra­cotta-roofed houses in but­ter pink and sal­mon or­ange in the towns of Boaven­tura and São Vi­cente below, it seemed far from fusty.

Al­though in the States som­me­liers en­deavor to pair these wines with ev­ery course of a meal (their in­cred­i­ble acid­ity makes it pos­si­ble to even serve sweeter wine with meat cour­ses), this isn’t the case on-is­land. “In Madeira, peo­ple only drink madeira for spe­cial oc­ca­sions, but I think this is OK, so we have enough for ex­port,” D’oliveira says with a smile. “It’s the same thing they say about scotch.” While madeira isn’t found reg­u­larly on din­ner ta­bles on the is­land, bual madeira is the va­ri­ety that tends to be drunk at so­cial gath­er­ings and cel­e­bra­tions. Most peo­ple drink Co­ral, the lo­cal lager, or pon­cha,a sort of sweet rum punch of­ten made with honey, which go bet­ter with the fresh seafood and warm weather. On my way out the door, D’oliveira hands me a pa­per-wrapped

bolo de mel, a spice cake made with sug­ar­cane syrup from the is­land. He tells me this sig­na­ture cake is about the only food a Madeiran will eat with madeira—prefer­ably with an ul­tra­sweet mal­va­sia. It was the first of these lit­tle parcels I would come to see ev­ery­where on my visit.


hills above Câ­mara de Lo­bos—a fish­ing vil­lage com­posed in pri­mary col­ors, like a salty box of crayons—i am nearly blown from the cliff. I’d ar­rived on Madeira the day af­ter a monster of a storm had hit the “al­ways sum­mer” is­land. And in my five days there, I wit­nessed hail at a 45-de­gree an­gle on the north coast skirt­ing VE-1 high­way, full-arc rain­bows, mini avalanches that ef­fec­tively closed roads, Câ­mara de Lo­bos with all of its boats yanked from the wa­ter, and the rem­nants of 40-foot waves crash­ing in the surf town of Jardim do Mar.

The high­way from Fun­chal to Bar­beito fol­lows the coast, a se­ries of wind­ing curves and tunnels carved into the mountain that is Madeira. Un­til Por­tu­gal joined the EU, the only roads on the is­land were one-lane lo­cal routes that cut through its cen­ter, which meant that get­ting from one place to the next in­volved steep in­clines and blind cor­ners. The is­land is far more nav­i­ga­ble now, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to drive the en­tire circumference, with stops along the way, in a day.

Up here at 2,000 feet, the wind is swirling a fine mist through the guts of Ri­cardo Fre­itas’ winery, which sits out in the open air. “Madeira doesn’t get hurt with hot or cold tem­per­a­tures,” he tells me as we walk through a row of tow­er­ing stain­less-steel tanks. If D’oliveira is a tra­di­tion­al­ist, Fre­itas is a mod­ernist, but one en­deav­or­ing to make tra­di­tional wines. He’s re­spected among other pro­duc­ers for push­ing the en­ve­lope.

Fre­itas pours me a sam­ple of his work in progress, and it’s not madeira. It’s a com­pletely dry still white wine (a nov­elty on this sweet-cen­tric is­land), made from the verdelho grape, his first vin­tage. The young wine is pale yel­low and tart, like bit­ing into a crisp Granny Smith ap­ple. It’s ex­actly what I would have wanted with my gar­licky limpets (lo­cal sea snails of­ten served grilled in their shells) and es­pada (star­tlingly ugly, but tasty, black scab­bard fish) the night be­fore. Per­haps this would be more wel­come among the

lo­cals, I think to my­self. Fre­itas tells me that he makes madeira more like a dry ta­ble wine than a sweet for­ti­fied one, work­ing in small batches from spe­cific vine­yard plots, blend­ing just be­fore bot­tling. Be­cause all of the madeira houses source grapes from all over, madeira has al­ways been less about the base in­gre­di­ent or the ter­roir than what hap­pens

to the grapes in the cel­lar. Fre­itas is hop­ing to change this, putting more em­pha­sis on the qual­ity of the grapes and how they’re grown. He’s even work­ing on some sin­gle-vine­yard bot­tlings. Whereas many madeira pro­duc­ers will add sugar to hit the right con­cen­tra­tion just be­fore bot­tling, Fre­itas uses for­ti­fi­ca­tion as a means of stop­ping fer­men­ta­tion, con­trol­ling the sugar con­tent so there’s no last-minute cor­rec­tion nec­es­sary.

He shows me more of his gear, a small la­gar where a tiny por­tion of his grapes are stomped by foot, a high-tech bas­ket press that’s as gen­tle as presses from 100 years ago. He shows me the con­trol panel for the

est­ufagem, the tanks in which his three­and five-year-old blended madeiras are heated to 115 to 120 de­grees for months at a time, a means of con­cen­trat­ing the wines rel­a­tively swiftly; as the wa­ter evap­o­rates, the wines be­come richer and fuller. Vin­tage wines never see the inside of an est­ufagem. Af­ter for­ti­fi­ca­tion, they go straight into old bar­rels strate­gi­cally placed in the cel­lar to warm up nat­u­rally. By law, vin­tage madeiras that stay in-bar­rel for more than 20 years are called frasqueira wines; those aged five or more years are col­heita wines.

In an un­guarded mo­ment, Fre­itas tells me about his grand­fa­ther, the per­son who taught him how to make wine. “He had a huge library, 25,000 books,” most of which were lost in a dev­as­tat­ing flood in 2010. “He had the big­gest col­lec­tion of books on Christo­pher Colum­bus in Europe. They say Colum­bus was here in Madeira study­ing sea cur­rents.” Ap­par­ently, Colum­bus’ wife was from Madeira. Per­haps the wine was in Amer­ica even ear­lier than we think.

Fre­itas con­tin­ues to work with a num­ber of grow­ers who used to sell grapes to his grand­fa­ther. In a small place, these re­la­tion­ships are ever more im­por­tant. He’s col­lab­o­rat­ing on sev­eral projects with old friends, en­abling him to work with some of Madeira’s more sto­ried sites. One such pro­ject is with a farm called Fajã dos Padres that ev­ery­one I meet speaks of as the gem of the is­land. The sealevel prop­erty is ac­ces­si­ble only by ca­ble car or speed­boat, as­suredly guided by schools of dol­phins and whales, the steeds of Po­sei­don. The Fajã’s his­tory goes back to the 19th cen­tury when some Je­suit priests owned the land there, farm­ing grapes and other pro­duce. When phyl­lox­era (a nasty, vine-end­ing bug) in­fected the is­land, de­stroy­ing the vine­yards, the Je­suits jumped ship. Over the years, var­i­ous peo­ple have oc­cu­pied the land, but it was the cur­rent own­ers who dis­cov­ered the one re­main­ing vine of a grape called Mal­va­sia can­dida; they prop­a­gated it and now have the only vine­yard plot of this grape in Madeira. To­day, the site has an or­ganic gar­den and res­tau­rant that tourists can visit, but it’s Fre­itas who has been help­ing out with bot­tling the madeira from the site. His first bot­tling was

the 1986, which he bot­tled in 2012. “I stayed with that wine for seven years in the winery be­fore bot­tling it,” he tells me. The wine is very sweet, cur­ried, nut­meg-spiced.

“This is the new world, the cen­ter of the winery where I make small blends, the fi­nal steps of wine­mak­ing. Ev­ery­thing comes to the cen­ter,” Fre­itas says as we walk into his 10-year-old cel­lar. Ev­ery­thing about the ware­house has been en­gi­neered to make it the ideal place to store old bar­rels of madeira. The roof is made of a thin metal, with rounded cor­ners to draw heat into the room, while the cor­ners at floor-level are re­in­forced with con­crete for max­i­mum cool­ness. The walls are lined in win­dows to be opened in the sum­mer, to al­low in the is­land’s typ­i­cal 70-de­gree heat and hu­mid breeze. Fre­itas takes a small sam­ple from ev­ery bar­rel four times per year, tast­ing each one to check in. Ev­ery cask is mapped out on an Ex­cel sheet so he al­ways knows what’s go­ing on in ev­ery one, each its own uni­verse.

With all of these cal­i­bra­tions, the wines could come off as overly fussed with, but when we sit to taste, they just aren’t. Fre­itas first pulls a cou­ple of 2011 vin­tage com­po­nent wines (wines meant for blend­ing) and 1967 tinta ne­gras for a blend that he’s work­ing on. We taste them on their own, then in com­bi­na­tion. By adding 10 per­cent of the 1967 to the 2011, he cre­ates a wine that is fuller, with mar­malade and toast notes, caramel ap­ple, and a pointed citrus edge. He’s still not sat­is­fied.

We taste through dozens of Fre­itas’ wines, in­clud­ing a verdelho from my birth year, 1981, which was just bot­tled in early 2017. The wine is more overtly pow­er­ful than many of the medium-dry verdel­hos I’ve tasted, with a cof­fee­like bit­ter­ness matched by the smooth­ness of maple syrup slink­ing off the back of a spoon. But the stand­out of the tast­ing is a 50-year-old blend that Fre­itas named for his grand­fa­ther, Avo Mario, based on the rare red bas­tardo grape, with just 3 per­cent of tinta ne­gra from 1954. The wine is lifted and di­rect, with caramelized sug­ars and fla­vors that re­mind me of crys­tal­lized dates and candied or­ange peel.

We sit down for lunch at a nearby res­tau­rant, Santo An­to­nio, which looks down to­ward the fish­ing cove of Câ­mara de Lo­bos. First to ar­rive on the ta­ble here—and in ev­ery res­tau­rant I dine in on-is­land—is

bolo de caco, a pita-size loaf of puffy bread, an inch or two thick, that’s been sliced into two hemi­spheres and slathered with gar­lic but­ter in the cen­ter. Gar­lic is a re­cur­ring fla­vor in dishes on Madeira, and bolo de caco is stan­dard with ev­ery meal. Next ar­rives es­petadas—enor­mous bay-leaf-scented skew­ers, a few feet long, strung with base­ball-size cubes of beef that are roasted in a wood-fired oven and then hung on hooks over the cen­ter of the ta­ble. Fre­itas demon­strates how to pull a piece of beef off the wide rod one piece at a time. Espetada is also found in ev­ery res­tau­rant on the is­land, which strikes me as bizarre, since the is­land is too small and steep for rais­ing cat­tle; it’s all im­ported. The beef left be­hind on the skew­ers stays warm by con­tact with the rod. On the side is milho

frito, fried cubes of smooth, herbed po­lenta, along with fried pota­toes, the pa­tron saint of veg­eta­bles in Madeira. Out­side the winds whip up the hills from the coast, rat­tling through ba­nana leaves.

And there is no madeira in sight.

From left: Wine­maker Ri­cardo Fre­itas keeps sam­ples from ev­ery bar­rel at his Bar­beito winery; grapes are grown on tiny plots on steep, old ter­races; lo­cals en­joy the view from Câ­mara de Lo­bos.

Clock­wise from far left: Ge­lato is among the spe­cial­ties avail­able at Fun­chal’s mar­ket; pas­tel-pink build­ings line the way to the beach in Jardim do Mar; grapevines thrive in the salty air near São Jorge; Fre­itas sam­ples a tinta ne­gra; fruit on dis­play at the mar­ket; boats at Câ­mara de Lo­bos.

Clock­wise from top: A lad­der de­scends into a nat­u­ral pool at the mouth of the river in Cal­hau de São Jorge; limpets, or sea snails, are a clas­sic dish on Madeira; pon­cha, a lo­cal spiked punch, is made with fresh le­mons and oranges.

From left: The best madeiras are bar­relaged in sun-warmed rooms for decades; a nat­u­ral swim­ming hole in Porto Moniz; skew­ered beef cubes cook over a fire.

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