Why You Should Be Drinking Madeira
The Terroir wine bars have always been known for championing unsung wines of nobility, most notably Riesling. But this winter, Matt Stinton, the corporate beverage director of Hearth and Terroir, converted the cause of Madeira into a personal campaign while helping to manifest Paul Grieco's vision of a Madeira mad Manhattan.
Each Terroir hosted Madeira Month in February, offering classes and tastings and a selection of distinguished pours. Although the scheduled festivities have expired, there's no reason not to carry a little impromptu Madeira madness into March.
Stinton's infectious enthusiasm for Madeira ignited my curiosity and left me devising plans to call on this odd little volcanic island: Madeira is known as much for its incredible vinous history as its curiously juxtaposed brazen holiday resorts catering to tourists looking for sun and surf, vacationers with no knowledge of the historical value of the adjacent local wine industry.
Belonging to Portugal but lying closer to Africa, Madeira formed 20 million years ago by the eruption of lava spewed from the sea. Grape growers living on the lush, dizzyingly vertiginous hills must utilize steep terraces called poios in order to plant and harvest vines. The scheme seems crazy, but the residents have been doing it for nearly 400 years, thus enabling these unique wines to be produced in an otherwise seemingly impractical landscape (see also Port). The altitude helps to minimize the effect of the tropical climate, one that often produces rainy, steamy conditions -- not classically ideal for vitis vinifera.
Madeira is a fortified wine, but unlike port, it ranges from dry to richly sweet. The best stuff, although the smallest share of the total Madeira production, is made from white grapes. Winemakers fortify the wine with a neutral spirit to stop fermentation once the desired level of sweetness has been reached. The next miracle of Madeira lies in the fact that the wine ends up cooked, ultimately providing stability and a long shelf-life.
In addition to Terroir's unusually long list of 15 labels, Stinton sourced a few epic bottles to encourage a Madeira renaissance. He pulled out a 1907 D'Oliveira Malvasia ($44 a shot) and a 1954 D'Oliveira Malvasia ($24 a shot) during my visit (both are still available at the Park Slope location; both still haunt my palate). We settled in over a short pour of each and discussed why the world should be drinking Madeira again. A few good reasons: