In order to escape the never-ending winter of 2023 in The Netherlands we decided to travel to Madeira, where we could catch up on our vitamin D and indulge in the local winemaking. However, flying direct to the island from Amsterdam was a bit of a challenge, and always included a quite long layover in Lisbon. That is why we stayed in the city for a few days, before flying through to Madeira and getting to know the local culture and of course the wines.
Portuguese wines are often produced by local grape varieties, which leads to a very own identity that cannot be compared with any other wines in the world. A lot of different types of wine are produced, such as sparkling, dry white, heavy reds, the nation ‘green wines’, and of course the fortified. However, Portuguese wines do struggle with marketing and getting the wines, apart from the fortified, known across the world. The best ones, you will find when visiting the country itself. The capital Lisbon is situated in the south of the country and is part of the larger wine region called Lisboa. The region has the second largest production in the country, but the appellations are small, and the focus is more on the production of table wines and IGP. Also, a lot of the grapes are used for the production of brandy. The biggest appellations of the region are Bucelas, Colares, and Carcavelos.
Because we were only in the city for two days, and we had both never traveled to Portugal before, we did not want to restrict ourselves by only tasting the local appellations but tasting wines from around the country. The first night we sat down on the terrace of a small restaurant in a rather busy shopping street, and my eye spotted a dry white from the Douro valley on the wine list. The Cadao Branco DOP Douro is a white blend made from the varieties Viosinho, Rabigato, Gouveio, and Moscatel Galega Branco. The last one is of course the Moscato grape we all know and love, but the other three are local, Portuguese white grapes. The wine starts off to be very mineral, with some hidden orange and white apricot fruit. Both the Rabigato and Gouveio increase aging potential, as well as a full-bodied structure complementing the fruit. This is the perfect wine to start off with. Combine it with the local ‘pastel queijo’, which is a codfish cake with fish.
Cozinha d.Avo Celeste
Rua Augusta, 282
When in Lisbon, make sure you visit the covered marketplace Mercado da Ribeira. You have the actual market there, where you can buy your fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish, but is also joined with a very trendy food hall called Time Out Market. This food hall is a very dynamic place with cocktail bars, wine shops, and endless possibilities to eat.
Even lunchtime on Monday is crazy busy, with only a handful of tourists surrounded by all the locals! In the middle of the hall, you will find long tables for everyone to share and enjoy your meal and drink. The atmosphere is just amazing! The different businesses are set up in such a way that you get the feeling it is just one big business instead, beneath a high ceiling, with large industrial lights hanging from it, to make the vibe complete. Almost everywhere you can sit by the bar, close to the staff, yet still in the business. Next to the grand hall, there is a separate corridor, where you find the other side of the food booths, you can again sit to eat at the bar, with a view of the kitchen. Every place is actually a big Chefs Table, letting you try authentic Portuguese dishes and wines.
Time out Market
Av. 24 de Julho 49
For our last night in Lisbon, we went to a Cocktail bar/Bistro called ‘Shoes n’ Booze’, which can be taken literally because the owner is a winemaker/shoemaker! A long wall in the restaurant shows sets of sneakers with the right bottle of wine to match it. Talk about being innovative! They also serve very local dishes, which seems that meat in puff pastry is very popular, luckily also very delicious!
Shoes N’ Booze, Abraito Luxury
Rua da Madalena 68
From Lisbon, it is only a few hours’ flight to the green Island of Madeira. Because the island is actually a big volcanic mountain, that has a lot of differences in heights shaped like terraces, and sometimes a strong wind can occur, the landing does not always go as smoothly. It is even said that pilots need to go through special training in order to be allowed to land on the island. But when all goes well, it of course is all part of the adventure!
We set up camp in Funchal, which is the island’s capital, and from there we explored the rest of the island. In the Sailors Quarters, you will find a very casual-chic vibe with many restaurants to be found. Even in winter, dining is done mostly outside. Winters on the island are very mild in this subtropical climate. During the evening you just put on a light jacket or a sweater and you are ready to go! We’ve read that the local dish was a baked white fish, with a sauce of passionfruit and a baked banana on top. A combo that sounds rather strange, but quite logical when you think about it. The island is full of banana plants and passionfruit bushes. This would have been easily accessible back in the day, along with fish from the ocean. From the white fish itself, you do not get a lot of taste, but the crispiness of the passion fruit and the creamy texture of the banana bring a good balance to the mix. To complete the experience, you of course complete the meal with a local wine. The local wines of the island are the like-named fortified wines, but that would be a bit too much with this already rich dish. Luckily a few wineries also produce dry white and red wines. We tried a white Barbusano, a local winery from the northwest of the island. The wine gives a lot of fresh notes of citrus, along with tropical fruit, and a mineral crisp, yet oily structure. The minerality often refers to flint, which is not a surprise on a volcanic island like this one. It is quite a challenge to find wineries that produce dry wines, because the turnover is rather low, and it takes a lot of effort to add complexity to the grapes. Vineyards that do succeed are Barbusano, Palmeira, and a few others.
The grapes for the fortified wines of Madeira are able to develop well, despite the sub-tropical climate. Natural irrigation coming from the mountains, ensures a sufficient supply of water. The volcanic soil contributes to the specific character of the grapes. For the appellation of the DOP Madeira, several varieties can be used, but only four grapes are allowed for the production of the absolute top of Madeira.
The Tinta Negra Mole is a red variety that is mostly planted throughout the island, however, this grape is mainly used to produce basic and middle-class Madeira. Hence this grape is not part of the elite four.
grapes that are part of it are:
The production process is basically the same for every Madeira, only during the last step the level of sweetness, length of aging, blending, and the type will be determined. With certain types, only a specific grape variety can be used, so these types will be determined from step one.
- Granel or Vinho de Granel, is made of Tinta Negra and is actually only suited to cooking with. It already gets sold one year after harvest and will miss specific characters.
- Rainwater is a type that is made mainly with the Verdelho grape, completed with some Tinta Negra. It is a semi-dry type with a golden-like appearance.
- Finest is the basic type of Madeira and is made with Tinta Negra, minimum aging of 3 years.
- Reserve has an aging of 5 years, with 3 months in estufa and the rest in barrels. Different grape varieties can be used.
- Special Reserve is aged 10-15 years
- Extra Reserve is aging 15-20 years
- Exclusive Reserve age is longer than mentioned on the label. With 20 Anos being actually between 20-30 years, 30 Anos between 30 and 40 years, and ‘Mas de 40 Anos’ being over 40 years old.
- Vintage Madeira or Frasqueira have the highest quality of them all. Made from one of the elite four grapes this is for 100%. Using these different varieties will determine the sweetness level. Minimum aging will be 20 years for all. The Sercial grape will give us the driest character, with a lighter color. Verdelho turns to semi-dry, Boal semi-sweet, and Malmsey is the sweetest.
The thing that is very noticeable is that the production of Madeira is mainly in the hands of giant monopoles on the island,
and it is very hard (or almost impossible) to find a small farmer that produces their own Madeira. We do see that the bigger companies are buying the grapes from the small farmers but do not grow them their selves. A lot of houses do have vines growing in their backyard, a thing commonly seen in smaller villages. Mostly we see the red Tinta Negra growing here. Some vines are very hard to maintain, as the island is very steep, and the vines grow on terraces because of that. Therefore it is almost impossible to machine harvest the grapes. The island has no natural beaches, and the coastal line is mainly made up of cliffs. Just on the waterside, you will find small bays that grow the Boal (Malvasia) grape. This grape originated from Greece, with aromas of white flowers and exotic fruit. Sometimes it is compared to a light version of the Viognier grape. By planting this grape at the waterside, the cooling effect of the ocean ensures that grapes retain their natural acidity and get maximum sun exposure, so they develop beautiful complex notes.
Maintaining and picking these grapes is very intense because access to these bays is very limited. They are sometimes only accessible by special cable cart, boat or even abseiling! When we were in Santana, we got the chance to go to a small farming community, all the way down a cliff by the water. There was one cable cart, however, it could only be used by local farmers, so we had to use a very narrow path to go down. It was exciting and exhausting, but the views were amazing! The community did not only grow the Malvasia grape, but it also had growing vegetables and different banana plants. Not only the Atlantic Ocean but also the presence of a nearby waterfall ensures the cooling effect. Even though there is a very mild winter climate here, the vines do go into winter rest. So the question remains why the island does not invest in the production of dry wine more? I think the answer can be found in a more economical and marketing direction.
The grape Verdelho is used frequently on the mainland of Portugal to make dry whites, usually in a blend, however. The Malvasia grape, known in Greece as the Malagousia grape, is produced as a mono-page.
The island is also known as an intense hiking island. From the capital of Funchal, you can take a cable cart that will take you high above the city. From the local church, you can take the touristic toboggan down, but you can also climb higher up the mountain. The path will take you by deep ravines and green forests and of course lots of flowers, Madeira is also known as ‘Flower Island’, the view from the top will be amazing though!
The fortified type of Madeira wine is the thing that the island is most known for of course, and that is a thing you understand when visiting the island. The climate is sometimes a bit too warm, which makes it hard to fully develop grapes that can lead to complex wines. The production is controlled by a few big companies that ensure a consistent product. However, when you visit these wineries as a professional, you get to take on a tourist tour and that does not really give you the chance to fully explore the local wine in depth. Beautiful Madeira gets produced regardless. You can swing by MH Borges for a last-minute tasting in downtown Funchal.
Madeira is worth the visit for so many reasons! My advice is to go there and explore for yourself, Madeira will amaze you every time!