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Madeira Wines
History of the Island

The story of the island of Madeira and its wines is a fascinating and very old one.  In its earliest history, Robert A. Machin and Anna d'Arfet, having eloped, set sail on-board Roberts ship, heading to the Mediterranean.  They were overtaken by a north-easterly gale and driven into the Atlantic.  After two weeks, they landed on a very thickly wooded deserted island.  Anna died of exposure shortly thereafter, and Robert just a week later.  The surviving crew, buried the couple and set sail from the island only to be captured by Moors and imprisoned by the King of Morocco.  In the same prison was a renowned Spanish pilot and native of Seville, one Jaun de Morales, who heard the reports of the land they had discovered.  In 1416, on the death of Don Dancho, son of King Ferdinand of Aragon, Jaun de Morales was among those repatriated.  At the time Spain and Portugal were at war and the ship taking Morales home was captured by the Portuguese captain, João Goncalves Zarco.  Out of pity Zarco freed all his captives except for Morales, because he thought Morales’s story of the Island he landed on would interest his master, the infante Dom Henrique of Portugal, better known and Prince Henry the Navigator.


In 1418 Zarco, together with Tristão Vaz Teixeyra, and a famous Genoese navigator, Bartholomeu Perestrello, were exploring the coast of Guinea on the instructions of Prince Henry, when a great storm blew them off the coast.  After being battered by mountainous waves they were cast onto an island, which, because it had given them shelter, they named Porto Santo.  From Porto Santo they could see a “dense and dark cloud” always hovering to the sough-west which, Perestrello thought, or knew, was land shrouded in mist.  Zarco and Vaz returned to Sagres in the Algarve to report their find to the Prince, leaving Perestrello and some of the crew to occupy the island.  Prince Henry, connecting many pieces of information, including the story from Morales of the land Machin’s crew had described, ordered Zarco and Vaz to return to Porto Santo with Morales as pilot, and sail into the “dark cloud” and find out what lay under it.  The also took with them three transport vessels of settlers for Porto Santo.  The expedition sailed tin the “dense and dark cloud” on July 1 and found there a thickly wooded land which, when circumnavigated, they found to be a beautiful island, which they named for the first time, according to Zarco’s log Madeira – Island of Woods. 


Madeira was made a province of Portugal and in 1425 Zarco became governor of the south side of Madeira, a position he held for 40 years.  He died when he was 80 (a great age in those times).  He is buried in the old church adjoining the Santa Clara convent, which was built in 1492, the year of America’s discovery.  Bartolomeu Perestrello became governor of Porto santo.  The first settlers consisted of scions of the noble families of Portugal, as well as Flemish, Genoese, German, Polish, French and British adventurers.  The first children born in Madeira were offspring of Goncallo Ayres Ferreira, a companion of Zarco on his first voyage who had subsequently taken his wife to the island in 1425.  In the early days there were no villages in the interior.  No roads had been built, because the forests were impenetrable, and the only way of getting from place to place was by sea.  In order that the settlers should have cleared land to cultivate, Zarco deemed it necessary to denude portions of the island of the forests by setting fire to them.  He sought permission from the Prince, who unfortunately agreed.  The fire, once begun, burned for seven years.  It is said that the wood ash greatly enriched the soil, which is undoubtedly true, but it also denuded the island of its magnificent trees.


Bartolomeu Perestrello’s daughter Filipa Perestrello e Moniz, married a young Genoese map maker, Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus), who lived in Lisbon and Madeira between 1470 and 1485.  Such is the early history of the Islands of Madeira.


Birth of the wine trade

The first reference to wine in Madeira is 1485, but it was really an ordinance in 1665 which granted Madeira shippers a virtual monopoly of trade in “English Plantations” and the Caribbean that helped Madeira’s wine industry to flourish.  The “plantations” at the time were; Jamaica, Barbados and the Leeward Islands, Virginia, New England, New York, Carolina and Bermuda.  Drinking Madeira became a way of life in America and the West Indies.  Attracted by this newfound trade, British merchants started to set them selves up on the islands, and in 1680 there were some 30 wine shippers, 10 of which were British.  In the mid – 18th century, two young men arrived in Madeira who were to found firms which are still trading today. John Leacock, and Francis Newton.  In 1760 Leacock started trading under his own name and from then until 1981, the wine shipping firm was owned and run by members of his family.  In 1745 Francis Newton found the firm which is today Cossart, Gordon & Co.  Another well know name, 23 year old John Blandy, first came to the island in 1807.  Other well known names on the island were, Lomelino, Hinton & Sons, Phelps & Page, Shortridge Lawton, Welsh & Cunha, Krohn Brothers & Co., Rutherford, Drury and H.P. Miles.  Then in later years, firms like Henriques & Henriques, Justinho Henriques, H.M. Borges, Veiga Franca, Vinhos Barbeito.


The wine

Some have said that great Madeira is virtually immortal.  Even today one can find Madeira wines of 50, 100, 150, even 200+ years old.  The longevity of Madeira wine can be attributed in large part to the way in which it is made.   While other wines are made with great care to not expose them to the extremes of light, heat, cold, air, motion, it is exactly these factors that give Madeira wine its unique, and long ageing attributes.  Fortifying Madeira wines with high-proof alchol much like Port wine, is another factor in their staying power.  Although very early on, this was not so.  Ships stopping at Madeira would take on casks of wine both as ballast for the ships, and as a precaution for the crew against scurvy.  These early wines while palatable, were still harsh, and did not usually improve throughout the entire voyage.  With a bucket of brandy added to each cask, the wines not only had better staying power, they improved in flavor and seemed to mellow as the ships went on their voyage to the West Indies, and came back to Madeira with occasionally un-tapped casks.   Soon, the wine was not considered mature unless it had crossed the tropics twice, so they began sending wines to the East and West Indies for the sole purpose of maturing.  Mellowing in the heat of the hold of a sturdy sailing ship, rolling and pitching over thousands of miles of distant seas, they gained something of the character of the ship itself.  These wines, known as “Vinho da Roda” (wine of the round voyage), began to take on names of the ships that carried them.  Names like Southern Cross, Madeiras, Voyager, Wanderer, Challenger.,et al. 


The transportation of these wines by ship to improve them became a very expensive proposition, and for all intents and purposes, the wine of the round voyage, became obsolete in the mid to late 1800’s as a new system was being developed on the island.  Resourceful Madeira merchants set about simulating the heat of a long sea voyage through the tropics by building a glass house, or what was called an “Estufa”, or hothouse, sometimes also known as Estufa do sol.  The wine was put into cask, and placed in this hot house, which was then heated by the rays of the sun, the wines were then stirred to replicate the motion of the ships at sea.  Most, if not all the great ancient vintages known to us today were made in this way.  Another variation of this was the Armazem de calor or “hot store”, in which flues carried hot air into the room, until the wines were 70 to 80 degrees Centigrade, again the wines would be stirred.  In both cases after heating, the wines were allowed to cool.  This system was banned and reinstituted many times during the early 1800’s, as the industry attempted to decide what method was best for quality and production, but by 1835 it was made legal once and for all.    The modern Armazem de Calor is a store heated by hot water pipes to a maximum air temperature of 50 degrees Centigrade.  This is now the preferred method for all high quality Madeira.  Another method, typically used for lesser quality wines is the Cubas de Calor, or hot vat, which are large vats or tanks in which the wines are heated by a stainless steel coil at the bottom as a pump or propeller mixes the wine.  The wines can be fortified either before or after the Estufa process, and once the heating is finished, the wines will be allowed to cool, rest and recover.


Types of Madeira

Nowadays, Madeira is mostly labeled under the names of the classic grapes from which it is produced or the type it represents.  These are defined as follows;


Pale, light-bodied, dry or extra dry.  A nutty nose and with age becomes mellow and medium dark, the mellowness covering its dryness.


Goldern, darkening with age.  Medium dry.  Medium-bodied, light and elegant, with a dry finish. 

Bual also Boal

Medium to dark, full-bodied and very fragrant.  Rich and fruity, and well balanced.  Bual was a great favorite in officers messes and clubs in India, being lighter than Malmsey or Port.  Bual mellows quickly with age and is eminently suitable for laying down. 

Malmsey also Malvasia

Medium dark to dark.  Full-bodied, very fruity, luscious and fragrant.  Very rich, almost sweet. 

Less commenly seen types





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