"... when this wine was vintaged Marie Antoinette was still alive."
|The roots of Madeira's wine industry dates back to the Age of Exploration when Madeira was a regular port
of call for ships traveling to the New World and East Indies. By the 16th centuries, records indicate that a
well established wine industry on the island was able to supply these ships with wine for the long voyages
across the sea. The earliest examples of Madeira, like port, were unfortified and had the habit of spoiling
at sea. Following the example of port, a small amount of distilled alcohol made from cane sugar was
added to stabilize the wine by boosting the alcohol content. (The modern process of fortification using
brandy did not become wide spread till the 18th century). The Dutch East India Company became a regular
customer, picking up large (112 gal/423 l) casks of wine known as pipes for their voyages to India. The
intense heat and constant movement of the ships had a transforming effect on the wine, as discovered by
Madeira producers when one shipment returned back to the island after a long trip. It was found that
customers preferred the taste of this style of wine, and Madeira labeled as vinho da roda (wines that have
made a round trip) became very popular. Madeira producers found that aging the wine on long sea
voyages was very costly and began to develop methods on the island to produce the same aged and heated
style - typically by storing the wines in special rooms known as estufas where the heat of island sun would
age the wine.
The 18th century was the "golden age" for Madeira with the wines popularity extending from the American
colonies and Brazil in the New World to Great Britain, Russia and Northern Africa. The American colonies,
in particular, were enthusiastic customers, consuming as much as a quarter of all wine produced on the
island each year. The mid 19th century brought an end to the industry's prosperity, first with the 1852
outbreak of powdery mildew which severely reduce production over the next three years. Just as the
industry was recovering through the use of the sulfur-based treatments, the phylloxera epidemic that had
plagued France and other European wine regions reached the island, and devastated the entire Madeira
vineyard. By the end of the 19th century, most of the island's vineyards had been uprooted and many were
converted to sugar cane production. By the turn of the 20th century, sales started to very slowly increase
again, only to again collapse when the Russian Revolution and American Prohibition closed off two of
Madeira's biggest markets.
The rest of the 20th century saw a downturn for Madeira, both in sales and reputation, as low quality "cooking wine" became
primarily associated with the island - much as it had for Marsala. But towards the end of the century, some producers started a
renewed focus on quality, ripping out hybrid and American vines and replanting with the "noble grape" varieties of Sercial,
Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey. Madeira's greatest grape variety, Terrantez, is almost extinct. It was introduced on Madeira in the
late 1600's, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries produced what I consider (and so do many experts) the greatest
wines of the island. But it has a very thin skin, and is very susceptible to rot and to mildew. This is a particular problem in
Madeira, which has a hot and humid climate. The 1852 oidium outbreak destroyed most of the Terrantez vines, followed by
phylloxera, which wiped out the rest. When the vineyards were replanted, Terrantez was abandoned, just as Folle Blanche was
largely abandoned in Cognac. After the second world war a few small patches were replanted, but even today, less than 500kg of
Terrantez grapes are harvested each year, so it is as good as forgotten.
Pre-phylloxera Terrantez Madeira is the same kind of thing as pre-phylloxera Folle Blanche cognac - something that is really
gone for ever, except on the tiniest scale.
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