Glasses of Madeira [Malmsey (England)]

Real Madeira is made only on the islands of Madeira, a Portuguese possession far off the western coast of North Africa. This wine undergoes a high temperature aging imitating a long sea voyage through the tropics. It was hugely popular in warmer regions before refrigeration because it is practically immortal in the bottle and even lasts well after opening. From this legacy it is called for in many European recipes as well as those from the U.S. Southeast and Brazil.

This is a fortified wine with neutral grape spirits added at the end of fermentation or at various stages during fermentation depending on the sweetness desired. Alcohol is about 18% by volume. Dry Madeira is fermented off the skins and will be amber in color. Sweet versions are fermented on the skins to balance sweetness with acid and tannin, so they will be red. It is the dryer Madeiras that are normally used for cooking.

Two classes of grape are used. The "ordinary" grapes are Tinta Negra Mole and Complexa. The "noble" varieties are Sercial, Verdelho, Boal / Bual, and Malvasia / Malmsey. Labeling rules are different for these two groups as explained below.

Madeira for cooking is made from the "ordinary" grapes, aged for only 3 years and labeled "Finest". Real Madeira is very scarce here in Southern California and likely to be expensive, but the historic San Antonio Winery of Los Angeles makes a light California Madeira which is affordable and quite suitable for cooking.   Subst: an Amontillado (medium dry) sherry or dry Marsala are acceptable..

Grapes & Sweetness

These levels carry the names of the variety of grapes used. Wines made from Tinta Negra Mole and other grapes may not use this system but must be labeled seco (dry), meio seco (medium dry), meio doce (medium sweet), and doce (sweet). Wines made with at least 85% of the "noble" labeled varieties use this system.

  • Sercial:   Light colored and dry - fully fermented until little sugar remains.
  • Verdelho:   Fairly dry, light color. Fermentation is stopped when only a small amount of sugar remains.
  • Boal / Bual:   Moderately sweet, dark color and rich flavor with a raisin flavors.
  • Malvasia / Malmsey:   Quite sweet, very dark with coffee-caramel flavors - a favorite in England.


  • Finest:   Aged for at least 3 years, usually used for cooking.
  • Reserve:   Aged 5 years. May be made with "noble" varieties.
  • Special Reserve:   Aged 10 years, often without artificial heat.
  • Extra Reserve:   Aged 15 years, richer than Special Reserve but not often made.
  • Colheita / Harvest:   Aged 15 years or more. It can be labeled with a vintage year provided the word Colheita is appended.
  • Vintage / Frasquiera:   Aged at least 20 years and labeled with a vintage date.

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