clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Quick Lesson on Madeira and Where to Discover It in Charleston

Charleston Madeira Project founder and Certifed Cicerone, Brandon Plyler, researches the history and current state of the fortified wine in the Holy City.

Charleston Madeira Project

Charleston History

A peak into the story of Madeira reveals a fan base comprised of all your favorite Founding Fathers, along with anyone sporting a big bank account and higher station in life. Social clubs sprung up (early 1800s) around open bottles and dainty sampling glasses. The Charleston Jockey Club, a horse racing organization, maintained a large and supremely valuable cellar of old and rare Madeira wines. Upon fears of General Sherman's approach to the city, members of the club moved every bottle to Columbia, where it was walled up in the basement of an insane asylum. Later on, the haul was auctioned to sponsor the Charleston Library Society.

Flash forward to today: The Rare Wine Company painstakingly labored to recreate wines reflecting the styles and particular tastes of the cities along the Eastern seaboard. From New Orleans to Charleston to New York, the company bottles six region-specific wines that sport grape varieties for the history buff in everyone.

WHY Madeira?

The island of Madeira is situated off the coast of Portugal and North Africa, and for many explorers and merchants, it served as the last fueling station for a few thousand miles. Ships bound for the New World would pick up a few casks of the local wine and sell it to the colonists when they got into port. Sometimes a cask wouldn't be sold and returned to the island. Heavy notes of oxidation and caramel appeared after a long round-trip exposing the wine to intense heat and constant motion. The resulting beverage turned out to not only be unique but highly prized. Brandy was added to the wine, thus fortifying it and making it even sturdier.

Many producers and shippers sent their wines on vacation to North America and the Caribbean to expose their juice to this new and exotic process. These shippers often labeled their Madeiras with the name of the transporting ship, thereby greatly enhancing their value. Today an estufa is much more common place. Estufas are warm rooms that are used to mimic the heat and oxidation that would accompany a sea voyage.


Typically, the bulk of these wines are produced from the red grape, Tinta Negra, which accounts for 80+% of the island's production. Generally the two styles split between a fuller bodied, sweeter wine and a drier wine with a more pronounced acidity. These wines are plainly labeled, as in the case of Fanal Madeiras. Their wines, along with the Broadbent Selections serve as a smart entry point for those curious about the wines at a non-terrifying price.

The next step up would be the varietal labeled wines. From driest to fullest: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey. When these names are accompanied by a year on the label you have a Frasqueira. These require at least 20 years of age in a cask after which the wine can be bottled or transferred to glass to halt the effects of wood-aging. D'Oliveira is a premier producer with good distribution. While these can seem a little pricey, they deliver value, as most wines are not able to gracefully withstand this sort of treatment. Remember that these wines have already been subjected to heat and oxygen — two of wines biggest enemies. Once opened, a bottle of Madeira fairly much has an indefinite lifespan.


Many sommeliers have a soft spot for Madeira and quietly stock them to some degree. It's fairly easy to find at many of the top restaurants around town, but here's a map of a few favorites.