Madeira Wines

The island of Madeira was discovered in 1418 by João Goncalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira and grape-vine was introduced and brought into Madeira through Infante D. Henrique. The principle island of Madeira has a surface area of 730 square kilometres, and a maximum length of 57km from east to west and 23km from north to south. A mountain range forms a backbone that divides the island into two halves.

The highest point is Pico Ruivo, 2000 metres above sea level. It is principally in the sunny hillsides of the south side of Madeira that the grapes are cultivated from which Madeira wine is made. Infante D. Henrique was active in starting up the planting sugar cane from Sicily and sent to ships to Cândia in Greece to bring the young plants of MALVASIA. His object was to obtain for Portugal the trade in sugar and sweet wines which hitherto had been the privilage of the Genose and Venetians. Later, other varieties were planted- SERCIAL, BOAL, VERDELHO and TINTA DA MADEIRA which, by virtue of especially good soil and climatic conditions, produced wines of superior quality and became famous.

Madeira wine has spread all over the civilised world, especially in the most aristocratic courts of Europe. One of Shakespeare’s immortal characters in the play Henry IV – Flastaff – was accused of exchanging his soul for a leg of chicken and a goblet of Madeira.

The region of Madeira includes the islands of Madeira and Porto Santo both with different characteristics; while Madeira is forested and temperate, Porto Santo is hot, dry and bare. The soil of Madeira is by nature, volcanic, the relief is accentuated and vegetation abundant due to the humidity and mildness of the climate. The vine is cultivated in terraced steps named “poios” which extend on the slopes from high up down to the sea’s edge.

Porto Wines

For thousands of years, foreign aficionados have cherished the wine that is grown in northeast Portugal on the mountainsides along the Douro River. As far back as the first Century B.C., the Greek historian, Polybius, in his Land of Wine, noted that this wine sold at one drachma for a matreta (27 liters). At the time of the caesars, the Romans, who occupied the region, introduced treading troughs and clay amphoras for making and aging the wine.

Viticulture became so popular that the Emporer Domitian had to order the number of vineyards reduced by half to keep a balance with the other agricultural products. Wine cultivation thrived during the Visagoth domination and survived the Moorish occupation of the 8th to 12th centuries. From 1143, when Portugal became an independent kingdom, Douro wine was often mentioned in royal decrees, and by the 13th century it was shipped down the Douro River to the coastal town of Porto, and exported as far as afield as Holland. Rui Fernandes, a courtier of King John III, tells us that in 1532 the Douro was producing the equivalent of 600,000 cases of wine.

Noted for becoming more perfumed with age, it was the best, logest-lived wine in the kingdom. He said that the Spanish court in Castile, the royal court of Portugal, and the local nobility and clergy treasured these fragrant wines. He also gave a detailed description of the grapes used _ some of the same varieties used today. The Portuguese historian, João de Barros, in his Geografía of 1548, cites the quality of various wine locations from one end of the Douro to the other, enthusing that ” wonderful wines are harvested in the Douro, whence they are shipped to the city of Porto”. By the beginning of the 17th century as many as 1,200,000 cases reached Porto each year, and in 1638 a German diplomat named Cristiano Kopke founded a Douro wine shipping company that is still in existence today. In 1675 wine destined for Holland was called for the first time by its modern name: Porto. Although, by law, only wine produced in Portugal may be called Porto, other countries accept and respect its translation (Port or Port Wine). As the 17th century drew to a close, an event took place that would give Porto universal fame and prestige: it was discovered by the British, who spread its fame all over the world.

Table Wines

Portugal has undergone whirlwind modernazation since joining the European Union in 1986. This is reflected nowhere more dramatically than in the Portuguese wine industry where upgrading has become the norm. Among the innovations: stainless steel fermentation tanks and small, new oak barrels. Gone are the days when most wines were anonymously labeled.

Now the region of production is slated on every bottle, estate bottling is catching on, and vintners everywhere are selecting only the finest grape varieties. For centuries, Portugal has been recognized for certain regions and wines. Port (or Porto as the Portuguese call it) was demarcated and celebrated in the mid-18th century. Madeira was the favorite wine of Colonial America. A few other regions received official appellations at the beginning of this century such as Dão, Bucelas and Moscatel de Set bal. Portugal then took a long snooze from promoting its wine regions – only to reawaken with a jolt in the last decade. In 1985 there were 10 demarcated wine regions; now there are 55.

Wine comes to Portugal – Early!

The Portuguese people first encountered wine when the Phoenicians entered the southern part of the country around 600 B.C. They brought grape varieties with them that became so well established that many survived for 2,500 years and are not grown elsewhere. When the Romans invaded in 219 B.C. their activities extended as far north as the Douro River Valley, site of the present-day Porto Wine Region. Roman artifacts can still be found there, including stone vats for crushing grapes by foot and large clay amphoras for fermentation and storage. Even after the Romans were forced out by succesive waves of Swabe, Visagoth and Arab invaders, wine continued to flourish. The year round care that vineyards required tied the native people to a permanent locale, providing an incentive for the invaders to encourage wine production. Vineyards at the Lorvão Monastary in central Portugal are recorded as early as 950 A D. The region is very verdant and the wines are traditionally drunk as soon as possible after the harvest. All of this combines to suggest youth and freshness – in a word “greenness”.