In the annals of weird wines, Madeira is way up there. Produced on a tiny island some 320 miles off the coast of North Africa, the wine gets its characteristic caramel hue and flavors from a long, slow heating process, followed by a lengthy sleep in oak barrels. It’s a recipe for disaster for most wines, but for some reason, it turns the juice from Madeira’s tough, acidic grapes into liquid bliss that lasts for decades, or even centuries.
I was re-reminded of this one rainy, cool autumn afternoon when I slipped into a seat at The River Café in Brooklyn. (It had been a hard week, okay?) There, Madeira has its own list, with bottles dating into the 1800s. I asked Joe DeLissio, the wine guy who assembled the collection, what attracts him to the wines. “Here’s a wine that breaks all the rules,” he said.
It also happens to be delicious, ranging in style from dry to treacle sweet but always with a telltale nuttiness, an exotic, warm spice, and a salty aspect that’s fitting for a wine grown on a ragged, rough island in the Atlantic sea. DeLissio does a brisk business in Madeira paired with chocolate desserts; why not with the cheese plate? “I never really thought about it,” he said, looking surprised. I pulled out some cheese I’d bought hours earlier; he ordered a cheese plate, and we were off.
“The great thing about Madeira,” he said as he pulled an array of bottles, “is that it takes very little to understand the fundamentals.” It’s true: the wines are generally labeled by grape variety, with Sercial being the driest (the grape is called Esgana Cão on the mainland, which means “dog choker,” a reference to its throatgripping acidity), followed by Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey, in order of increasing sweetness. DeLissio also added a Terrantez and a Bastardo, rarities that fall somewhere around the middle.
The vinification method also provides easy entry, he points out. “All have that caramel-y, crème brûlée-ness,” he says. This is because, after fortification, the wines are either put in oak barrels and left to bask in the hot sun for years or heated in estufas, steel vats outfitted with heating coils. The process mimics the effects of the original method, when the wines would be shipped back and forth over the equator, the heat slowly caramelizing the wine’s sugars without, strangely, stripping it of acidity and vigor.
The genius is in the details. The majority of DeLissio’s collection is vintage Madeira, wines produced from a single year’s harvest and aged for at least 20 years in oak barrels; the vagaries of the harvest year and all the years leading up to the bottling are what give each wine its particular personality. But even the blended stuff—labeled with the average age of the wines inside (typically 5, 10, or 20 years)—offers an array of flavors far beyond caramel. It’s these details that make it, as DeLissio says, “a wine that gives you pause.”
The details, it turns out, also provide the greatest challenge when pairing with cheese. The sharp acidity of a Sercial, for instance, provided a terrific foil for a creamy-crumbly hunk of Humboldt Fog, but moving up in sweetness to a Verdelho produced a flavor so waxy it was like chewing on a candle. Yet one more step up, to a Terrantez, and the pairing was terrific, taking the cheese into dessert mode with its caramel flourish. Go figure. The same wine had a terrible fight with the rind on La Tur but liquidized the molten interior in a hedonistically delightful way.
In the end the only generalizations we could make were that Madeira, unlike other fortified wines such as port, doesn’t fare so well with dense, powerful cheeses. Aged, crumbly Gouda, though widely recommended, obliterated even the richest wines; only the sweetest Malmseys could stand up to a creamy Roquefort. Instead, fresh goat cheeses and intensely rich, cheeses were the most reliable pairings, their milk fat providing a foil for the wine’s intense acidities while providing a canvas to show off their details. Otherwise, “some Madeiras are best a capella,” DeLissio said, putting down his cheese knife and letting the wine give him pause as the sun went down and the dining room lights came up, readying for another busy night.
An extensive collection of vintage Madeira is available through the Rare Wine Company in Sonoma, California. Blended Madeiras are widely available; look for Blandy’s, Cossart Gordon, and Leacock (all part of the Madeira Wine Company), Barbeito, Broadbent, D’Oliveira, and Henriques & Henriques.
The Cheeses (left to right)
Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog
Spring Brook Farm Tarentaise
Ile de France Roquefort
The Wines (dry to sweet)
D’Oliveiria 1937 Sercial Reserva
Blandy’s 1968 Verdelho
D’Oliveira 1927 Reserva Bastardo
Blandy’s 1969 Terrantez
Leacock’s 1934 Bual
D’Oliveira 1895 Malvasia
Blandy’s Alvada 5-Year-Rich
Blandy’s 10-Year Malmsey
Rare Wine Co. Historic Series New York Malmsey