Last year my wife was making a dish that called for some Madeira wine. So, she went to our local wine retailer, Prime Wines, and bought a bottle. I expected her to buy a cheap bottle from the Paul Masson isle. Instead, she returned with a bottle of Justino's Madeira. Naturally, I insisted upon trying it.
I never knew that Madeira could be such an interesting wine to drink. The few people in America who have even heard of Madeira know only of its use in cooking. Fewer still have ever sampled a glass of it. For those of you who like fortified wines--e.g., ports or sherries--I highly recommend that you take the time to get to know Madeira.
Madeira wines are made in the Madeira islands of Portugal from grape varieties most Americans have never heard of--the most common one being Negra Mole. As with all fortified wines, the fermentation process is stopped by the addition of a high alcohol grape spirit. After fortification, the wines achieve between 17% and 18% of alcohol by volume.
Prior to being aged in oak casks for at least 2 years, Madeira wines undergo the process of "estufagem"--a traditional method of heating the wine that is unique to Madeira. The vats are heated for up to 3 months in large stainless steel vats to temperatures of between 104 and 122 F°. Because of Madeira's exposure to oxygen and temperature during this process, an opened bottle can last longer than any other wine.
The Madeira my wife bought was aged only three years, the youngest version sold by Justino's. It was labeled 'Fine Rich,' which means it belongs to the sweetest category of Madeiras. The folks at Justino's describe the Fine Rich Madeira this way: "A translucent wine, with a strong amber colour. A fruity nose with some toasty notes. Soft and balanced on the palate, with a good length of flavour. Sweetness well balanced by the acidity of the wine."
Madeira is best served chilled.