If You Haven't Tried Madeira, Here's Why You Should

This highly unique, fortified wine has a luscious flavor that's unlike anything else.

Updated January 5, 2023
coffee and Madeira wine

Madeira is wine made on the tiny Portuguese island of Madeira. With a rich history and even richer taste of caramelized apple, toasted hazelnut, and orange peel, Madeira is for pre-dinner clinks, post-dinner sips, or, in some cases, cooking. Learn all about what makes this ancient to modern-day island delight highly unique.

What Is Madeira Wine?

Madeira is a fortified wine that's intentionally oxidized and heated to create a very unique flavor profile. It can be made with a blend of native red and white grapes or as a single varietal. Tinta negra mole is the most common varietal used for Madeira production, while malvasia is most popular for sweet Madeira. Bual, verdelho, sercial, and terrantez are also used. In any case, to be authentic, Madeira must be made on the small and rugged island using one of two particular methods. Similar to other wines, Madeira comes in a range of styles from dry to sweet.

Maderia Flavor Profile

Because Maderia is both fortified and aged in a unique way, the flavor profile is really like nothing else. It typically has baked and caramelized flavors like burnt sugar, roasted hazelnut, caramel, peach, white pepper, toasted walnut, and orange rind. It will vary in style from dry to sweet depending on the type of Maderia you're drinking, but the flavors tend towards warm and toasty.

Madeira Flavor Profile

How Madeira Wine Is Made

Madeira starts out similar to other wines with grape harvest, crush, and fermentation. The wine is then fortified. Fortified wines have a neutral spirit added, usually grape brandy, which halts fermentation and increases the alcohol content of the finished wine. What separates Madeira from other types of fortified wines, such as port or sherry, is how it's aged.

Need to Know

Difference Between Port and Madeira

There are similarities between two of Portugal's fortified wines, port and Madeira. However, the two are different products. They vary in how they're made. Madeira is heated during production, which imparts interesting baaed fruit and caramel flavor nuances. Port isn't heated during the aging process.

While tawny port can also have nutty flavors, Maderia's flavors are warmer with more baked flavors than port. You can use either in cooking, although the dry styles of Maderia lend themselves better to savory dishes than ports do. The best way to understand the differences is to try them side by side.

Madeira goes through one of two processes, estufagem or canteiro, which heat the wine and mimic the conditions that originally created Madeira wine centuries ago when barrels were transported through tropical climates on ships. The warm conditions and wooden cask aging creates an oxidative effect and is what gives Madeira its unique flavor profile with all the distinct rich, toasty notes.


Madeira created this way tends to be more affordable than canteiro Madeiras and a bit of lower quality as well. In this process, the wine is aged in concrete or steel tanks and heated to between 110°F (43°C) and 130°F (54°C) for at least 90 days. This speeds up the process, quickly caramelizing the sugars. The wines are then aged in wood casks, and they can be bottled and released two years after the grape harvest. It's kind of the "quick and dirty" interpretation of recreating historical Madeira.


Canteiro takes a more artisanal approach. With this method, the sun is used to heat the Maderia so it warms naturally. This process may take years or even decades as the Maderia sits in wooden casks in warm rooms or out in the sunlight where it's naturally heated and cooled by the rhythms of daylight. The highest quality and most expensive Maderia wines are made using this method with the minimum bottling age at three years.

Non-Vintage Madeira vs. Vintage Madeira

You can find Maderia in vintage and non-vintage styles. When you buy a bottle of Maderia, it will be labeled with a quality designation and likely a grape variety (unless it's a true blend). If the Maderia is labeled with a grape variety, it means it contains at least 85% of that grape.

Quality Level Non-Vintage or Vintage Wooden Cask Aging
Rainwater non-vintage minimum 3 years
Seleccionado non-vintage 3-5 years
Reserva (reserve) non-vintage 5-10 years
Reserva especial (special reserve) non-vintage 10-15
Extra reserve non-vintage 15-20
Colheita (harvest) vintage minimum 5 years
Frasqueira or garrafeira vintage

minimum 20 years

Sweet or Not So Sweet

If you are only familiar with sweet Maderia, you might be surprised to know Maderia is actually made in spectrum from dry to lusciously sweet. The classifications are as follows and listed on the label.

  • Extra seco = extra-dry
  • Seco = dry
  • Meio seco = medium-dry

  • Meio doce = medium-sweet

  • Doce = sweet

How to Store Madeira

As with all wines, Madeira is best stored in a cool, dark place away from UV light and temperature fluctuations. The bottle has already gone through significant aging and is ready to drink when you buy it off the shelf. But if you stash it away in the right conditions for a year or two, it will remain in good condition for when you're ready to drink it.

Serving Madeira

Whether dry or sweet, Madeira is for sipping. It's packed full of rich and nutty caramelized flavors that are really best enjoyed in small amounts. Serve dry or off-dry Madeira as an apéritif at about 55°F (12°C). Dry Madeira can be served in a white wine glass on its own or alongside soft, creamy sheep or goat cheeses, fruit plates, or with smoked salmon.

Sweet Madeira is more of a dessert wine and should be served just below room temperature. Served in a port glass - this is a dessert in and of itself, but if you'd like a little post-dinner pairing, go for not-too-sweet foods like blue cheese, apple tart, or dried fruit and nuts. After opening, you can reseal the bottle and store it in the fridge for three to six months.

Cooking With Madeira

Many recipes call for Madeira. When searching out the best Madeira for cooking, you want to find something of quality that doesn't break the bank. Rainwater Madeira is a good bet. It's dry and lighter bodied and will infuse nutty and rich caramelized flavors into your dish. You can also use it to deglaze a pan, in a dressing, or to build a pan sauce. Mushrooms go particularly well with Madeira, where the earthy notes meet a sweet nuttiness.

A Bit of History

Madeira has been around a long time - since the 1400s actually. Merchant ships travelling to the West Indies with barrels of wine aboard would experience extreme heat from the tropical conditions, resulting in spoiled wine. So winemakers started adding distilled spirits to the wine to help preserve it during the long, tumultuous journey. The high alcohol content keeps the wine stable while the oxidation creates a unique flavor profile.

Madeira, a Unique Island Gem

Because of the unique processes used to make Madeira, you won't find any other wine like it. With caramelized flavors and notes of baked apple, hazelnut, walnut, and burnt sugar, it's a wine that will flip your palate upside down.

If You Haven't Tried Madeira, Here's Why You Should