Madeira's fortified wines keep practically for ever - they have been known to survive for more than two centuries.

Off the coast of Africa, 1,000km from mainland Portugal, the semi-tropical island of Madeira has long been famous for its fortified wines, DOP Madeira. (Madeira has chosen to use the new EU designations, DOP and IGP.) Now, along with its sandy neighbour Porto Santo, it has a second DOP for its unfortified wines, DOP Madeirense, and the islands also make unfortified wines labelled IGP Terras Madeirenses.

Past and Present

When the vine root louse phylloxera arrived on Madeira in the late 19th century and killed the vines, the islanders replanted with American hybrid vines, which were resistant to the pest. New, better, European varieties have been planted since, but many americano vines remain. The locals still drink curiously-scented table wines made from American hybrid grapes (they are banned for DOP and IGP wines). Recently, however, fresh, unfortified wines, DOP and IGP,  have been made from European grape varieties in a modern, government-financed winery. Verdelho is often the white grape of choice, with red wine from Tinta Negra, but a great variety of international and Portuguese-mainland grapes are being planted in modest quantities.


Bathed in the gulf stream, Madeira has a mild climate, averaging 22ºC in the summer, 16ºC in winter. Cloud builds up most days over the mountainous interior, there’s a brief downpour, then sunshine again – nothing that greatly disturbs the tourists who flock to this beautiful island. The temperate, humid climate and fertile volcanic soil make for gently-ripened grapes, and light wines with moderate alcohol.


Early exporters of Madeira wines realised that their delicate produce travelled better when fortified with a little brandy. They also found that something miraculous happened during long, hot sea voyages across the equator – the flavour grew intense and nutty. Madeira producers learnt to mimic this phenomenon by ageing barrels of fortified wine in the sun, under glass roofs in their warehouses, for years on end - a process they called canteiro. They then discovered a short-cut for their less expensive wines: controlled heating in stoves (estufas), a process known as estufagem. Three months of estufagem approximates to four years of canteiro, although the results are less subtle.

Madeira’s vineyards are fragmented into tiny plots along terraces carved into the volcanic slopes. Most vines are trained on pergolas. The grapes are harvested between mid-August and mid-October, small-scale growers delivering sometimes tiny quantities of grapes.

Fermentation is interrupted by the addition of neutral alcohol of vine origin once the yeasts have used up an appropriate amount of grape sugar to leave the desired sweetness. Traditionally, certain of the island’s historic white grape varieties are associated with wines of certain sweetnesses: Sercial left dry, Verdelho semi-dry, Bual (or Boal) semi-sweet, and Malmsey (or Malvasia) positively sweet. The four traditional grapes being in short supply, a more plentiful red grape, Negra Mole, is made today into Madeira wines of all sweetness levels.

The very top DOP Madeira wines are still made from the four white grapes, plus, occasionally, Terrantez.

Wines are categorised by method and length of ageing, as well as grape. Colheita or Single Harvest wines are made from the traditional white grapes or Tinta Negra, wood-matured for at least five years. Vintage, Frasqueira or Garrafeira wines must be made by the canteiro method from one of the traditional white grapes, then wood-aged for 20 years.


Authorized grapes for DOP Madeirense and IGP Terras Madeirenses:

  • Verdelho, Malvasia Fina (Boal), Sercial, Malvasia, Folgasão (Terrantez), Chardonnay, Chenin, Bastardo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Complexa, Deliciosa, Merlot, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Negra, Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Nacional. 

Main grapes for DOP Madeira: 

  • Tinta Negra, Sercial, Boal, Malvasia, Terrantez and Verdelho