By Harold McGee
Beginning in the 15th century, Portuguese ships embarking on long voyages to the Indies would pick up barrels of ordinary wine on the Portuguese island of Madeira. Sailors and producers soon found that the long barrel aging in extreme temperatures and with constant agitation produced an unusual but attractive wine. By 1700, ships were sailing to the East Indies and back just to age the barrels of Madeira stored on board; by 1800, the wine was being fortified with brandy and hot-aged on the island. Today, the base wine, which can be white or red, is fortified, sometimes sweetened, then artificially heated to a temperature around 120°F/50°C, where it’s held for three months before slowly cooling down again. It’s then aged in barrels in a sherry-like solera system (below) before bottling. There are several different styles of Madeira, from sweet to nearly dry.