Have a Madeira, My Dear

The aromatic wines are making a big comeback

It's time for dessert at Ilo, Manhattan's restaurant of the moment in the spired, neo-Gothic building that's now the Bryant Park Hotel. The cheese cart beckons, offering dozens of wheels, from biting Cabral blue cheese to milder, nut-scented Roncol sheep's-milk rounds. Perhaps a glass of hearty port to go with the fromage?

Not a chance. At Ilo, the bias is toward the other Portuguese after-dinner delight. That would be Madeira, sweet white wines fortified with brandy and named for an island off the coast of North Africa where they are crafted. On any given night, Ilo offers over a half-dozen vintage Madeiras, ranging from a 1795 Barbeito Terrantez redolent of honey and vanilla ($225 per glass) to a fruitier 1944 Malvasia Quinta da Piedade ($28 a glass).

The wine of choice in America until the mid-19th century, Madeira is making a comeback, thanks to hot restaurants from Gotham to San Francisco. "It's seeing a resurgence as people start to appreciate both rare wines as well as a nice after-dinner drink," says David Parker, CEO of Brentwood Wine, a West Linn (Ore.) rare-vintage online auction house.

Madeira follows on the heels of port, cigar's longtime companion and now a staple on dessert menus. Unlike port, Madeira is lighter and won't overpower frothy desserts. It's also far less pricey than port of comparable quality and lasts longer (table). Indeed, the wine can keep for a year or so after it has been uncorked.

Madeira's lightness doesn't mean it's short on complexity and richness. Classic vintages can have dozens of overtones, including citrus and raisins. Even younger Madeiras of blended vintages delight the palate.

Indifference to the wine in the U.S. belies its history. Because the island was the final landfall before passage to America, ships would load up on Madeira's wines, both as a product to sell and to use as ballast. Vintners found that the searing heat in the ships' holds improved the wines. So they sent casks to and fro across the seas, sometimes for several voyages. They also fortified Madeira with brandy to further preserve it and add complexity.

Today the slow-cooking technique, known as estufagem (derived from the Portuguese word for hothouse), is done on land. The finest Madeiras are heated naturally by placing casks under the eaves of a roof to bake in the semi-tropical sun. Winemakers cook lesser varieties in casks stored in heated rooms or in steel vats warmed by hot water pipes or heating coils. Temperatures of the wines easily exceed 115F as they cook from three months to a year.

CARAMEL. Four types of Madeiras, each named for a varietal grape, predominate. Sercial, aged at least eight years, is the driest and is imbibed chilled as an aperitif or with fish or salad. For cakes, fruits, and mellow cheeses, Verdelho Madeira offers a bit more sweetness. Bual, several notches up the richness scale, is often served with creamy desserts. The richest is Malmsey (also called Malvasia), a caramel-toned powerhouse best savored as an after-dinner drink.

Madeiras also are classified as either vintage or nonvintage. Vintage Madeiras, made from grapes picked in a single year, must age a minimum of 20 years in the cask and 2 in the bottle before they are sold. Only several thousand cases are produced a year, so vintage Madeiras are pricey, ranging from $60 to $90 a bottle. Offerings older than 100 years can fetch thousands of dollars. Nonvintage Madeiras, meanwhile, blend different pressings of wine, none younger than the declared age on the bottle. They must be aged at least three years after they've been blended before they can be sold.

Madeira is still mostly made on the island after which it's named, by fewer than two dozen wineries, notably Barbeito, Cossart Gordon, and Leacock. Fortunately, major wine stores in the U.S. carry it, and good nonvintage bottles in the 10- to 15-year range can be had for $15 to $40. Five-year-old nonvintage Madeiras work nicely as drier wines, but experts say 10 years is where the real fireworks start. Vintage or not, you can expect more pyrotechnics as more Madeiras make it onto menus and shop shelves.

By Alex Salkever

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