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September 7, 2023

A perfect primer for Madeira: Compression without distortion and hidden gravitas

Richard Mayson's new book on the island and its wines is small in scale but grand in scope.

By Raymond Blake

The Essential Guide to Modern Madeira by Richard Mayson

Published by The International Wine & Food Society

Available from and

102 pages; $13.60 / £9.99 / €14.60

Madeira. Simply mentioning the word in wine company stirs images of prim Miss Marple types stretching a thimbleful over an hour’s desiccated conversation. Madeira is trapped in a frumpy pigeonhole, even more so than its cousins Sherry and Port, and escape will remain impossible until an uncaring wine world sits up and takes note of one of its greatest treasures. One can only hope that someday the wider wine world, and not just the loyal band of Madeiraphiles, will realize what an extraordinary and wonderful wine it is. If they do, much of the credit for their awakening will belong to Richard Mayson.

Mayson is already well known for his advocacy of fortified wines, and his Madeira: The Islands and Their Wines (Infinite Ideas, 2015) remains my go-to reference on the subject. A possible drawback of that book, however, is that it may prove intimidating to the neophyte who wants a primer rather than an all-encompassing tome. They will find it in The Essential Guide to Modern Madeira, which, though small in scale, is grand in scope. The key is in the title, “essential” and “modern” signaling that this monograph is packed with useful information while also being right up to date. Indeed physically, it is a deceptively small publication, perfect for stuffing into a jacket pocket or shoulder bag, though in that respect I wish it were sturdier—after leafing through it a couple of times, some of the pages were already coming loose from the binding. It’s likely to be taken “into the field,” roughed up a bit, and certainly not used to dress a coffee table, but it needs to be handled with care, for it is not as robust as the wines it describes.

“Handle with care” is not something you need to do with the wine—not at all. Madeira’s durability is legendary, as Mayson elaborates: “Heat and air, the enemies for most winemakers, make friends with madeira and combine with the naturally high acidity from the grapes to produce something that is seemingly out of this world.” Otherworldly is a good way of describing it, for it can be difficult to capture in words on first acquaintance. Newcomers who struggle to describe the wines, ransacking a previously fit-for-purpose lexicon of tasting terms, will be comforted to read of Mayson’s first encounter, when attending a presale tasting of some venerable oldsters at Christie’s of London: “The experience left me utterly mystified, struggling for the correct terms to describe the ethereal aromas and flavors that I had encountered.”

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Today, even after decades of experience and enjoyment, Mayson happily concedes, “When it comes to tasting a wine made over a century ago and still in fine fettle, it is simply impossible to elucidate the details. Some of the spellbindingly beautiful madeira wines that I taste today still leave me bowled over and lost for words.” Readers of this guide, however, might raise an eyebrow at that last comment, for Mayson is well able to tell Madeira’s tale—and what a tale it is.

A Tardis book

Madeira is the principal island of a small archipelago and might best be described as a mountainous spike that rises dramatically out of the Atlantic to an altitude of 6,000ft (1,800m) about 600 miles (950km) southwest of Lisbon. The Portuguese discovered it in 1412 and promptly set fire to its forested slopes, enriching the soil in the process. Skipping a few centuries takes us to boom times for the wine in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but in 1851, oidium struck, followed a decade later by the American Civil War, which cut off the US market, and then phylloxera a decade after that. The 20th century wasn’t much kinder, with further woe coming by way of world war, Prohibition in the United States, worldwide economic decline, and more world war. Madeira’s wine industry dwindled and declined yet somehow survived, proving itself to be as durable as the wine itself.

Yet even to describe it as an industry suggests a scale that is misleading. Time and time again through this guide, Mayson quotes figures that need to be reread to check that they have not been misread. For example, the prized Terrantez grape, which was woefully susceptible to oidium, has now made a “comeback” and occupies an area of about 4ha (10 acres), divided among 22 growers. Plantings of Boal have moved in the opposite direction: “However, there seems to be an increasing shortage of Boal, with the total area having fallen to just 33.8 acres (13.7ha) in 2018, split between 114 growers.” Similarly, there are 13 growers of Moscatel Graúdo, whose total holdings amount to little more than half a hectare (one acre). This is pixelated viticulture, vine cultivation as gardening, given added emphasis when the reader learns that “Madeira’s largest single vineyard by far” stretches to a substantial, though hardly gargantuan, 10ha (25 acres) and is owned by Henriques & Henriques. “It looks rather different to the other vineyards on the island, having been laid out with a view to mechanization by a viticulturalist from the Douro. Rising up to 2,460ft (750m) above sea level, the vineyard is mostly planted with Verdelho and Sercial, which are the grapes that do best at this altitude.”

Moving into the winery Mayson gives a succinct overview of the production process, careful reading of which will clear up confusion about the practice of estufagem, the artificial heating of the wine. Because this is the most memorable aspect, it lodges in people’s minds but can obliterate essential detail, particularly the fact that not all wines go through it, especially the prized ones made from the traditional white grapes. These are usually aged for extended periods in wood to give them their distinctive character.

Equally useful and enlightening is the final chapter, “Keeping, Serving and Tasting Madeira,” one passage of which should be rendered in bold—and in red, for good measure: “There is absolutely no need to drink a bottle of madeira at one sitting. Any remaining wine can be revisited weeks, months or even years later if well stoppered.” This makes Madeira the perfect desert-island wine and, more practically, the safest wine to order by the glass in a restaurant. Forget your fancy-pants preservation devices, Madeira is not just fortified, it is reinforced against time’s ravages. No other wine comes within shouting distance of Madeira for longevity. At the risk of repetition, if this book gets across only one message, one single message, it is this: An open bottle of Madeira keeps and keeps and keeps. Another message that should be hollered from the rooftops is that Madeira must be served in a proper wine glass, though I fear this will fall on deaf ears. If the tiny bowl on a swan neck stem I encountered recently is anything to go by, Madeira will continue to be imprisoned in ill-suited glasses of dubious design. For dramatic styling, it was hard to beat, but otherwise it was useless.

A minor irritation in this guide are the almost illegible captions printed on a grayed-out band at the bottom of the photographs, making them near-impossible to read. It’s a small detail, but it is a baffling design choice that could have been easily avoided. In addition, some more information about Madeira’s unfortified table wines would have been welcome. I tasted a range recently and loved their arresting flavors, which could serve as a means of getting a new generation to love Madeira.

At a glance, the prospective reader might think The Essential Guide amounts to little more than a glorified glossary, but in terms of content this is a Tardis book, bigger on the inside than outside. There is a lot packed into its slim frame; compression without distortion is its achievement. As such, it will meet the needs of children of the soundbite age, whose knowledge is corralled by the ubiquitous bullet point, while also serving those of more cerebral readers who require some depth and nuance in their wine reading. In short, it is a perfect primer for Madeira. It is not weighty in any sense, yet thanks to Mayson’s knowledge and enthusiasm, there’s hidden gravitas that gives it authority and conviction. Essential? Yes.

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