Port and Madeira, those fortified wines from Portugal, are revered all over the world for their distinct character. The breadth of styles of both Port and Madeira is surprising. Port and Madeira are each produced in a different way which is tied to their different histories. One of the most extraordinary aspects of Port and Madeira wine, aside from their honored tastes, is that they can be drunk indefinitely. A 200-year-old Madeira or Port can be exceptional to drink which puts these wines in a league of their own. Drinking a very old wine always conjures reflection upon the history through which the wine has lived and Port and Madeira wines take one further back in history than any other wine can.
In 1754, the agents for the Association of Port Wine Shippers wrote of Port wine “It should feel like liquid fire in the stomach…it should burn like inflamed gunpowder…should have the tint of ink… it should be like the sugar of Brazil in sweetness and the spices of India in aromatic flavor.” Even a few centuries later, this colorful description of Port still holds true. While Port production and trade was dominated by the British for a couple of centuries, the Portuguese regained control of the Port-producing region. One can still taste a difference in styles between the British estates and the Portuguese estates; the style of British Port is bigger, sweeter, fruit-driven while the Portuguese estates produce more reserved, elegant wines. There are not many strict rules about how to produce Port, which allows for varying styles. This is another way to taste history in the glass. Both British and Portuguese estates are ranked among the top producers.
Madeira wines, produced since the mid-15th century, have been exported around the world since their beginning. On the long journeys by ship to the Far East and Australia, the wine in wooden barrels slowly heated to around 113˚ F (45˚ C) and slowly cooled back down. It was only after a few unsold barrels came back to the winemakers on the island of Madeira that they realized that this slow heating process gave a particularly extraordinary flavor to the wine. The winemakers began to mimic this heating process during the ageing to attain the unique taste. Still today, this heating of the wine is part of the Madeira winemaking tradition. There are a variety of styles of Madeira thanks to different grape varieties, blending from different vintages, and the number of years in casks. Madeiras range from pale and medium-dry to honey sweet.