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A special type of Madeira; see there.

The Portuguese archipelago of Madeira, with its capital Funchal, covers a total of 801 km². It is located in the Atlantic Ocean 550 km north of the Canary Islands, which belong to Spain. Madeira is 951 km from the Portuguese mainland and 737 km from the coast of Africa(Morocco). 1,183 km to the north-west is the archipelago of the Azores, which also belongs to Portugal.

Madeira - Landkarten

The largest island, Madeira (741 km²), together with the island of Porto Santo (42.5 km²) and the uninhabited archipelago of IlhasDesertas (14 km²) form the Madeira archipelago, as well as the Autonomous Region of Madeira, which also includes the uninhabited Ilhas Selvagens. The entire island has a medium to high mountain character. The cliffs drop up to 4,000 metres below the surface to the seabed. The highest peaks rise up in the centre of the island; the highest mountain is Pico Ruivo at 1,862 m. Madeira was formed in several volcanically active phases and consists of jagged volcanic rock, especially on the coast.


It was discovered in 1420 by the navigator João Gonçalves Zarco (1380-1467), who found a densely forested island (Madeira means "island of the forest"). The Portuguese set fire to the island and the fire raged for seven years. Although this destroyed almost all the vegetation, the wood ash and the already existing volcanic soil created ideal conditions for viticulture. At the end of the 16th century, commercially significant viticulture is documented. The harbour in Funchal quickly developed into a strategically important stopover for all ships on their way to Africa, Asia and South America. This is also where the ships were supplied with wine. However, these usually spoilt on the long sea voyages. For this reason, spirits distilled from sugar cane were gradually introduced to preserve the wines in particular. However, this only became the norm in the middle of the 18th century.

It is not known for certain when the famous Madeira dessert wine of today's style was created, but there is a report of one in 1478. In this year, George Plantaganet Duke of Clarence (1449-1478), brother of the English King Edward IV (1442-1483), was sentenced to death for conspiratorial activity, greed and violence. He was given the choice of execution and allegedly decided in favour of death by drowning in a barrel filled with malmsey in the Tower. However, it is possible that the "drowning" refers to the fact that he was a heavy drinker throughout his life. In any case, he was not killed by beheading, the usual method of execution for noblemen, as a later exhumation proves.

Vinhos de Torna Viagem

The special method of production, also known as Madeirisation due to its typical taste and colour, came about by chance in the 17th century when large quantities were exported by ship from Funchal to South America and other colonies by the Dutch. It was realised that the longer the journey took and the longer the ship spent in a hot, tropical climate, the better the wine became. The rocking motion of the ship (as was assumed at the time) but above all the extreme temperature fluctuations contributed to the typical flavour. For this reason, many ships were loaded with wine and sent to the East Indies and back for the sole purpose of production (thus crossing the equator twice). The wines were called "Vinhos de torna-viagem" (wines make a journey) or "Vinho da roda" (roda = to turn/rotate) and is also documented on the labelling of old Madeira bottles (TVE).

Madeira - Vinhos de Torna Viagem - Fass und Schiff

The impetus for trade in Madeira came in the late 17th century, when large quantities of wine were needed for the new Portuguese colonies in South America (Brazil). The colonisation of America in the 17th century under the rule of the English King Charles II (1630-1685) also brought Madeira into fashion on the East Coast of North America. It enjoyed a great reputation there and became a coveted and expensive object. The American Declaration of Independence in 1776 was solemnly sealed with a Madeira. The first US President George Washington (1732-1799) enjoyed a Madeira every day with dinner. The founding of Washington D.C., the capital city named after him, was also celebrated with a Madeira. In the 19th century, the wine was so popular in the USA that special events (Madeira parties) were held and clubs were founded (the Madeira Club of Savannah-Ohio, which still exists today, is legendary).

Wine-growing areas

The wine-growing area covers 500 hectares of vineyards and is divided into three sub-zones. These are Câmara do Lobos, São Vicente and Santana. The IGP area Terras Madeirenses (country wines), which covers the entire region, is hardly utilised. The DOC wines (quality wines) are categorised under different designations:

  • Madeira - for fortified wines (the classic Madeira)
  • Madeirense - for non-sparkling wines and sparkling wines (both make up less than 10% of production)

Climate & Soil

The climate is influenced by the Gulf Stream. In the north there is frequent rainfall, whereas in the south it is subtropical. The prevailing wind comes from the north-east and causes high humidity, which means there is a risk of fungal diseases and rot. The average daily maximum temperature varies between 19 °Celsius in January and February and 26 °Celsius in August and September. The levadas (open irrigation systems), which have been in place since the 15th century, carry water from the rainier north to the south, to the plantations and also to the vineyards. The entire island is of volcanic origin, which is why the basalt and tuff soils are rich in organic material.

Madeira production

The wine regulations are under the supervision and control of the IVBAM Institute (Instituto do Vinho, do Bordade e do...

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