The restaurant had been open only a few days, but our waitress knew the menu the way conspiracy theorists know the Zapruder film. So when it came time to order an after-dinner drink, I put myself in her hands.
"What I really like after a meal is a glass of Madeira," she said. "It's unusual. It's sweet but not too sweet. It's just very..." She began making mysterious arabesque gestures. "I don't know, it's very...sexy." She didn't say the word; she exhaled it. The glow in her eyes hinted at a memory that involved Madeira among other things.
As smoothly as I could manage, I said, "A glass of Madeira, please."
"Oh, we don't have any," she replied.
For a long time, this had been the problem with Madeira: as soon as you acquired a taste for it, you couldn't find it. But that seems to be changing. As wine drinkers like my waitress discover how complex, intense, memorable--sexy--this fortified wine can be, it's begun showing up on more and more restaurant wine lists across the country.
Madeira is made on a remote volcanic Portuguese island some 300 miles west of Morocco. While its subtropical landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, it has always been an awesomely difficult place to cultivate grapes. Steeply stacked terraces had to be carved out of nearly vertical hills, and interlocking webs of canals had to be etched into rock to bring water from the mountaintops down to the lower slopes. It's hard to believe that anyone could grow a houseplant in a land like this, let alone a neurotic crop like wine grapes. And the grapes grown on Madeira are some of the most neurotic in the world.
The oldest variety is Malvasia Candida, a grape brought to the island from Crete in the 15th century. The British, with their gift for nursery nicknames, shortened Malvasia to Malmsey, and the word's maternal sound suggests the powerful emotions that this wine is capable of evoking. Sugary, late ripening and scarce, Malvasia has always produced the island's most treasured wines. Second to Malvasia in sweetness is Bual (a.k.a. Boal). Like Malvasia, Bual has always been both scarce and sought after. Next is Verdelho, once the island's most common grape. Something between a dessert wine and an aperitif, Verdelho is often, but not always, served chilled. The fourth and driest variety is Sercial, a searingly acidic aperitif whose name means dog strangler in Portuguese. And if you caught your dog drinking your vintage Sercial, that's probably what you'd become. In addition to these four classic grapes, renowned single-variety Madeiras have also been made from Terrantez, Bastardo and Moscatel grapes.
No one really knows why--it may be the peculiar heating process Madeira is subjected to or the brandy that is added to stop fermentation or the wine's naturally high acidity--but once Madeira has been made it is virtually indestructible. Like many fine wines, it improves with time, though Madeira time is reckoned not in years but in decades or centuries. It's not unusual to hear a connoisseur proclaim a 200-year-old Madeira to be just reaching its peak. Mannie Berk, who sells a range of extraordinary old Madeiras through his California-based Rare Wine Co., remarked at a recent tasting how one Bual "still has a little bit of youthful aggressiveness to it." The wine he was referring to was made the year that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
"I think the fascination of Madeira is in the old vintages," says Alex Liddell, author of the new Madeira, the most complete book on the subject. The 10-year-old wines, says Liddell, "are agreeable drinks, but they're not going to set the world on fire. It's not until you get to the vintage wines that you realize, Wow, we're into something really sensational." Even in relatively young Madeiras, the difference a few extra years in the cask can make is dramatic. Nancy Peach, an educator for the Madeira Wine Co., which owns Blandy's, Leacock's and Cossart Gordon, among other brands, concurs, "There's a geometric leap in quality every five years. The 10-year-olds are more than twice as good as the 5-year-olds."
Although Berk and others have been lucky to find caches of vintage Ma-deira, there is a finite amount of wine made from the classic grapes. The amount of Malvasia Candida, Bual, Verdelho and Sercial bottled today is only a shadow of what it was 100 years ago. Though it's been on a long downhill slide since the 1850s, when the powdery mildew oidium blanketed the vineyards, Madeira is currently beset by a more modern plague: construction, which may turn out to be even more devastating.
After the 1974 revolution in Portugal, farmers were able to buy and sell their plots of land; as a result, there has been a construction boom unlike anything the island has ever seen. Bulldozers have torn up old vineyards to make way for houses and hotels, and many legendary vineyards, like Cama de Lobos (which Berk compares to Hermitage in Rhône or Montrachet in Burgundy), have been destroyed. Says Berk, "The future for great Madeira is very limited unless the government wakes up and realizes that it has a real treasure here."
Still, something of a Madeira revival has already begun, although Americans are unlikely to resume drinking the wine the way they did in the early 1800s when Thomas Jefferson poured 4,000 bottles for his White House guests. The four classic Madeira grapes are inching their way back from oblivion and even Terrantez--thought to be extinct--resurfaced this year with both Blandy's and D'Oliveira releasing to the United States small amounts of vintages from the 1970s.
Sometime after my Madeira-less meal, I went back to that restaurant to see if it was serving any Madeira. It was: a 10-year-old Malmsey from Blandy's. The first taste was simply sweet, but it grew more intriguing with every sip, developing into something strange and wonderful.
So what if I had to wait a few weeks. In Madeira time, that's not even a nanosecond.
PETE WELLS is a contributing editor at Time Out New York. He writes about bars, restaurants and country music.