The art of wine making

The most important steps are: checking the must weight, de-stemming and crushing the grapes, pressing, fermentation, fortification, clarification. Then, the unique Madeira-making maturation under warm conditions starts.


Fortification of Madeira with alcohol

Fortification is the process whereby alcohol (ethanol) is added to the fermenting wine. This kills all  microorganisms. For the fortification, neutral alcohol (ethanol) of 96% is used. That is almost the maximum purity level that can be obtained before evaporation. A wine that is treated this way is called ‘abafados’ meaning choked, as the fermentation is arrested.  Madeira may be fortified from 17.5% up to 22%. A minimum alcohol content of 17% in the wine is legally required. Most Madeiras have an alcohol content of 19 or 20 ABV.

Heating and oxidation


Madeira wines were taken as ballast by merchant sailing vessels across the oceans from Madeira to America, Brazil, and India. Due to the long stay in the warm tropics, the wines were stewed, and this evidently was very beneficial, as the resulting wines were enriched with aromas of nuts, spices, dried and stewed fruit.

In 1794, Pantaleão Fernandez invented the first estufagem system: instead of sending wines around the world, he let them age in an estufa, a warm place. ‘Stufa’ is Portuguese for greenhouse. The law prescribes heating for a minimum of 3 months at a maximum of 50ºC.  Some winemakers keep heating temperatures under 45ºC for a period of four months, and experiments are carried out with even lower temperatures and a year of maturation.

8) Estufagem

Maturation in oak barrels

Wine lovers with basic wine-knowledge who visit Madeira, are totally and utterly surprised, as it seems as if every step of the process is the exact opposite of what they have learned during their wine education. For starters, arriving at a winery one sees the wooden barrels filled with Madeira behind windows, facing south. And to make it even warmer, the roof is made of zinc! On this island you will not find cool, dark, and damp wine cellars, but warm storage buildings, partly exposed to sunlight.  The barrels suffer so heavily from the heat that the lids are often completely deformed over time. Madeira barrels are extra strong, still it is often necessary to reinforce a lid even further with a wide, heavy board. Barrels occasionally leak, but the winemaker is confident that this leaking will stop of its own accord as this sweet wine solidifies in contact with the air.