Madeira is known as a wine that contains high acidity levels. Soil, climate, and grape variety play a large part in it, but the reasons for this high acidity are still being discussed.



Madeira has an area of 741 km2, of which almost 70% is forest and only 7% is dedicated to agriculture. A third of the inhabitants consider themselves farmers, but 93% of them own less than 1 hectare, consisting of an average of 4 different pieces of land. This is small scale to the extreme. The slopes are on average on a 16% to 25% gradient, which makes mechanical work impossible. These are just numbers and statistics; however, when visualising, you are presented with many tiny plots and steep-sloped terraces, all worked manually. Large-scale cultivation is impossible, as is getting rich from agriculture in this area. The main crops are viticulture, bananas and sugar cane.

Bananas grow in the warmest parts of Madeira, in areas from 0-300 metres. It is a wonderful crop, what at first glance resembles a tree trunk is actually a mass of tightly rolled leaves.



There is a relation between the high acidity in wines and the soil. The special composition of the volcanic soils is one of the elements that creates the unique acidity characteristic in Madeira grapes. 

Madeira’s soil has an almost completely volcanic origin and is mainly composed of basalt and tephra (volcanic ash), with a top layer of clay. As is to be expected, the soil is rich in minerals such as iron, phosphorus, magnesium, sulfur, and aluminum, but there is a total lack of calcareous carbonate (chalky soils). Madeiran winemakers attempt to meet the shortage of lime in the soil by adding supplementary bought-in powdery limestone.



Viticulture is Madeira’s Number 1 agricultural practice. The two largest wine-growing regions are Câmara de Lobos in the south and São Vicente in the north. The maximum altitude for viticulture is 700 metres, above that the slopes are too steep and rocky, and it will be too cold, therefore there is no viticulture in Central Madeira. Vineyards are scattered all along the coastline, on the north and south sides of the island. Almost all vineyards are small and terraced, incomparable to the large-scale winegrowing regions such as Bordeaux or Rioja. Moreover, all vineyards have been registered in the ‘cadastro’  (land registry).

Harvest time

Madeira is known as a wine that contains high acidity levels. Soil, climate, and grape variety play a large part in it, but the reasons for this high acidity are still being discussed. It is often thought that the high acidity levels in the wines can only be achieved by picking very early, but the reality is much more nuanced. Early harvesting preserves the acidity but picking too early produces unripe and unwelcome aromas in the wine, such as those of green bell peppers and grass, which do not improve with age. A key characteristic of all Madeira wines is the flavour of dried and stewed fruit, which can only be achieved with correctly ripened grapes. To avoid unripe picking, the legal minimum potential alcohol content in the grapes is 9%. This is one of many regulations, enshrined in wine laws.

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Many grapes in Madeira are pruned and managed according to the latada system. Latada is Portuguese for ‘trellis.’ In Italy this is called pergola, but in Italian vineyards it usually looks much more structured. In Madeira’s system, wines grow on a chaotic-looking web of slats and iron wires, sometimes no more than 1,50 metres high. In earlier times this was a necessity, as there were many poor people who only owned small plots of land, and other vegetable cultivation was much required, too. This is no longer customary because vegetable cultivation is at the expense of grape quality.

The harvest

The maximum yield for DO Madeira is 150 hectolitres per hectare, but grape growers can only dream of this. In practice, the average actual yield is 80 hectolitres per hectare.

Madeira has the longest grape harvesting period in the world. In addition to being hard and often heavy work, picking grapes is also by and a large a pleasant family event, which is accompanied by copious amounts of food and wine. The harvest time for each grape varies from year to year, but generally runs according to this schedule. 

CARACOL, LISTRÃO AND MOSCATEL (PORTO SANTO): first and second week of August 

MALVASIA: last week of August, first two weeks of September

VERDELHO: first three weeks of September 

BOAL: first two weeks of September 

SERCIAL: third and fourth week of September and first week of October 

TERRANTEZ: last week of August till the second week of October 

Viticultores Justinos calendario 2019Foto Gregório Cunha