Thursday, February 14, 2008

Madeira: A British Love Affair. Part II

In case you don't want to scroll down to catch up on the first post of Madeira: A British Love Affair, you can find the first part here.
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Welcome to my Madeira world.


Before I divulge the amazing nature of this special import, I wanted to include a little background on Madeira. Since many in the states are more familiar with this Portuguese wine as a cheap deglazing liquid rather than a glorious sipping experience, a brief overview might fair us all well.


Like many European wines, the beverage called "Madeira" is named in honor of the place from which it comes. Located around 500 miles from the mainland, the Madeira Island is a warm place fantastic for growing the uber-fragrant Verdelho, Bual, Sercial, Malvasia, and Tinta Negra Mole grapes used for this dessert wine.

Unlike other common European wines, three things happen to Madeira during its maturation that make it unusual.

First, before the grapes finish fermenting, brandy is added to the fermenting mix. Needless to say, brandy is added to the grapes around the same in the process that grandma adds her flair to her morning coffee. This slows fermentation and stops yeasts from eating the developing sugar in the fruit. Then (how Madeira making primarily differs from Port production), the resulting liquid is transferred to one of two places so it can be cooked. That's right, cooked.

If the grape liquid is being used for lower quality Madeira, it is taken to buildings called “estufas” (stoves), where the barreled wine will be left in the artificially heated buildings for 3-5 months. If the Madeira-in-training is going to be used for high quality wine, it is transported to winery attics, where the exposure to moderate and gradual heat over 20 years will nurture delicate caramel flavors.

Lastly, a space is left in the top of Madeira barrels so that air will oxidize (a.k.a, mellow out) the wine over the aging process. To my knowledge, this is only done in Madeira, with a French white wine in Jura, and white some whites in Spain. But I have a lot to learn.

Where in the world is Carmen San Diego, you ask? Good question. Madeira is made in this fashion because it replicates the effects of early sea voyage on the wine when commerce was ocean-based. It originally took months to transport Madeira in the “basement” of ships, where it was so hot that the wine was cooked by default. Luckily, the heat led to favorable caramel flavors and longer-lasting wines. Around the 17th century, Madeira exporters decided to add brandy to the wine to further extend the wine’s longevity for sea voyages to places like Africa and India, and later to South America, suggests Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible.

This is where I’m assuming the British love for Madeira was further honed. Most of the places to which the Madeira was being shipped were original British colonial lands- mainly in Africa, India, South America. Madeira was also quite popular in America for quite a while. It was the libation of choice to celebrate the signing of our Declaration of Independence, and was further favored in warm areas of the U.S. like the South because it is nearly imperishable, even in Southern humidity. It has since fallen out of true fashion in America (no way it could get into a party with Stella Macartney), but has remained popular in England- at least with all Brits who read hard-cover books in their home libraries, where it is legally required that they consume the drink.


I had never had a fine aged Madeira before, and was overjoyed to discover that it is quite simply, miraculous.
The flavors in the forty-six year old wine ranged from coffee to chocolate to cinnamon, then orange zest and dark cherries that had been soaked in fine bourbon (the ones that go in your favorite top-notch Manhattans). But it didn't stop there. It continued to evoke dried apricots and rich caramel. Why more people don’t make Madeira flavored truffles with essence of caramelized orange zest, I just don’t know.

After taking a few sips and whiffs of our pleasurable drink, I suggested to my husband Chim Chim (CC) that the caramelized scent the Madeira was evoking made me think of cooking meat. In culinary school, we were taught the glories of the “Millard Reaction.” This is when a food’s sugars (think rib-eye or carrots) are heated to the point where they began to caramelize. Sometimes the sugars harden, like the surface of a seared steak, or sometimes they just turn even sweeter, like the browned bits of sautéed carrots. CC's response was “the Madeira reminds me of orange zest on a nice crispy steak.” Exactly. Like when you walk home and there's a steak cooking in the cast-iron and a cinnamon, chocolate apricot cake in the oven topped with orange zest. That's got to be like every night, right?

When drinking such sexy wine, CC and I decided that the desserts that we consumed it should be just as provocative. So we brought out our stash of Michel Cluizel “Les 1ers Crus de Plantation Chocolates,” cognac truffles a friend made, and stollen that we had from Christmas.

To start, the Michel Cluizel chocolate was superb with the Madeira. Michel Cluizel is a Parisian chocolatier who makes chocolates from single-origin cocao plantations. Like fine winemakers believe a wine should express the earth in which the grapes grow, Cluizel states that by tasting his chocolates, one is also experiencing the differences in soil, climate, and geography where the cocoa was grown. We tried his dark chocolates from Saint Dominique, Venezuela, Sao Tomé, New Guinea and Madagascar. Our favorite chocolate with the Madeira was called “Maralumi,” from Papua New Guinea. It was the very darkest and had the most intense pure cocoa flavor. The others were gorgeous, of course, but their extracurricular flavors, such as seasame, coffee, and smoke, required more attention than we could offer while fawning over the Madeira.

Like the other Michel Cluizel chocolates that had longer stories to tell than we had time to listen, the cognac truffles were a bit too much for our golden Madeira. Dark, genache-laden, rich and deliciously boozy, the truffles overpowered the Madeira. So we downed a couple when the drink wasn’t looking and put the rest of the box away.

Finally we embraced the stolen. Now if any of you have Germanic roots, you may have tried this earthly delight, if not, oh my lord, you should. It’s a dense, bread-like cake blessed with rum-soaked golden raisins, thin slices of citron and candied orange zest, and best of all, often studded with marzipan then topped with powdered sugar. It’s not too sweet, because the dough itself has only a bit of sugar within, and, we found out, it pairs perfectly with Madeira. Bet you guessed this already when you heard of it’s filling, right? Sound like the flavors in Madeira, doesn’t it? The candied citrus highlighted the orange zest and caramel notes in the wine, and the almond paste (marzipan) brought the coffee and chocolate Madeira scents into fruitition.

What a night. If you haven’t had enough of hearing about the Madeira pairings, I have just one to add. We have a bit left and plan to sip it with Redwood Hill Camellia cheese very soon. It’s a tender, extremely subtle little goat cheese that is completely mellow and buttery due to its downy-white bloomy rind. We had the Camellia with some young V.Sattui Madeira a year or so ago, and if its even half as good as it was with that, we’ll be knocked out for days.

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1 comment:

zerrin said...

I don't know how that madeira tastes, but your language is so delicious that I feel the taste of the wine, chocolate, cheese in my mouth.