As you read this, I am most likely underwater, communing with manta rays.
But if I am on the surface, and I'm drinking wine, it is the world's best vacation wine: Madeira.
This is not my first live-aboard scuba dive boat trip, and it's not my first bottle of post-diving Madeira. Here's why Madeira is the absolute best wine to travel with.
* It's indestructible, both before opening – Madeira is the longest-lived wine in the world – and more importantly, after. You can open a bottle of Madeira and it will still be delicious years later. You cannot take a vacation long enough for a bottle of Madeira to go bad after you open it (a vacation THAT long is called "retirement.")
* As part of being indestructible, Madeira is not only heat-resistant, it might actually get better if you carry it around the Equator at room temperature.
* A bottle of Madeira will last you longer than a bottle of table wine. It's fortified, so it's about 20 percent alcohol. A glass is usually satisfying.
* Considering how good it is, and how useful it is, Madeira is affordable. You can buy a good one for less than $50. I personally bought a 30-year-old varietal Madeira for my dive trip for $140.
* Unlike every 30-year-old table wine, I am not worried about the cork. Any wine could have a cork with TCA in it, but Madeira is a Portuguese island, and Portugal is where most of the world's cork comes from. The cork producers tend to take care of their own. The other major worry about cork is oxidation. That's not going to kill my Madeira.
If you have never had a fine Madeira, winter is the perfect time. There are plenty of longer articles explaining it. But this is my personal tale, so here is my take.
Madeira is a fortified wine from the island of the same name. It was America's favorite wine in the 1700s because it travels so well. The island's soils lead to grapes that are extremely high in acidity, part of the reason the wine lasts forever. I have tasted 200-year-old Madeiras that were still drinkable, though after a long tasting once with the owner of Rare Wine Co., I determined that it does start to go downhill after 150 years. So if you have a US Civil War-era Madeira in your cellar, it's time to drink up!
To make Madeira, fermentation is stopped by adding alcohol before the wines are completely dry (with the exception of some, but not all, Sercials). The wines are intentionally oxidized during production. Many are also heated. This is the main reason they're indestructible; it's as if they are vaccinated against the problems that kill most wines as they age.
They do have the flavors of oxidation: caramel, raisins, nuts. But Madeira is one of the most complex wines in the world and you can tease out a lot of flavors: citrus, cola, mint, berries ... it depends on the bottle.
The best Madeiras are varietal. There are six main grape varieties you will encounter. (Some older ones, like Bastardo, are rare today.)
Sercial is my current favorite varietal. This is what I am bringing on my dive trip, because it's the most versatile. It's the driest and the lightest, but it still gives intense flavors and great complexity. I can drink it before dinner, or with dinner, or after. And I will.
Bual is fairly sweet; best as a dessert wine with cheese. Malvasia aka Malmsey is very sweet. Unsurprisingly, it's the most popular. The high acidity keeps it from being cloying. Malvasia Madeira is one of the few wines that goes really well with chocolate.
All five of those are white grapes, though the wine itself is brown. Tinta Negra, a red grape, is actually the most-grown grape on the island, representing about 85 percent of plantings. Paradoxically, you rarely see it as a varietal wine. Instead, it is the grape in non-varietal age-statement Madeiras (5 year, 10 year, etc.) or entry-level sweet Madeiras, which are popular in the UK.
Producers pay more for the white grapes and bottle them separately. Only recently have a few producers begun bottling varietal Tinta Negra.
As for brands, I'm partial to two that are very different, but also similar in a way: D'Oliveira, which is extremely traditional, and Barbeito, which has been innovative in a lot of ways, but also does a great business in finding old barrels (they are hidden in cellars all over the island, because many locals have a small patch of vineyard) and releasing them as varietal wines. One reason I like these brands is that they both tend to be a little drier than average.
A different publication might urge you to buy some of the cheaper bottlings. But Madeira is a treat, and it lasts longer than a bottle of whiskey. (Bad news, whiskey aficionados: your malt will start being less delicious four or five years after opening.) If this is your first bottle of Madeira, spend a little cash and get something special. You don't have to take it on a dive trip. But if you want to imagine swimming with dolphins while you drink it, I'll tell the fish you said hi.