The first colheita Madeiras to be produced since the Madeira Wine Institute authorized the new designation are beginning to appear in North American retail wine shops.
"Colheita is a new style of single-harvest wine created to encourage appreciation of Madeira as a quality fortified wine," said Bartholomew Broadbent, president of Broadbent Selections, the largest importers of Madeira into North America. "It's ready to drink as soon as it is bottled, although it keeps almost indefinitely."
Broadbent (whose Madeiras are bottled by Justino Henriques) imported 5,000 cases of the Colheita 1995, priced at $15 a bottle. Symington-owned Cossart-Gordon released a similar amount of Colheita 1986 at $45, while Henriques & Henriques sells its Single Harvest 1995 for about $10 for a 500ml bottle.
Madeira -- which comes from the subtropical island of the same name that sits off the coast of Morocco, but belongs to Portugal -- is made by exposing the wine to heat, which oxidizes the wine and caramelizes the sugars. The resulting Madeiras last a long time, even after the bottle is opened.
Although most wines are aged in cool cellars, high-quality Madeira undergoes aging in the naturally warm lofts of the wineries. (Less expensive versions may be heated artificially in tanks.) Soon after brandy is added to stop fermentation, the wine is transferred to oak casks and heated to no more than 115 degrees Fahrenheit over a three-month period. It is then cooled to about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. During the remainder of its aging, the wine will be heated and cooled again every six months until bottling.
Traditionally, Madeiras have been vintage-dated or made as a non-vintage blend (which may labeled with the average age of the blend -- such as five, 10 or 15 years old -- or with a solera date, indicating the oldest vintage in the blend).
Colheita means "single harvest" in Portuguese and is the equivalent of "vintage," but since the word vintage has been trademarked by Portugal's association of Port shippers, no other wine from Portugal is permitted to use the term. (Port producers use the term colheita for tawny Ports from a single vintage.)
Unlike vintage Madeira, which must be aged at least 20 years in cask and two years in bottle, colheita Madeira may be released after five years in barrel and one in bottle.
Madeira producers had petitioned the institute for several years to approve the change, arguing that greater flexibility in the regulations was necessary to compete with the more popular fortified wines, especially Port.
Although Maderia had been a fashionable society drink in the United States during the 1700s and 1800s, its popularity declined for a number of reasons in the past century.
"The big problem for Madeira in today's market is that consumers still think of it as a cooking wine," said Miguel Jardim, North American representative for Henriques & Henriques. "It's purely a matter of introduction, and currently there are so few people promoting it."
To learn more about Madeira, read tasting director Bruce Sanderson's report:
Madeira: The Oldest New Wine You Can Buy