Episode 057 - The Madeira Episode
What's shakin, cocktail fans?
Welcome back to another episode of the Modern Bar Cart Podcast! In this episode, we chat with veteran sommelier and Madeira expert Michael Scaffidi, who gives us a fascinating crash course in one of the world's most epic fortified wines.
Some of the things we discuss in this wide-ranging conversation include:
- How Michael changed his career aspirations from music mogul to wine expert, which led him to become a sommelier at some of the most influential restaurants in the country.
- Why Madeira has such a special place in the world of fortified wines - including stories about 300-year-old bottles, burning islands, and eye-patch-wearing explorers.
- The principle grapes, styles, and label claims that will help you decide which variety of Madeira is right for you next time you visit the liquor store.
- The similarities between a master sommelier and an expert Disk Jockey.
- What to drink when you’re hanging out with Shaquille O’Neil, and much, much more.
Featured Cocktail - The New York Sour
This week’s featured cocktail is the New York Sour, which is actually a cocktail we discuss in this episode, but we mistakenly refer to it as the Brooklyn cocktail, which is a separate thing altogether. See, the problem is that New York city actually has cocktails named after each borough, in addition to all the other cocktails that have been invented there through the years, so it’s easy to get em confused every once in a while.
That said, let’s take a look at the New York sour, which is, in its simplest form, a whiskey sour with a red wine float.
According to a recipe by Imbibe magazine, you’ll need:
- 2 oz rye whiskey
- 1 oz lemon juice
- ¾ oz of simple syrup
- 1 egg white (which is optional, but recommended)
- 1 oz of malbec wine (but if you don’t have malbec, any robust red will do)
This is one of those cocktails where you want to do a dry shake, which is where you combine the liquid ingredients minus the wine, but including the egg white, in a shaker with no ice and shake it briskly for about 15 seconds. Then, add the ice, shake for another 15 seconds, and strain into a rocks glass over a nice large ice cube or sphere, and top with that one ounce of red wine.
The New York sour is a really refreshing cocktail, and one of the reasons why it came up in our conversation this episode is because it’s a great opportunity to swap out Madeira for the recommended Malbec in the recipe to get just a slightly different look at this cocktail.
Madeira is a type of fortified wine, similar to vermouth or sherry. However, the production methods and expressions are completely different. Below, we provide a breakdown of the most important facts and terms that will help you expand your Madeira horizons.
How Madeira is Made
LIke all fortified wines, Madeira is grape-based. It is a wine that is then fortified with a grape eau de vie, which elevates the alcohol from between 19-21% ABV. After it is fortified, Madeira is then "cooked" and allowed to oxidize, rendering richer and darker flavor characteristics than certain other fortified wines.
It is rumored that this practice of cooking the wine began when some barrels of wine were exposed to fire early in the island's history when the explorer Zarco burned the woods on the island to clear it for agriculture. When the wine was tasted, the practice of intentionally cooking it began.
Types of Madeira
Madeira can be made with a number of different grapes. Here is a breakdown of the most common varietals you'll encounter:
Sercial - This is the driest, most refreshing style of madeira. It often has a nutty, acidic flavor.
Verdelho - A bit sweeter than Sercial, but still relatively dry, Verdelho is both bright and approachable.
Bual/Boal - Sweet, often with notes of caramel or toffee. This type of Madeira makes a pleasant desert wine.
Mavesia/Malmsey - The sweetest of the four primary Madeiras, it boasts notes of dried or candied fruit and often nuts or chocolate.
Tinta Negra - Soon to be recognized as a noble Madeira grape, this is the most widely cultivated grape on the island, producing a medium-bodied wine with a wide range of expressions.
Rare Madeira Types
Terrantez and Bastardo are also grapes used to made Madeira. However, due to the difficulty of cultivating these grape varietals on the island, only a few dozen barrels of these styles have been produced over the last century. Thus, a bottle made with these grapes is exceedingly rare and valuable.
Vintage vs. Non-Vintage Madeira
A "vintage" represents wine made from the grapes harvested in a particular year. In many types of fortified wine, producers blend wines from different vintages together for reasons that include consistency, artistry, and even in response to market forces.
If the juice from multiple vintages is blended together in an end product, it is called a "non-vintage" wine. However, if there is a great harvest in a particular year, you might see the produer create a product using only the juice from that particular vintage. These bottles will actually bear the term "vintage," and they will often be more expensive due to the relative scarcity of these bottles.
This is Madeira that is diluted with water to around 17%, which places it somewhere between the potency of a high-alcohol wine and a normal sherry or vermouth. This style of Madeira is really popular in the United States, partially because it is extremely quaffable.
This is Madeira bottled without being aged long enough to technically be bottled and labeled as "Madeira." Although this doesn't hold the same value as a true Madeira, it's a great way to engage with the flavors of the grapes used to make it.
Madeira Cocktail Ideas
Madeira, like most expensive wines, tends to be drunk by itself as an aperitif, food pairing, or dessert wine. However, there are a couple really fun cocktail applications you can experiment with at home.
Madeira Punch - If you're making a punch with a spirit like rum or whiskey, you can either swap out the spirit for Madeira entirely, or perhaps just swap out a portion of the spirit for an equal amount of Madeira.
Maderia Floats - If you have a cocktail that could use some jazzing up, consider adding 1/4 oz of Maderia right on top as a float that will gradually integrate with the drink.
Swap for Sherry or Vermouth - Madeira is a fortified wine, so it makes sense that a great place to start utilizing it in cocktials would be in place of some of the other great fortified wines of the world.
If You Were a Cocktail Tool/Ingredient, What Would You Be?
My ancestors are from Sicily, so I'd be a Sicilian Amaro (like Averna).
Cocktail with Anyone, Past or Present
My great grandfather, who immigrated to New York City from Italy in the late 1800s. I believe he spoke 7 languages and was a barber. I'd also love to share a magnum of Champagne with Shaquille O'Neal.
Influential Books on Madeira
Madeira, The Island Vineyard (Expanded Second Edition) - Mannie Berk
Advice from a Sommelier
If you want to be a Sommelier:
- Have fun with it
- Get reference points beyond learning about the wine
- Understand and listen to your guests
- Don't let the guest get in the way of their own experience
- Work for free somewhere - you often learn more from apprenticeship than academic study
- Certify yourself - the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) and the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) both run great programs.