Travel Guide to Portugal

Book Review – Madeira: The Islands and their Wines?

By Guest Author

madeiraRichard Mayson’s newest book, Madeira: The Islands and their Wines, is exactly what I needed.

Let me explain. I’d just become a part-time wine student, and went to class one evening a week, initially just to get a bit of variety from life at my full-time day job. I was telling a friend about my recent enrollment in ‘wine school’ over our London-New York Skype chat. “That’s my kind of homework,” she said. “What’s on the syllabus? A little Bordeaux, a little Rioja? Extra credit for dabbling in Malbec? How much time are you spending in bars these days?”

“No, really. There’s actually tons to learn,” I said. “Starting with everything about fortified wines. I’ve got an exam next week.”

“Poor you with your wine exams,” she said. I thought: I know. Pretty awesome.

I spent that weekend reading about sherry and port, which were both going to be on the exam. Madeira was the third fortified wine I’d be tested on, but I struggled to find anything as comprehensive on madeira as I had on sherry or port. It felt like madeira was the forgotten fortified wine. A little like the kid parents didn’t remember to worry about (I’m not going to lie, in my family it might have been me), or the third wheel on a date (definitely has been me). The weekend came and went, and I was at a loss for comprehensive, well-written, detailed expert sources on madeira wine. And so I ‘winged’ the madeira section of my exam the following week. (Flickr photo by David Stanley)

I’ll say it again: Richard Mayson’s newest book is exactly what I needed.

But don’t be fooled, Madeira is not reading for wine students alone. While Mayson’s book is chalk-full of details on madeira wine, don’t expect a dry, textbook read. Madeira is dynamic, telling the story of Madeira through the lens of its wine industry. Mayson writes broadly in his account. While the book seeks to paint a portrait of modern-day Madeira, it takes us through its history first.

Madeira’s history is particularly interesting, and Mayson’s account will delight you with colourful details. Did you know that Thomas Jefferson toasted to the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776 with a glass of madeira wine? Forget champagne, Madeira was all the rage. If you were part of the social elite in the U.S. at the time, you’d likely be attending, or maybe even hosting, madeira garden parties. George Washington “ordered prodigious quantities” of madeira throughout his life, Mayson tells us, including while serving as the first president of the United States. Clearly, patriots drank madeira. In Mayson’s book, you’ll get a very good sense of Madeira island’s and madeira wine’s historical significance. But no spoiler alerts here. You’ll have to pick up Madeira for the rest.

MadeiraAs Mayson guides us through historic winemaking practices, the last thing you should expect is a sleepy account. In fact, what we know as modern-day madeira is far from the original version. Madeira wine is fortified, meaning that winemakers add highly alcoholic grape spirit to a ‘base’ wine. It is also heated to temperatures that can be as high as 130°F. Forget what you’ve heard about keeping wine in a cool dark cellar – making madeira is a different ball game. Fortification and heating have become two hallmarks of madeira wine, but neither processes were used in the originals.

Mayson’s book helps us understand how madeira came to be, how and why it evolved, and what it is today. What grape varieties will you tend to see, and which ones are best-suited to making quality wines? Where are the best vineyard sites? What are the best vintages? How should you serve the drink? Need to let out your inner wine geek? Not to fear, there’s plenty of room to do so in Mayson’s new book. From interviews with winemakers to detailed tasting notes on wines dating back to the 18th century, this is certainly an expert exposé of madeira wines. And that’s not to say the book is intended for winos and wine geeks only. It is accessible. Maybe you’re hoping to learn the basics to confidently order a glass with your next dessert at a restaurant, or perhaps you’re looking for tips on buying an excellent vintage madeira, for a grandparent or a co-worker or a friend. For you even! Mayson’s Madeira has got it all – you’ll find the madeira know-how you’re searching for. (Flickr photo by PortoBay Events)

I say that one of the biggest perks of having a wine hobby is the incentive to travel. Mayson sees this clearly, and includes a chapter for readers planning a visit to Madeira. Check out Mayson’s recommendations for tourists, including hotels and restaurants. He also points out top visitor attractions, including museums, convents, World Heritage sites and even golf courses. Mayson is himself an expert, having spent time living on the island. His background as an award-winning wine writer enhances the stories he tells from his first-hand experience living in Madeira. Most notably, Mayson’s reverence for madeira wine is infectious. It’s as if madeira wine were a force of its own, a form of bottled and transcendent truth. In the book’s prologue, Mayson writes:

Madeira“Unlike most wines which are made for drinking within four or five years, I felt myself writing with the near certain knowledge that the fruits of this vintage and future vintages will be appreciated by my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even great-great-grandchildren.”

Madeira: The Islands and its Wines (Infinite Ideas Limited, 2015) can be bought on Amazon for just under $30. Consider it a fantastic gift idea for the oenophile in your life or travel enthusiast planning a trip to Madeira. Even for the wine student struggling to prep for exams.

If you’re interested in learning more about Madeira, or having a private tour of the island, don’t hesitate to contact us! We’re happy to lend a hand!

Check out Richard Mayson’s website ( to learn more.
Mayson is also the author of Port and the Douro (2013), The Wines and Vineyards of Portugal (2006), Joseph James Forrester and His Maps of the Portuguese Douro (2006), The Story of Dows Port 1798-1998 (1998), and Portugal’s Wines and Winemakers (1992).


Cathy Fisher

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Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula
looking for the very best food and wine experiences.

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Catavino is the best place to learn about travel, food
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