Published with permission from LuxuryWeb.com
35 years after our memorable visit — filled with delightful times and exquisite cuisine — we found ourselves back in Madeira. This North Atlantic island, “discovered” in 1419 by the Portuguese navigator João Gonçalves Zarco, has always intrigued us.
Though João Gonçalves Zarco believed Madeira was untouched, it had earlier seen footprints of Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, and Vikings during their North Atlantic voyages. Recent DNA testing on island animals confirms their presence. Ancient rats tie back to the Romans and Vikings, while goats trace back to the Greeks.
The influence of the Greeks and Phoenicians can also be spotted in specific grape varieties that contribute to Madeira’s iconic wines: Moscato d’Alessandria, introduced by Phoenician sailors, and Malvasia di Candia or Malmsey, spread by Minoan Cretan merchants.
An acclaimed wine region
Originally, grapevine and sugar cane plantations were the backbone of Madeira’s economy. And although sugar, once dubbed as “white gold,” is no longer a major trade, Madeira wine production blossomed in the 17th century, becoming a core economic pillar.
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During the 19th and 20th centuries, Madeira was a European tourist hotspot, especially for the British elite. Reid’s Hotel emerged as the hub for the wealthy, hosting luminaries like Sir Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, and many more. Today, Madeira welcomes a global audience with luxurious 5-star hotels and other accommodations. Many recognized international hotel chains have found a home in or around Funchal, the capital.
While several original wine producers have merged, genuine Madeira wine enthusiasts can still explore traditional wineries or “wine lodges” offering both modern and classic vintages. On our trip, we toured Blandy’s, founded in 1811 and a legacy of Madeira wines. The Blandy family remains in the wine trade, with Michael and Chris Blandy, from the 6th and 7th generations, actively engaged, with Chris at the helm.
Other commendable Madeira wine producers include Henriques & Henriques, Justino’s, Barbeito, and Pereira D’Oliveira.
One gem we unearthed was a boutique winery, located about 20 minutes from Funchal, crafting exceptional Malmsey (Malvasia). Part of Fajã dos Padres, an organic seaside farm boasting vast vegetable and exotic fruit gardens and a restaurant, it’s accessible via a thrilling cable car descent. Mário, the winemaker, an engineer by profession but vintner at heart, offered us a divine Malvasia 2005. The tasting was so exceptional that spitting was out of the question! We had to savor every drop.
Lunch at their restaurant was also a culinary delight: Fresh flatbread with butter and garlic, succulent limpets, octopus, and colossal shrimps grilled to perfection, a hearty fish soup, and a tantalizing sea-bass steak paired with a refreshing white wine — all while the sea hummed a captivating tune nearby.
On another day, we embarked on the thrilling “toboggan” ride from Monte to Funchal, cruising at around 40km/h (about 25 mph). The Carreiros do Monte, toboggan drivers from the 1850s, maneuver these wicker sleds with expertise, making for quite the exhilarating experience.
All in all, Madeira truly offers a slice of the good life!
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