Updated July 18th 2023
What kind of food goes with Madeira - a unique fortified wine from the Portuguese island in the Atlantic Ocean? Actually, Madeira wine pairs well with a wide range of foods, anything from shellfish to sweet desserts. It all depends on which type of Madeira wine you are drinking. This wine guide will help you find the best food parings for different styles of Madeira wine.
Madeira food pairing is more complex than you might think. Thanks to its high acidity and different sweetness levels, Madeira is an excellent wine together with food. You can pair Madeira with almost anything, as long as you are aware of the sweetness level and style of your specific bottle. You can drink Madeira as an apéritif, with food or after the meal. Let's discover the different styles of Madeira and how to match them with food!
In order to find the best food for your bottle of Madeira, we need to understand what type of wine it is. Madeira is a special wine and there are several things we need to take into consideration before we pair it with food.
Madeira is a fortified wine produced on the Portuguese island Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean. The wine has a long history dating back to the age of exploration where Madeira island was an important port for ships sailing between Europe, America, Africa and other parts of the world. The sailors added natural grape spirit in order to prevent the wine from spoiling during these long trips.
Today, Madeira wine is made in a similar style. It is a unique winemaking process involving oxidation of the wine through heating and ageing as well as adding grape spirit at the end of the fermentation. The heating process is often made in "estufas", creating hot temperatures which give Madeira wines their typical aromas. This winemaking technique mimics the conditions and process from the past where the wine was naturally heated and oxidised during the long trips at sea.
Madeira is a volcanic island with oceanic climate. It is a difficult environment to grow grapes due to the volcanic terrain and humidity, which can cause fungal grape diseases. The steep slopes of Madeira forced grape farmers to build terraces, "poios", to grow the grape. This method is similar to the wine terraces in Douro in northern Portugal. Mechanical harvesting is almost impossible here. As a result, the wines that are produced here are definitely unique.
Madeira wine is definitely different from many conventional wines you find in the supermarket, but that is also what makes Madeira so interesting. If you like whisky-based cocktails, rich nutty flavors or unique wines in general, you have to try Madeira. Madeira wines can sometimes be described as the opposite to simple, dry light-bodied red wines.
There are different styles of Madeira wines, ranging from light and dry, to full-bodied and sweet. They are all oxidised, fortified wines aged in high temperature. Typical flavors of Madeira wines are caramel, nuts, orange peel, stone fruits, mineral and dried fruit. The Atlantic Ocean and the volcanic soil, in combination with the heat during the wine making process, result in a fortified wine with good acidity and a unique flavor profile.
Madeira can be anything from dry to very sweet. Madeira wines are often categorised based on their sweetness level:
The colors of Madeira wines can range from light yellow or amber to dark brown. The sweeter styles tend to be darker in color while the drier styles are lighter. The colors are similar to Tawny Port and comes from the oxidation when the wine is exposed to air during the fermentation process.
Note: All Madeira wines usually have high acidity, which makes it easy to pair them with food.
There are several styles of Madeira, but to make it simple we will describe the most common styles. Four of these styles are synonymous with the most common grape varieties of Madeira wine: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual (also called Boal) and Malvasia. These are all white grape varieties. The red grape variety Tinta Negra Mole is the most common red grape variety and it is often used in the "Rainwater" style.
Ranging from the driest to the sweetest, typical styles of Madeira wines are:
Due to their high acidity, all Madeira wines pair well with food. To find the best food pairings to Madeira, you need to know which type of Madeira wine you are going to drink and how sweet it is. Due to the variety of styles, Madeira wine can be paired with anything from delicate shellfish and light nutty snacks to heavy desserts with chocolate and caramel.
In order to find the best food for your bottle of Madeira you need to take into consideration the following characteristics of the wine:
Madeira wines are best served slightly chilled. The best serving temperature is 9-13°C (48-55°F). The drier styles, Sercial, Verdelho and Rainwater, can be served even colder if you want to enhance the freshness of the wine.
Tips! Serve Madeira wine in a typical port glass or a white wine glass.
Sercial is the driest and lightest Madeira wine. With its fresh citrus and almond aromas, it pairs well with lighter dishes, including foods that are typically difficult to pair with wine such as artichokes and asparagus. The high acidity makes it a perfect match with fatty foods, especially smoked salmon. This style of Madeira is also great to serve as an apéritif before dinner.
Pair Sercial Madeira wine with the following:
Tips! Make sure to serve your Sercial Madeira cold to bring out the fresh aromas.
Verdelho is a semi-dry, medium bodied Madeira wine which pairs with a wide range of foods. This style usually has a distinct nutty and smoky aroma that dpairs well with many types of snacks and finger foods, including almonds, olives, charcuterie and terrines. The hint of sweetness in the wine will also make it a good pairing with duck and foie gras.
Pair Verdelho Madeira wine with the following:
Rainwater is an inexpensive, yet popular Madeira style with fresh acidity and fruity, nutty aromas. It is popular to serve this style of Madeira before the meal as an apéritif, preferably with almonds, olives or other snacks. This style pairs well with the same type of foods as the Verdelho Madeira wine.
Pair Rainwater Madeira wine with the following:
Bual, also called Boal, is a medium-bodied Madeira wine with a distinct sweetness and typical aromas of caramelized apples and nuts. This style needs to be paired with equally sweet food, ideally with similar flavors. It matches very well with nutty and fruity desserts, especially apple pie, cookies and pastries. You can also pair it with nutty cheeses.
Pair Bual Madeira wine with the following:
Tips! Pair the Bual style with medium-heavy desserts and leave the heaviest desserts, such as chocolate cakes, for the Malvasia style.
Malvasia, also called Malmsey, is a sweet, full-bodied Madeira wine with rich aromas of coffee, caramel, nuts and dried fruits. This Madeira style pairs perfectly with the richest desserts. Think desserts with chocolate, caramel, nuts, butter... This style will also pair well with strong cheeses, especially blue cheese. The sweetness in the wine will balance the salty and strong aromas in the cheese.
Pair Malvasia Madeira wine with the following:
If you want to serve Madeira wine to your fish or shellfish, make sure to choose one of the drier styles. Sercial is usually the best choice, but Verdelho and Rainwater are also good pairings with clams, smoked salmon and other light shellfish and fish dishes. The refreshing acidity as well as the hint of salinity in the Madeira wine will match fish and shellfish served with lemon.
Madeira wine often has flavors of orange peel, which are a great match with duck. If you are serving duck à l'orange or another duck dish, try it together with a bottle of Verdelho Madeira.
The driest Madeira style, Sercial, is an excellent pairing with bitter vegetables that are usually tricky to pair with wine, including asparagus and artichoke. The unique flavors of the wine pair well with the bitter aromas in the vegetables. Sercial is also a good pairing with salads with dressings. For vegetable soups and grilled or fried vegetables, you can also pair them with Madeira Verdelho or Rainwater.
Tips! Learn more about pairing wine and vegetarian food in our guide.
Every Madeira style can be paired with cheese, but the different Madeira styles pair with different types of cheeses. A lighter style goes well with lighter cheeses and vice versa.
The best cheese pairing for Madeira wine:
Tips! We recommend our popular Wine & Cheese Pairing guide if you want to learn more about how to find the right wine for different types of cheeses.
The drier Madeira wines are perfect to drink before a meal. The fresh acidity and hint of sweetness makes the mouth salivate. Why not serve the wine with different types of snacks? Good snacks for Madeira wine include:
Tips! Read more about excellent Wine & Snack Pairings in our guide.
The sweeter Madeira styles, especially the Bual style, can be paired with fresh fruit. The intense aromas of the wine make it a good pairing with apples, pears, fresh figs as well as tropical fruits. Due to the characteristic nutty and fruity aromas of all Madeira wines, they usually pair well with dried fruit as well, preferably together with nuts.
Madeira wine and sweet desserts are a match made in heaven. The sweetness, high acidity and caramel aromas of the wine pair very well with a wide range of desserts. Serve the Malvasia style to heavier desserts, including toffee or rich chocolate cakes. The Bual style is the best choice for fruity pastries and cookies. It is also very good with pastries and desserts with almonds, cinnamon and other spices, as these flavors will match the aromas of the wine.
The sweeter Madeira styles are also great to enjoy by themselves after the meal. The sweetness in the wine and the typical aromas of nuts and caramel make it taste almost like a dessert.
Enjoy your bottle of Madeira!