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The Discovery of Madeira and Early Colonization

It is hard to find a product quite like Madeira Wine, and one of the reasons for that is Madeira Wine history goes back more than five centuries to the time when the Island of Madeira was first discovered. Nowadays we are more famous as being the birthplace of the talented Cristiano Ronaldo, but there was a long, long time when we were on everyone’s lips as a nectar of the gods called Madeira Wine.

The date which is considered official for the discovery of the Island of Madeira is 1419 when Bartolomeu Perestrelo and João Gonçalves Zarco decided to explore what the bank of clouds they could see from Porto Santo Island was hiding. Legend goes that it might have been discovered before by accident in 1346 by an Englishman called Robert Machim who was thrown off course by a violent storm while eloping to France with his bride Anne d’Harfet. They landed and lost their life in the lush green valley which later would be given the name of Machico, in honour of this tragic love story.

The first Portuguese colonisers settled in that verdant protected bay and also in what became the important port of Funchal (named after all the fennel – ‘funcho’ – growing there) and immediately recognised the potential of the fertile soils and abundant supply of water which lay right on the path of the maritime expeditions that the Portuguese crown sent its sailors on, both down the African coast and around the Cape to the East, and also across the Atlantic towards the West Indies and the Americas. However, the island was so densely wooded that there was practically no room for plantations, so they burned the south side of the island, built levadas to bring the water down from the mountains and erected the socalcos (terraces) that are one of the most memorable sights of the Madeira landscape and one of the only ways of obtaining arable land on the steep exuberant mountains if this volcanic island.

The first settlers came mostly from Minho in the North of Portugal, and brought with them their culture (songs and stories, some of which survive to this day in oral tradition) and also their vines. It is said that Henry the Navigator was the one who ordered experiments to be made with sugar cane and also introduced the Malvasia grape from Crete.

The sugar plantations were a great success and to this day are a valuable source of income on the island, as they are the only sugar plantations in Europe, providing syrup and a strong Madeira rum called ‘aguardente’. However, when the West Indies began exporting sugar cane and illness struck the cane in Madeira, farmers began growing vines in the abandoned plantations. The wine Madeira exported as early as 1460, was nothing like it is today and only two kinds of wine are mentioned in historic documents from the 15th and 16th centuries: Malvasia and Vidonho. At this time, Madeira Wine was exported to the West Indies, Brazil, continental Portugal and even the East Indies. An English merchant who arrived in Madeira in 1676 called Willian Bolton mentions for the first time the term ‘back-loading’, which is shipping Madeira to the tropics and then sending it back to the island, with the sole purpose of improving the wine. This is what became designated as ‘vinho da roda’.

Wine Tour Review

"We came away satiated in both food and knowledge. The peanuts and Poncha were most memorable. Everyone should take this tour which will further enhance your love of this beautiful island."
Hunterselkirk, United Kingdom - “Informative and personal”, 08th April 2016 - 5 star rating: Highly Recommended Tripadvisor review 5star rating Highly Recommended



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