The roots of Madeira's wine industry dates back to the Age of Exploration when Madeira was a regular port of call for ships traveling to the New World and East Indies. By the 16th centuries, records indicate that a well established wine industry on the island was able to supply these ships with wine for the long voyages across the sea. The earliest examples of Madeira, like port, were unfortified and had the habit of spoiling at sea. Following the example of port, a small amount of distilled alcohol made from cane sugar was added to stabilize the wine by boosting the alcohol content. (The modern process of fortification using brandy did not become wide spread till the 18th century).
The Dutch East India Company became a regular customer, picking up large (112 gal/423 l) casks of wine known as pipes for their voyages to India. The intense heat and constant movement of the ships had a transforming effect on the wine, as discovered by
Madeira producers when one shipment returned back to the island after a long trip. It was found that customers preferred the taste of this style of wine, and Madeira labeled as vinho da roda (wines that have made a round trip) became very popular. Madeira producers found that aging the wine on long seam voyages was very costly and began to develop methods on the island to produce the same aged and heated style - typically by storing the wines in special rooms known as estufas where the heat of island sun would age the wine.
Madeira's greatest grape variety, Terrantez, is almost extinct. It was introduced on Madeira in the late 1600's, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries produced what I consider (and so do many experts) the greatest wines of the island. But it has a very thin skin, and is very susceptible to rot and to mildew. This is a particular problem in Madeira, which has a hot and humid climate. The 1852 oidium outbreak destroyed most of the Terrantez vines, followed phylloxera, which wiped out the rest. When the vineyards were replanted, Terrantez was abandoned, just as Folle Blanche was largely abandoned in Cognac. After the second world war a few small patches were replanted, but even today, less than 500kg of Terrantez grapes are harvested each year, so it is as good as forgotten.
Pre-phylloxera Terrantez Madeira is the same kind of thing as pre-phylloxera Folle Blanche cognac - something that is really
gone for ever, except on the tiniest scale.