The lush Portuguese island of Madeira loves its festivals; in the summer months you can experience joyous celebrations dedicated to lemons (Festa do Limão), onions (Festa da Cebola) and bananas (Festa da Banana) held in various rural towns around the island. For oenophiles, though, there is one annual event that you will not want to miss: the Madeira Wine Festival.
In the past we have recommended that our wine-loving clients visit the island in late August or early September. With glowing feedback from their adventures in Funchal at the time of the Wine Festival, I thought that I would recommend the event to anyone looking for a late summer city break.
A Vintage Tipple
The archipelago of Madeira was claimed by the Portuguese during the Age of Discovery in the fifteenth century, and has had a strong winemaking heritage ever since. As a vital strategic stopping point on the way to the New World, the islands’ vinous produce was taken on long sea journeys. To prevent the wine from spoiling, it was topped up with grape spirits – however, what the vintners didn’t realise was that its exposure to movement and heat on these voyages would fundamentally alter its taste.
Thus, Madeira wine was born. Today, in emulation of the heat that changed its composition in the belly of a ship, it is heated in huge vats flushed with hot water for at least three months, before resting for at least 90 days. Unlike most other wines which oxidise once you uncork them, Madeira can survive for months – even years! – after being opened.
Far and away the best way to learn more about the history and significance of this remarkable tipple is to visit the island when it is celebrating the annual Wine Festival. Held for a fortnight at the end of August and the beginning of September, the event is about more than just tasting the island’s most famous alcoholic produce – it’s about celebrating the economic and social importance of Madeira wine.
I recommend that you base yourself in the island’s capital, Funchal, in order to make the most of the festivities.
The Live Harvest and Picker’s Parade
In 2017 the festival will fall from 27 August to 10 September. It kicks off at 7.30am in Câmara de Lobos, a town around a fifteen-minute drive east from Funchal. (Top tip: if you’d like to imbibe, it’s probably best to catch the bus there!). Expect to see locals in traditional dress playing folk music and picking the grapes off the overhead vines.
A joyous parade follows, in which a pageant made up of a melting pot of different cultural groups processes through the streets, accompanying a historic wine press. I would definitely recommend getting involved in the next event: everyone is welcome to have a go at treading the grapes (there is no charge!). With barbecues, street food stalls and – of course – free flowing wine, I have been told that the party atmosphere is utterly infectious.
Following on in Funchal
Back in the capital, there will be abundant opportunity to learn more about the island’s winemaking history. I recommend walking along the Avenida Arriaga, where displays of viticultural tools – including grape picking baskets, presses, barrels and casks – will sit beside re-enactments of the traditional process by troupes of actors.
You’ll have ample opportunity to sample some delicious regional cuisine along with plenty of Madeira wine, but it’s not just the produce you’re sampling – it’s the island’s proud heritage and culture as well. From exhibitions and stalls showcasing traditional handicrafts to performances from local folklore groups, there’s no way you won’t leave a little piece of your heart in the sunny streets of Funchal.
Your Ideal Base in the City
Our varied selection of properties in the capital includes a number of luxuriously renovated quintas. Although the word quinta means ‘farm’ in Portuguese, it can refer to a vineyard or a land estate with a grand residence.
Quinta da Bela Vista is a five-star country mansion set within its own manicured gardens. Food and wine connoisseurs will be impressed by its two restaurants, one of which is hosted in the traditional dining room of the old house. If you’re looking for a hotel within walking distance of the town, we would recommend the Quinta Bela Sao Tiago, located in the historic part of the city just a few minutes’ walk from the bay. Alternatively, I love the blend of old and new at the Quinta da Penha de Franca, from which you can reach the centre of town in around ten minutes.