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The Times Shopper: Madeira

Near Perfect Climate, Beautiful Scenery and a Sip of Wine

August 02, 1987|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer .

Tourists flock to the island paradise of Madeira with its near perfect climate and magnificent scenery.

The largest island, Madeira, is part of a small archipelago about 600 miles southwest of Lisbon. Its capital, Funchal, is a favorite port of call for ships cruising the Atlantic Ocean. It's also popular with jet-setters who fly over from Lisbon and other European capitals.

Madeira's relaxed atmosphere and charm offer a respite from the hustle and bustle of life on the Continent and provides an abundance of sun, sport and shopping.

Funchal has a delightful mixture of old municipal buildings, marketplaces and modern luxury hotels clustered along narrow and winding streets.

It's filled with appealing shops, offering everything from trendy resort fashions to fine footwear, from fabulous jewelry to exquisite porcelain and other luxuries.

Madeira's best buys are items produced on the island, especially wine, wickerwork and hand embroidery. These products, sold throughout Funchal, figure prominently in Madeira's economy and history.

Royal Conflagration

Wine has the oldest story. When the island was discovered in 1419 by explorers serving Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator, Madeira (the name means wood) was densely forested. The woods were torched at Prince Henry's command. The resulting seven-year forest fire left Madeira covered with ash, which enriched the island's fertile, lava-based soil.

Madeira grew sugar cane and other crops; ships plying trade routes to the Americas, Africa and India took on supplies and cargo at Funchal.

As early as 1600 the island's grapevines (imported from Crete and Cyprus) yielded deliciously sweet and smoky wines that traveled and aged splendidly. Wine became Madeira's most famous product. It still is.

Despite two devastating outbreaks of vine plague in the 1900s, Madeira continues to produce delicious vintages. Tourists seldom leave without taking away several bottles or a case of wine.

The island's several wine makers, Blandy, Gordon, Leacock, Henriques & Henriques and other old and respected labels, produce four types of wine. Sercial--dry and served chilled as an aperitif; Verdelho--somewhat sweeter; Bual--semisweet and goes well with cheese and dessert, and Malmsey--sweet and an ideal companion for coffee.

For a fascinating overview of Madeira wine and explanation of its aging method, visit the Wine Institute and Museum, Rua 5 de Outubre 78. Then head for a wine shop: Madeira Wine Co. (Avenida Arriaga 28), Pereira d'Oliveira (Vinhos), Lda. (Rua dos Ferrieros 107) and H.M. Borges, Sucs., Lda. (Rua 31 Janeiro 83). These outlets welcome visitors for free wine tastings, including samples from older bottles.

Also well stocked and trustworthy are Artur de Barros e Sousa, Lda. (Rua dos Ferrieros 109) and Vinhos Barbieto (Estrada Monumental 145). These shops are staffed with friendly and patient people who are knowledgeable and proud of their island's product.

Madeira wine is sold around the world but it is much less expensive at its source. Prices vary with type and vintage, but you can buy a fine wine for as little as $3 a bottle. Availability of specific vintages and labels varies.

The Older the Better

Wines dating from 15 or 20 years ago (priced from about $8 and up) appear frequently on shelves here. Hundred-year-old bottles (priced from about $20 and up) are harder to find. When you see these, snap them up. Madeira wines age beautifully, and prices for older wines are extraordinarily reasonable.

You can also buy beautiful wicker wine racks ($8 and up) for your bottles. Wickerwork, another important Madeira product, is still a cottage industry. Willows abound around Madeira; craftsmen gather branches and prepare them for weaving.

As you travel past rural houses you see stacks of willow branches set aside for drying. Some are pliant enough to be woven as soon as they are dried, others are boiled to make them malleable. The weaving process requires considerable skill. Islanders have handed the craft down from generation to generation.

Although wickerwork is made throughout Madeira the industry center is Camacha, a town 10 kilometers from Funchal. A taxi ride to Camacha ($10 or less) yields spectacular island vistas, a chance to watch wicker weavers at work and great buys.

Cornucopia of Products

Arema-Sociadade Exportadora de Artigos Regionais da Madeira, in the center of town, specializes in shipping wickerwork around the world. Arema's showroom displays and sells an assortment of items ranging from miniature ships filled with biscuits, cheese or sample wine bottles ($3 and up) to life-size giraffes, lions and reindeer (around $100).

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