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"FINEST old Madeira" (actually neither fine nor old and yours for between £6 and £7 a bottle at your local supermarket) has always belonged in the cooking pot. But you need to pay only a little more for a Madeira you would actually want to drink.

Upmarket Madeiras make a delicious alternative for sherry or port drinkers - as well as adding more exciting flavours to your sauces than the basic brews. Five years is the magical break point. Five-year-old Madeiras can be an enjoyable drink, 10-year-olds wonderfully intense and characterful, and vintage Madeiras (for which you can pay £40 and upwards per bottle) really stunning, and capable of surviving for centuries.

Whatever their quality level and whatever other complexities of flavour they may have, Madeiras always have a distinctive, tangy, caramelly taste that comes from being gently heated for months on end during their maturation in the winery. (This is supposed to mimic the "cooked" flavour Madeiras acquired in the 19th century on their way by sea from the sub-tropical island - Portuguese but closer to Morocco than to Portugal - over the Equator and down to British-ruled India.)

The island can make dry to super-sweet wine, depending to a large degree on the altitude at which the grapes are grown. Madeira rises sharply out of the Atlantic and soars up to craggy, cloudy peaks, with flowers, vegetables, banana trees, sugar cane, lemons, avocados and vines jostling for space on spectacular terraces that scale the steep slopes. The highest, coolest vineyards traditionally grew Sercial grapes to make dry wine, then came Verdelho and Bual further down making medium-dry and sweetish wines, then sticky-sweet Malvasia in the lower, semi-tropical zone.

Producers on the island have traditionally been economical with the truth - not just about the age of their wines, but about the grapes used to make them. "Five-year-old Sercial" would, until only a few months ago, contain no Sercial grapes at all. It would simply have been made from cheaper Tinta Negra Mole grapes in the dryish style typical of the island's more expensive, proper Sercial wines.

Brussels has just put a stop to this. Henriques y Henriques 5-year-old Special Dry (£9.59 John Stevenson Wines of Nelson, £10.99 Bentalls of Kingston), sold as "Sercial" until a few months ago, may not have the 85 per cent minimum of Sercial grapes required by the EU, but it is nevertheless a lovely, lean aperitif wine with nutty and limey flavours. D'Oliveras 5-year-old Vinho Aperitivo Seco (£8.50 Lay & Wheeler of Colchester) is similarly dry, fruity and nutty. There's an enormous leap in quality, however, to the 10-year-old Sercial (£14.95 Neville Dennis Wines of Newcastle under Lyme, Staffordshire, £15.99 Bentalls of Kingston, £16.95 Ballantynes of Cowbridge), which is lean, salty-tangy and very nutty and limey.

Upmarket versions of the next step up in sweetness, medium dry, are made with the Verdelho grape. A lovely one at the moment is the intensely tangy, complex, nutty Cossart Gordon 10-year-old Verdelho (£14.99 Wine Rack and Bottoms Up).

The now "medium rich" Madeiras used to be sold as "Bual", a grape that traditionally makes medium-sweet wines for drinking as a digestif. Henriques y Henriques 5-year-old Medium Rich (£9.97 Mayor Sworder of London SE11, £10.99 Bentalls of Kingston) has some nutty concentration and a wonderful caramelly flavour that makes it a perfect match for the fudge-like Scandinavian cheese Gjetost. Henriques y Henriques 10-year-old Bual (£14.82 Mayor Sworder, £14.95 Neville Dennis, £15.99 Bentalls of Kingston, £16.95 Ballantynes, £l7.95 Harrods) has a much more intense flavour of walnuts and raisins, like a fine Oloroso sherry with a salty tang.

The sweetest style of Madeira, which is wonderful with Stilton or poured over fresh pineapple, is Malmsey, a nickname for the Malvasia grape. For an inexpensive one, Cossart Gordon 5-year-old Malmsey (£11.49 Thresher, Wine Rack and Bottoms Up) is excellent value; it is dark and sweet, tangily intense. Henriques y Henriques 10-year-old Malmsey (£14.82 Mayor Sworder, £14.95 Neville Dennis, £15.99 Bentalls, £16.95 Ballantynes of Cowbridge, £17.95 Harrods) and Blandy's 10 year-old Rich Malmsey (£13.95 Waitrose, £14.49 Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, £15.15 Victoria Wine) are both scrumptious, raisiny-rich and toffeed, a marvellous combination of sweetness and tangy saltiness.