When you think of great wines in American history, there’s probably a few that come right to mind. You’re likely to think of the great producers of the Napa Valley in California, or maybe you are reminded of the successful wines of Oregon and Washington. If you know a bit more about older wine history in the United States you might also know about Virginia and their contributions to the growth of American wine culture.
But are you aware of the importance of wine from a small island off the coast of Africa as well?
Let’s delve into the fascinating history of Madeira!
The Island of Madeira
The island of Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal, located off the coast of Morocco. Madeira, as a small yet strategic location in the Atlantic, was settled by Portuguese sailors in 1420. The island began crafting wine in the 17th century after the native sugarcane industry plummeted due to the growth of the Brazilian market. Vines replaced the sugarcane, and the wines became an important trade commodity from Europe and to the New World.
The Trans-Atlantic Trip
The wines themselves survived the long ocean journeys to the Americas, and it was discovered that the wine actually improved during this time. This was a contrast to Bordeaux wines (the other favored wine at the time) that would oxidize, heat up and often spoil on the journey across the warm Atlantic ocean. Ocean travel during this period was highly abusive to the wine. By the time the wine would make it to the colonies, it developed a complex aroma of roasted nuts from the exposure to the elements, but rather than detracting from the flavors, the only enhanced it. As time passed, the sailors realized that fortified wines fared best on the trans-Atlantic trip; thus the addition of fortifying the wine with brandy turned into a regular practice and thus the style of Madeira was born.
A New American Favorite
Sweet, fortified wines quickly became a important commodity in the early American colonies. The founding fathers including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton were all major consumers of the wine. In the early stage of US history, Madeira was present at all major political functions. At the signing of the Declaration of Independence the founding fathers toasted with a glass of Madeira.
Diplomatic Uses of Madeira
Besides the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Madeira was used in the inauguration toast of George Washington in 1789. It was even said that George Washington’s many sets of false teeth were necessitated by his habitual Madeira consumption. Thomas Jefferson, another consummate Madeira lover, served it in 1792 when he relocated the US Capitol in Washington. Most recently in 2009, Barack Obama toasted his inauguration as President of the United States of America with a glass of Madeira in respect to this great tradition. It is also well documented that there are many other significant moments in early American history where Madeira was enjoyed for celebratory purposes.
The Decline & Resurgence of Madeira Wine
Madeira was the most important wine in the days of the colonial United States with about 70% of the Island of Madeira’s total production being sent to the colonies between 1727 and 1738. After the Civil War, the amount of consumption quickly declined. Distillation and American Whiskey production had a significant effect on the volume of Madeira importation. The general economic and political instability that occurred during the post-Civil War period, coupled with a budding local spirits industry made Madeira consumption a thing of the past.
Madeira is making a resurgence in the modern market among sommeliers and collectors. Madeira is now found in many top restaurants and wine bars all over the country. The versatility of Madeira allows it to be a consistent staple on many high end pairing menus, and while it’s classically paired with dessert or cheese, it can be an excellent accompaniment to savory dishes. Aged Madeira is a prized collectors’ item and is highly sought after. The collectible potential of Madeira is directly tied to the island’s tiny production size. Additionally, Madeira from the 1700’s can still be in excellent drinking condition.
Madeira for the Everyday Drinker
Reach for a bottle of Madeira the next time you are feeling patriotic, or want to try a unique wine! It can be easily located at many retailers and comes in many styles, from bone-dry to slightly sweet. The flavor profile is similar to Tawny Port, which emphasizes flavors of dried fruit, roasted nuts, and spices. Madeira is a great after-dinner drink and has excellent pairing capabilities with dishes such as mushrooms, cheese, or anything with an earthy flavor.