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Madeira: An American Tradition

Updated: Feb 4

Group of men getting drunk in a bar circa 1700s
Bill for 55 men attending George Washington's farewell party at City Tavern in 1787

There is an often-quoted story in wine literature discussing the 1787 farewell party for George Washington that lists quite a number of bottles for 55 people: “According to the bill, the Founding Fathers drank 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of Claret, 8 bottles of Whiskey, 22 bottles of Porter, 8 bottles of Hard Cider, 12 of Beer and seven bowls of alcoholic punch. There were only 55 attendees.”


According to officialdata.org £89 in 1780 is equivalent in purchasing power to about £20,019.86 in 2024, which translates to about $25,443.22 at the time of this article.


While the term “Claret” may be unfamiliar to Americans, what it refers to – red Bordeaux – certainly is familiar. What’s not familiar is Madeira, and few Americans know the fascinating story behind its popularity with our founding fathers.


"Fast forward to the latter part of the 1700’s and, in America, taxes are becoming a big deal."

 

Along with being the name of the wine, Madeira is also the name of an island belonging to Portugal situated off the West African coast. The Portuguese brought vines with them when they colonized, and quickly realized that the island had the potential to make great fortified wines much like those of Port itself, and for many years, they made wines that weren’t too radically dissimilar to Port.

 

Fast forward to the latter part of the 1700’s and, in America, taxes are becoming a big deal. Many items from Europe were taxed rather excessively, but due to its curious location so far away from Portugal, Madeira was exempt from that tax.


This tax exemption became very popular with early Americans, and being made in a similar fashion to Port, the wines were fortified; sporting a much higher than average alcohol content compared to traditional wines due to the addition of neutral grape spirits used to stop fermentation and boost alcohol content. And as wonderful as this budding popularity in America was for the winemakers on this small island, it came with a glaring issue: shipping the wine. Being off the coast of West Africa, the wine was destined to spend many, many weeks at sea in some remarkably warm conditions, sloshing around in the barrels, and evaporating much faster than normal, increasing the surface exposure in the barrel to oxygen turning the wine brown.


"What they heard back in return was a total surprise. The wines absolutely spoiled exactly as predicted on the journey, but the Americans absolutely loved the wines."

 

The winemakers of Madeira knew that this wasn’t a possibility so much as a certainty, but without any easy way of fixing the problem, and understanding the Americans were more interested in the tax break than the quality of the wine, began to put barrels on ships and hope for the best.

 

What they heard back in return was a total surprise. The wines absolutely spoiled exactly as predicted on the journey, but the Americans absolutely loved the wines.

 

It turns out that, sometimes, you can ruin things in exactly the right way, and that’s what happened by accident here. The wines on the ship did indeed experience significant evaporation, exposure to extreme heat, and exposure to oxygen for extended periods of time, but just the right amount; enough so that they went “bad” in a controlled way. Much like how fermenting cabbage or kombucha is allowing non-harmful bacteria to eat all the food the harmful ones would have eaten so there’s nothing left to spoil, exposing the barrels of Madeira to heat, oxygen, and the rocking of the ship helped to make the wine somewhat immune to those kinds of damage, and while it’s not technically indefinite, most Madeira can survive a tremendously long amount of time once the bottle has been opened, as it’s not going to go bad; it already has.


There are a number of Sherries that are intentionally exposed to oxygen, giving the wines their characteristic nutty flavors, but the exposure to heat is what makes Madeira different. Any sugars that get exposed to heat can become more caramelized, and this is no exception in the world of Madeira. Coffee, toffee, caramel, peanut brittle, and all manner of caramel-sugar and nut desserts find homes in the tasting notes of Madeira, and illustrate why that process is so delectable.


"...with Madeira you can almost always expect some lovely caramel, raisin, and nutty flavors."



Jefferson's Ocean

When it comes to the modern winemaking, the winemakers of Madeira learned long ago that it is much more cost efficient to store the barrels in the rafters of the winery’s warehouses so they can more accurately control the temperature, and monitor the barrels in a secure, safe environment, but the practice of “ocean aging” isn’t entirely lost, it has just found a new home in the spirits world. Jefferson’s “Ocean: Aged at Sea” bourbon is a classic retelling of this very story that the distillers claim to have thought up as a wild idea for a new bourbon. The company itself is named after Thomas Jefferson for his curiosity and intellectual spirit and, in choosing to age their whiskeys at sea, they believed they were honoring his spirit and moving forward when really they were following in his footsteps.



The Rare Wine Company Historic Series celebrates the different styles of Madeira that were popular in different American cities. Made from 4 of the different major grapes/styles, Charleston preferring the dry Sercial, Savannah the off-dry Verdelho, Boston the semi-sweet Bual, and New York with the fully sweet Malmsay, all of these bottles are just consistently high quality, enjoyable wines showcasing the beauty of this often overlooked wine.


SO WHAT DOES IT TASTE LIKE?

Depending on the sweetness level you’re looking for, they’re all going to taste a little different, but with Madeira you can almost always expect some lovely caramel, raisin, and nutty flavors.

 

Due to space constrictions, Anderson’s Market carries two of the offerings from Rare Wine Co., but we are always able to place special orders with our distributors to get the other bottles within a week or two upon request.



NV Rare Wine Company Historic Series Boston Bual Special Reserve

NV Rare Wine Company Historic Series Boston Bual Special Reserve

19.5% ABV—$59.99

A fantastic accompaniment to desserts and cheeses. People of a certain generation remember a time when cheese was considered more of a dessert than a starter, which in the age of the charcuterie board, seems strange, but there is a reason. The end of the meal is when people are most likely to be full, so the courses need to be small but packed with flavor, making them extra rich. Anyone who has had a strong piece of cheese knows you don’t need a lot for it to take over your mouth. In situations like this, a watery or light style of wine isn’t going to be able to compete; what you need is something like a fig jam, but in wine form. Enter the Boston Bual Madeira.

Strong and beautiful notes of raisin, cocoa, coffee, toffee, and caramel  on the nose are all hints to what is to come on the palate. The nutty almond and hazelnut remind you a little of Galliano, while the toffee and coffee envelop your tongue. The biggest surprise is the truly beautiful acidity. The texture is thick but not sticky, and the flavors dance around on your tongue while it tries to wrestle with the acidity, until about 30 seconds later you remember that it’s 19.5% alcohol and realize it didn’t hit you the way you were expecting it to.

 

This is a really great bottle to have on hand for strong cheese or dairy based desserts like creme brulee where this wine can act as your scrumptious liquid palate cleanser between powerful flavors.

 

NV  Rare Wine Co Historic Series New York Malmsey Special Reserve

NV  Rare Wine Co Historic Series New York Malmsey Special Reserve

19.5%ABV—$59.99

 Another wonderful after dinner Madeira. Malmsey is the name of a variation of the Malvasia grape, popular in mediterranean climates. Darkest of the major styles, this is for the cocoa lovers. The coffee and raisin notes are a little less pronounced, and certainly much darker than the Bual. Sensual spices like cinnamon and clove hide in the glass, slowly emanating over time.

The acidity here is also fresh, and in a way almost citrusy, as though you were tasting caramelized or even burnt orange peel like a Spanish coffee. The dark cocoa brings a really wonderful element reminiscent of Turkish coffee being roasted, with slight hints of cardamom, as well as traces of clove and allspice. This is a glass I would enjoy most with flan or pastries, as well as custard-based des

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