History & Wine

Red, White, and Madeira

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Picture this: It is July 4, 1776, and the Continental Congress of the thirteen rebellious American colonies has just adopted a wildly liberal document called The Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the document, along with his four co-authors, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Benjamin Franklin, are surely settling into a long night of celebration. What adult libation of choice do these men turn to in order to celebrate the proverbial finger stuck high in the air towards the islands of Britain?

Whiskey? Scotch? Rum? Brandy?

Madeira, of course.

It is said that Madeira was the drink of choice of Thomas Jefferson at the time, and this fortified wine was used to toast the Declaration of Independence all those years ago on July 4th. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were also big Madeira drinkers. It is speculated that Washington enjoyed this fortified wine with dinner every night, and rumors swirl around his consumption of a bottle a day. Madeira was also used to toast his Inauguration as the first President of the new country. After 1776, it is said that the fledgling United States imported one-fourth of the production of Madeira wine.

So what is Madeira, besides the favorite wine of our Founding Fathers? Madeira is a fortified wine from the Madeira Islands of Portugal. Not as widely known as the other famous Portuguese fortified wine, Port, but full of flavor and history all its own.

Madeira was a port-of-call in the Atlantic Ocean back during the first days of exploration across “the pond”. Ships would stop here to exchange and gain supplies before the journey to the New World and East Indies. Though the original production of Madeira was as a regular table wine, it was soon discovered that the long journey overseas caused spoilage of the wine. Cane sugar was added to increase alcohol content and stabilize the wine (Brandy was not added until the 18th century). Madeira winemakers soon learned that customers of the wine actually enjoyed the “stabilized” wine more after the long journey in the hot cargo holds of the ships. Taking that concept to the winemaking process, Madeira was purposely aged in a heated style on the island in order to reproduce the effect of that long voyage in a hot cargo hold. Thus, we can say that Madeira is a fortified wine that is purposefully spoiled. Because of this heated style of aging, and the slight oxidation that is allowed during the winemaking process, Madeira can be quite long-lived, even after a bottle has been opened.

I will say that out of all the fortified wines, a good Malmsey Madeira is definitely one of my favorites. Malmsey Madeira is made from the Malvasia grape (85% required by EU regulation), which is a sweet white varietal. This wine is dark (caused by the aging process), similar to a Tawny Port, and has rich flavors of coffee and caramel. The high acidity of this grape keeps the wine from being too sugary sweet, despite the “dessert” nature of the wine. I would recommend Malmsey Madeira with some creamy cheese or cheesecake after a meal.

So enjoy your beer today, but remember what the original celebration drink of ‘Merican Independence was, according to the men who, ya know, founded the country. If you get the chance, toast America with Madeira.

 

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