Today is the day we raise a glass to celebrate American independence and our friends and neighbors sometimes ask what wine is appropriate for this occasion. There are many possibilities. Sparkling wines are traditional for celebrations and pair well with picnic fare. We often favor Zinfandel because America is a nation of immigrants and, while the Zin grape is not native to the United States, it has found its home here. Or perhaps a wine made from the Norton grape, a hybrid first grown in Richmond, Virginia, about 100 years ago? Tough to choose!
Today’s special Flashback Wine Economist column makes the case for Madeira, perhaps the most American wine of them all even though it isn’t produced in the United States. Why Madeira? Read on. And happy Independence Day to all.
Have Some Madeira?
It is in a way the most American of wines, even though it comes from a Portuguese island off the African coast. When it came time to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, this is the wine that filled the Founding Fathers’ glasses.
Workers at the Liberty Hall Museum in New Jersey recently discovered three cases of the stuff dating from 1796 — too young to be the wine that Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams raised for their toast, but old enough that they might have sipped it a few years later.
Madeira (because you have already guessed the name of the wine I’m talking about) has a glorious history here in the United States. Once upon a time, you could find it prominently displayed on the top shelf of any reputable drinks shop, it was that popular. But when I went looking for a bottle at my local upscale supermarket I had to go deep into the corner where the fortified and dessert wines are kept and then stoop down to the bottom shelf.
O, Madeira. How far you have fallen!
But looks can deceive and Madeira is alive and well even if it’s not as prominent as it was in 1776. Madeira was America’s wine back then in part because America didn’t make much wine of its own and imported wine often suffered badly on the long sea trip from Europe to North America.
Live Long and Prosper
Madeira’s secret was (and is) its unique production process, where the wine is both heated and oxidized. The wines used to be conditioned by sending the barrels on round-trip ocean voyages in hot cargo holds. The movement of the ship and the heat below deck did the job very well.
Now it’s done shore-side in the lodges. The wines start with high acidity (the island soils are part of that) and end up both fresh and nearly invincible. A bottle of Madeira has a very long half-life after it has been uncorked. You’ll certainly drink it up before it goes off.
There’s not a lot of Madeira wine produced, which is one reason you don’t see oceans of it in the shops. Vineyard land is not plentiful on Madeira — about 500 hectares in total cling to the steep mountainsides. Just enough to provide raw materials to eight producers.
France is the number one market for Madeira wine, where it is a popular aperitif (France is the top market for Port wines, too, for the same reason). Tourists visiting Madeira enjoy enough of the wine there to make it the number two market followed by Germany, the UK, Japan, and the United States. U.S. demand has been slowly ratcheting up in recent years, now accounting for about seven percent of total production.
You Don’t Know What You’re Missing
Sue and I traveled to Madeira about a year ago and learned a lot by visiting Blandy’s and Justino’s, two of the most important producers. We were fortunate to be invited to refresh our memories last month at a seminar and trade tasting in Seattle. We tasted the range of Madeira wine types including the one pictured here from 1928. Here are some impressions from that experience.
If you haven’t tasted Madeira in a while, you need to get to work. Chances are you’ve forgotten the balance and lifting acidity that characterize the wines. These aren’t sticky sweet fruitcake wines, (although there is such a thing as a Madeira cake, which is meant to be eaten with a glass of Madeira.)
You can make Madeira as simple or complicated as you like — it is up to you. By far the majority of the wines are sweet or semi-sweet 3-year-old blends. Sweetish or drier — those are your basic choices. Drier Madeira, like Fino sherry, is pretty versatile and might surprise you.
Only small amounts of aged Madeira is made from white grape varieties like the Sercial in the photo and these wines have very distinctive characteristics that anyone who wants to take a deeper dive would appreciate. Because the wines basically last forever once opened, you can pull the cork on several different ones and enjoy the kind of comparative tasting that we experienced in Seattle without being anxious about finishing up the bottles before they go off. On-trade readers take note!
Madeira was once the Big Thing in American wine. Is it The Next Big Thing today? No — can’t be. There’s not enough of it to go around. But it is a unique wine of time and place that deserves a closer look.
Special thanks to Bartholomew Broadbent for his help with this column.