Think that Franklin and Jefferson celebrated the victory at Yorktown with a cheap jug of Wal-Mart red? Or signed the Declaration of Independence with a few six-packs (even of Sam Adams beer)? If so, you may be reading the wrong online journal. When celebrating anything important, for dinner-parties or even  just drinking with friends, it was closer to “give me Madeira or give me death.”

For imaginative conservatives, Madeira wine, the favourite drink of America’s Founding Fathers, may be the most elegant, delicious and appropriate way to celebrate The Permanent Things.

Make no mistake for this Portuguese fortified wine, long out of fashion among all but the true cognoscenti, was the liquid propellant for American independence.

In 1768 John Hancock’s ship, The Liberty, allegedly crept into Boston harbour to avoid the dreaded Townshend Acts, by moonlight when the customs agents were usually asleep, said to be laden with the equivalent of 15,000 bottles of Madeira wine. An official awoke, investigated and got locked in a cabin while Hancock’s men unloaded all but a small quantity, and the patriot-smuggler got off without criminal charges filed (he may have slipped a few samples to the bureaucrats on the docks). But his boat was confiscated and used to interdict other smuggling vessels until 1769, when it was burned to the waterline by outraged New Englanders in one of the first acts of open rebellion against the Crown. Afterwards, we may suspect, the patriotic arsonists celebrated with (just a few) glasses of duty-free…you guessed it.

Thomas Jefferson toasted the signing of the Declaration of Independence with Madeira. John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, describing the vast quantities of it that he drank as a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress. Alexander Hamilton thrived on it. Later, the newly inaugurated President George Washington graciously waived any salary, but he claimed for expenses which included a small fortune in Madeira.

After joining Franklin and Adams in Paris, Jefferson expanded his palate (and his cellar) with Volnay and Montrachet Burgundies and fine Bordeaux, all of which became his liquid passions in later life, but Madeira remained a staple. In 1797, Captain James Server christened the U.S.S. Constitution with a bottle of Madeira, and Chief Justice John Marshall loved the stuff as did his colleagues on the early Supreme Court.

While brave patriots guzzled their whiskies, hard cider and beer their wise leaders prized Madeira above all other tipples. What rare qualities, one may wonder, allowed even so noble a wine to fortify tradition, fire rebellion and inspire its admirers to design what became the greatest republic known to man?

Made from four grape varieties all grown on the semi-tropical island of Madeira; the best-known four wines are the dry Sercial, the smoky and mildly acidic Verdelho, the richer raisin-ish Bual and the dark sweet Malmsey. Together they can be enjoyed before, during and after supper (although a fine claret in the middle is often welcome).

There are indeed other Madeiran grapes and wines, and their gourmet vintners insist that some are, for example, best consumed at ten in the morning or in mid-afternoon (but that is a bit excessive). For beginners, stick with the four basic types, unless you want to give the one called Bastardo to your boss as an indelicate hint.

What all have in common, apart from locale, is that they are fortified with grain spirits nowadays or strong drink such as rum in years gone by. With alcohol levels around twenty percent they are similar to port, which may account for their enormous longevity; bottles of Madeira remain quite drinkable after even two centuries. However Madeira, unlike port, is rarely ever cloying, while the level of dryness or sweetness is controlled by halting the fermentation at the appropriate time.

Like good sherry, quality Madeira can be found in a vintage bottling or as a solera, a process of fractionally blending old wine with new. Although sherry soleras may be diluted many times until the original vintage comprises a tiny percentage of the whole, most Madeira soleras seem to have been mingled once long ago and in judicious moderation, giving the newer wine time in which to assume the characteristics of the dominant older vintage.

The most famous story about Madeiras may be something of a canard. The island’s vineyards were first planted early in the Age of Exploration, with wines sold to merchantmen ships plying the waters between the East Indies and the New World. Fortification, then adding alcohol from cane sugar, had already been discovered to stabilise port wine produced on the Portuguese mainland, but according to legend a consignment of Madeira returned unsold and its taste had improved dramatically thanks to long exposure to great heat. Ever after, all Madeira is heated intentionally.

Your servant’s young friend, Mr. George Gillham, has one of the most extensive family cellars of Madeira in England and the knowledge to match it. He suspects that the tale maybe apocryphal, for the island’s heat can be most oppressive, and warming its wines in storage may have been unavoidable; its virtues discovered without requiring tropical sea voyages. As partial testament to that, while today’s cheaper Madeiras are heated in vats, the vintage products are still warmed in casks by ambient natural heat over as long as a century.

Today on the island, tourism and erecting retirement high-rise buildings are vastly more profitable than the periodically-required replanting of vineyards, and so quality production dwindles.

Moreover says George, a financial expert who visits the island annually, the surviving quality vineyards defy modern business plans. He tells of one umpteenth-generation vintner who has a few vast casks of a variety rarely grown anymore, put down almost a century ago by his grandfather and the owner refuses to even taste it – because his father tried it in 1969 and said it still needs a few more generations over which to age properly. What his dad thought is good enough for him, and he will let his heirs decide when to sample it next. Going to a bank for finance would be madness, warns George, to borrow against a product that might be ready to sell in eighty years or maybe not that soon! As long as vintage Madeira is made, and it will not be made forever, it remains a product of tradition and love alone.

The wine caught on early. George Plantagenet (1449-1478), the First Duke of Clarence, the First Earl of Salisbury and the last in his noble line, was supposedly framed by King Richard III, condemned to the Tower and drowned in “a butt of Malmsey” (105 imperial gallons). Since most similarly luckless nobles were beheaded, some say it was a sort of a joke after the fact because he loved his Madeira so much, others say that he requested to die in what he adored the most. Shakespeare’s Richard III sees him stabbed and then drowned in Malmsey for good measure. (No one has been assassinated in other forms of Madeira so far, although I recall a bottle of George’s, a 1919 Tarrantez, that would at least momentarily tempt me to surrender).

America was long a mainstay of the Madeira trade, for proper wine-quality grapes could not be grown in the thirteen colonies, and products could be imported from Portugal far less expensively than from Britain’s enemy France or further away. Production fell due to two mid-nineteenth century epidemic blights, although the drink remained fashionable among the plutocrats of America’s Gilded Age. Eventually the Russian Revolution and American Prohibition diminished the market enormously. Britain’s aristocracy wiped out in the Great War, the subsequent Jazz Age cocktail craze and poverty following her loss of Empire did the rest. By the mid-Twentieth century, toffs and swanks and swells still craved port after dinner, but the far more versatile Madeira had mostly been forgotten on either side of the Atlantic.

Today, apart from oenophiles, Madeira wine is mostly remembered by the British in a rollicking (and comically perverted) cod-Edwardian music-hall song by the witty 1950s entertainers Flanders and Swann. In “Have Some Madeira, M’Dear,” a decrepit roué attempts to lure an innocent young lady up to his apartment with surprising results, available to be seen and heard here. But it was thought to be a drink of the Gas-Light Era.

As recently as a generation ago, quite venerable Madeiras were going for a relative song. For my very first taste of it in 1982, I was treated by my former philosophy professor to a solera of Malmsey mingled and bottled in about 1900, but primarily of a vintage from 1824, and we sipped it from my high-rise balcony in Old Town, Alexandria. From there we could see the illuminated Jefferson Memorial and the Potomac glittering beneath it, with the Capitol dome and the Washington Monument beyond, as we drank a wine that flourished on the vine whilst Jefferson and Adams still lived. It tasted of grapes and oaken casks, of wet warm earth and strong sunlight, and it sang like the angels; I remember it vividly, with gratitude and affection.

It was expensive even then, but no more than some people pay today for a high-end (and over-priced) blended Scotch. A port or Bordeaux of a similar age would have rivalled the cost of a used car.

Since then Madeiras have somewhat come back into fashion, and utterly drinkable Malmseys, Sercials and Buals can be found quite affordably even in the better British supermarket chains (perhaps too in America).

The old vintages and soleras, alas, go up and up. An unusually venerable 1790 Sercial will set you back two grand American, but it was in the cask when Edmund Burke was still alive and his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” was just coming off the press. If your great-aunt Maude has just left you a pile, or you sold your hedge-fund, it makes for a classier and more exclusive celebration than basketball tickets.

Or you can relish a 1912 Verdelho for US$ 375, made before Woodrow Wilson did his damage and while the Habsburgs still ruled Middle Europe. Or a 1950 Bual for $180, from when Ronald Reagan had not yet left Hollywood, Churchill was plotting his return to power and Russell Kirk was still at St. Andrews writing “The Conservative Mind.”

If you hanker after splurging to drink history, look here; otherwise if your local booze-seller has not heard of Madeira, Americans can find modern treats here. (N.B., It comes from venerable houses named Blandy’s, Leacock’s, D’Oliveira’s, Barbeito, Cossart or Justino, etc., and if it is not from the Portuguese island of Madeira do not drink it; add it to soup or wash your dog in it).

If you buy an old one, decant it and give it a day to breathe: then sediments will settle, and the genie trapped for so long inside the bottle will have time to prepare for his decades-old (or century-old) mission of giving you unalloyed pleasure.

But treat yourself to even a good recent one and you will come to love it. Then, when someday you go to your eternal reward and you get invited to the celestial Fourth of July party, as Mister Jefferson puts a glass into your hand you will know what to expect – unlike the clot next to you who asks for a Diet Coke instead.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email