Party Like it’s 1776
George Washington always greeted guests with a hearty glass of Madeira wine and was known to drink an entire pint at dinner.
Ben Franklin always had a glass at his side while he writing the Declaration of Independence and authors of the Declaration celebrated their nation’s birth with a toast of Madeira wine.
It was used to mark celebrations and even as a perfume for ladies’ handkerchieves.
Madeira is a fortified wine named after a Portuguese archipelago and played an important role in the Revolutionary War.
It symbolized the colonies struggle against the rule of King George III.
America’s wine drinkers were at the mercy of the British taxation as Bordeaux or Champagne incurred a sizable duty or tax.
Madeira escaped the British taxes because the island was one of the last stops before heading across the Atlantic and merchants would toss a barrel or two on board tax free.
A turning point in the struggle of American independence focused on the British seizure of John Hancock’s boat, the Liberty, in 1768.
Hancock tried to unload a cargo of 3 thousand gallons of Madeira and an argument broke out with the British government over import duties.
They alleged that Hancock locked a customs official in the Liberty’s cabin while the cargo of Madeira wine was unloaded.
The British government then confiscated the Liberty which caused riots among the people of Boston.
The ship was eventually set on fire by the colonist and was one of the first overt American acts of defiance against the British government.
History of Madeira
The islands of Madeira have a long winemaking history due to the island’s proximity to shipping routes to the American colonies.
Wine grapes had a tough time growing in the colonies and most wines spoiled during the hot and rough voyages to the the Americas.
It was discovered that Madeira could survive by adding Port as a means to “fortify” the wine.
Port was added to stabilize the wine by boosting the alcohol content since ethanol is a natural antiseptic.
The high temperatures of the Caribbean not only made the wine indestructible but greatly improved the taste.
The casks of Madeira wine would be heated and cooled as the ships passed though the tropics.
Wine exposed to excessive heat and movement transforms flavor, usually for the worse.
But shippers noticed that the wine’s flavor deepened and became better.
This sea-aging was called “Vinho da Roda.”
The heating created a wine with intense flavors of roasted nuts, stewed fruit, caramel, and toffee.
The discovery was made when an unsold shipment of wine was returned to the islands after a round trip.
Other preservation methods now exist but fortification and heat are still used because the process adds distinct flavors.
The 18th century was the “golden age” for Madeira with the American colonies consuming as much as 95% of all wine produced.
The phylloxera epidemic that had plagued France and other European wine regions reached the island by the end of the 19th century.
Most of the island’s vineyards were uprooted and converted to sugar cane.
By the turn of the 20th century, the Madeira industry was slowly returing but was stopped by Prohibition in America.
After the repeal of Prohibition ships no longer needed to stop off in Madeira the island and the wine became known as The Forgotten Island Wine.
Madeira’s reputation fell to low quality “cooking wine”.
In the 1980’s, The Madeira Wine Company set out to re-launched the wine and create a market for it again in America.
Madeira is one of the few wines that hasn’t changed in over 200 years.
The grapes are mainly Tinta Negra Mole, which is a crossing of Grenache and Pinot Noir.
But you’ll also stumble across four “noble” grapes including: Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia.
Madeira producers found that aging the wine on long sea voyages was very costly and developed other methods to produce the same aged and heated style.
They began storing the wines in special rooms where the heat of island sun would age the wine.
Nowadays, Madeira is known for its unique winemaking process which involves heating and ageing the wine.
This heating process is called “estufagem”, and after heating, the wine gets a period of “estágio” or rest for 3 months.
Cuba de Calor: The most common for bulk aging in low stainless steel or concrete tanks surrounded by heated coils.
The wine is low quality and heated to temperatures as high as 130°F for 90 days.
Armazém de Calor: This method involves storing the wine in large wooden casks with steam piped into that heat the room that creates a sauna effect.
This is a more gentle process that can take up to a year.
Canteiro: These wines are aged without the use of any artificial heat and are stored in warm rooms left to age by the heat of the sun.
The Canteiro method is used for the highest quality Madeiras and this process can last from 20 years to 100 years.
This process not only mellows the wine but also acts as pasteurization.
The wine is also exposed to air causing oxidization and results in a color similar to tawny port wine.
There are four levels of sweetness marked on every Madeiran wine label: Dry (Seco), Medium Dry (Meio Seco), Medium Sweet (Meio Doce) and Sweet (Doce).
Madeira wine is catagorized based on its age:
Reserve (five years) – This is the minimum amount of aging a wine.
Special Reserve (10 years) – Wines are often aged naturally without any artificial heat source.
Extra Reserve (over 15 years) – A richer style that’s rare to produce.
Colheita or Harvest (over 20 years) – This style includes wines from a single vintage, but aged for a shorter period.
Finest is reserved for cooking and has been aged for at least three years.
Rainwater a lighter style of any Madeira that’s mild.
For a true epiphany, seek out a Frasqueira or “Vintage,” with over 20 years of age.
Ageing and serving aged Madeira Wine
The myth is that once opened, a bottle of Madeira will stay fresh for ages in any temperature because it’s resistant to oxidation.
But Madeira wine is sensitive to changes in temperature and if it is exposed to too high a temperature, it may develop off-flavors.
Madeira wine can be aged literally for centuries.
If the wine is exposed to temperatures that are too cold, it can freeze and expand, causing the cork to be pushed out or the bottle to crack.
Madeira wine should be kept at a constant temperature between 50 and 59 °F.
Madeira wine develops complexity if it is allowed to age slowly in a cool place.
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According to eater.com
“When you taste a Madeira that is 25-years-old, 30-years-old, 100-years-old or even 200-years-old, close your eyes and go back to the past. Think about what the world was like at that time, what has transpired since then, and how delicious that glass is right now. It is a journey that is divinely unique to this incredible wine.”
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