Timeless Madeira

Madeira is timelessly unique in many ways, as it is one of the original styles of fortified wines, made in the same way for centuries by aging casks in the roofs of straw huts on the tiny island of Madeira off the coast of Africa.

After spending many years in these casks, the wine gradually spoils in a controlled manner “maderization.” This becomes part of the character of the wine, as it is fortified with spirit, making it nearly invincible as it only goes bad once it evaporates.Madeira was the favorite drink of the colonies in America during the late 18th century partly because it could survive the long journey by ship and also it was immune to British taxes as it did not originate on the European continent. In fact, many Maderia connoisseurs of the day believed the long journey actually improved the wines and gave them more character. When the British finally left Manhattan at the end of the Revolutionary War, George Washington held a farewell dinner, a “turtle feast,” for his officers, at the still extant Fraunces Tavern, where a few brave men consumed over 200 bottles of revered revolutionary tipple. Washington raised his mug of Madeira and toasted, “…with a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.” Though America was destined to grow and become a world power, Madeira began to wane in the middle of the 19th century as styles changed and vine diseases decimated the island. Lesser Hybrid grapes lacking flavor and depth were planted and much of the production began to be used as cheap cooking wine. Thankfully a handful of the important Madeira companies and families got together and passed some new winemaking rules to respect the old ways while replanting the island with the traditional Madeira grapes (from driest to sweetest): Sercial, Verdelho, Bual(or Boal), and Malmsey. There is also a tiny bit of the renegade Terrantez grape kicking around on the island, somewhere between the Bual and Malmsey with its own peculiar spice, almost Scotch like, which happens to be my favorite.Duncan and I were recently having a spot of 1800 something-or-other Madeira on a cold, for this winter, afternoon in the shop discussing a button dilemma for a new jacket and I was reminded of a timeless tasting I did with Michael Broadbent of Christies a while back. Yes, these are similar to Ports and Sherries, but completely different. You must try to get your tongue wet, even if it is a glass of the non-vintage stuff collecting dust at your local haunt, we’ll get you on the good juice soon.

Words by Justin Christoph Photos by Justin Christoph