Wine of Rebels, Wine Of Rulers: How Madeira Won (And Lost) The Americas

March 19th, 2021

It’s August 2nd, 1776, and a new country has just been created. The Second Continental Congress have finally done it. In the Pennsylvania State House, after the writing of many drafts earlier in the year and much healthy argument over the exact wording and the extent to which the Colonies will break from the British Empire, the Declaration of Independence has just been signed. 

There’s a romantic tendency to look back and think it must have been a joyous affair - hats thrown in the air, locked arms for impromptu jigs and the like. In fact, very far from it. Everyone in the room was quietly terrified about what they’d done. To the British, this would be seen as an act of high treason punishable by death. If this bold venture didn’t succeed, every man had just signed his own death warrant.

The Declaration of Independence on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC

Under such circumstances, the need for a little wine to settle the nerves is understandable. And you’d think that some kind of proudly American wine would fit the bill - except, the United States had only existed for a few minutes, and only included 13 states, within which no wine-suitable grapes were yet being grown. A good French wine might have fit the bill - which would make sense, since the Declaration’s author was such a fan of them

But instead, the honour went to the most well-travelled wine of the Age Of Exploration (which is generally defined to be everything from the late 15th Century until the early 18th).

Following the pragmatic example served by Port, cane sugar and sunlight heating were used on the wines of the Portuguese island of Madeira to create a new fortified drink with an alcohol content of 19-21%. Not only could this wine be transported vast distances without spoiling, it could also endure further heating - a boon for exports into the hotter equatorial regions. 

(There are even stories, possibly fanciful ones, that extra heating and the wild rocking of ships during rough passages actually improved the wine even further. This may be an early example of the truth being stretched for marketing purposes.)

It’s also not hard to understand how the wine became so popular for trade when you look at the geography at work. As you’ll discover if you choose Madeira for your LiveAway stay, you’re on the same latitude as Morocco, Algeria and Egypt, with a climate to suit (albeit a fresher, more maritime one). But it’s also a good way out to sea - and the perfect stopping-off point for a ship heading to all points of the compass in Western Africa, Mediterranean Europe and the Americas. 

For the first decades of the newly-minted United States, Madeira remained the nation’s favourite sophisticated drink. On April 13th 1789, George Washington was sworn in as the nation’s first President - and the legendary inaugural celebration was, according to popular accounts, a boozy affair that featured rather too many bottles of Madeira (Washington would remain a fan of it all his life, downing at least a glass a day on average).

A glass a day keeps the British away?

And modern historians now estimate that anything up to 70% of Madeira's entire yearly production during the Colonial era went straight to the American Colonies and the British West Indies, until Prohibition descended and the market went elsewhere.

All this begs the question: why so popular? Was it purely down to its survivability as a practical (and financial) benefit for all involved  - or did everyone really develop a taste for it at the time?

Sip a glass of Madeira next to, say, one of the modern popular American wines like a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and you’ll see what a world of difference there is. Broadly speaking, your Madeira will either be having a drink that’s Dry or Medium Dry, or Sweet or Medium Sweet - but in each case, it tastes like it’s been cooked, with a nutty, fruity, caramel & burnt sugar taste.

 If you’ve tried other fortified wines you’ll know what you’re in for - but Madeira is a little beyond all of them, with a stewed, intensified underlying taste all of its own. For this reason, a “dry” Madeira is probably not going to be like any other dry wine you’ve had. A better name would be “least sweet”.

To complicate things further, the high acidity of all Madeira wines means that something with a “richer” taste might not actually be sweeter at all! (This really is a case of trying before you buy. The labels may be very little help to you.)

Most Madeira produced today is exported all over the world

Alas that by the early 20th Century, the stellar reputation of the island’s signature wine faded with its export trade - until it had acquired the damning monicker “The Forgotten Island Wine,” and the island became better known for the production of cheap cooking wine.

These days there are between five and eight producers of Madeira - but thanks to 80% of their bottled output going abroad (and four-fifths of that hitting Europe), it shouldn’t be too hard to find some in your corner of the West.

As for when to drink it: try a glass of chilled dry Madeira to accompany a starter, and one of the (allegedly) sweeter varieties for an after-dinner dessert-like fare. Or crack open a bottle anytime you’re in the mood to rebel against imperial rule and start your own country! It truly is a drink for all occasions. 

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