Madeira: The Original Patriotic Wine

The Birth of Old Glory, Percy Moran, 1917

If the American Revolution had a sponsor, it would have been Madeira. Just look at this resume:

  • Betsy Ross sipped Madeira while sewing the American Flag.
  • Madeira was used to toast the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
  • A few days before the official signing of the US Constitution in 1787, the Founding Fathers partied (rather ambitiously) at City Tavern in Philadelphia. There were 55 people present, and they drank 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of Claret, 22 bottles of Porter, 12 bottles of beer, 8 bottles of cider, and 7 bowls of “punch”. It’s a wonder any of them could sign their names to the Constitution the next morning.
  • George Washington drank 3-5 glasses of Madeira each night before retiring. Something about soothing his chronic tooth pain.
  • During his first year as President, Thomas Jefferson ordered 3,500 bottles of Madeira.
  • And later, Francis Scott Key drank Madeira while composing the Star Spangled Banner.

Wildly popular during America’s formative years, Madeira is a wine like no other. It’s made on the Portuguese island of Madeira (978 km south of Portugal, and about 700 km west of the African coast). Madeira is a fortified, maderized (intentionally heated), and oxidized wine. It’s one of the most age-worthy wines on the planet, and it’s virtually indestructible.

It’s also delicious.

So, how did Madeira become the toast of colonial America? Geography and politics.

Early commerce to the Americas relied on the trade winds — the prevailing easterly winds that circle the Earth near the equator. The trade winds pass the island of Madeira, creating a natural stopping point for ships heading west.

Madeira’s wine industry was well-established by the end of the 16th century. However, these early wines tended to spoil on transatlantic journeys, so often a spirit (brandy) was added to make them more stable. Once these wines were fortified, it was discovered that the casks of wine, loaded onto ships headed west, ended up tasting better after traveling across the tropics, at high temperatures, for months at a time. It seems totally illogical to take a barrel of wine, let it bake in hot, humid conditions for months, and then open it to discover . . . delicious. But that’s basically what happened.

Is King Charles wearing drapery?

Remember, there was no American wine industry during the American Revolution. We were totally dependent wine imports from Britain. If you wanted to drink Bordeaux or Champagne, you could, but you’d have to pay a hefty tax, which made wine only accessible to the wealthy. And, because of a super annoying set of rules called the Navigation Laws, goods coming into the colonies could only come via British ships, and they had to originate in British ports of call.  But, when British King Charles II married a Portuguese Princess back in 1661, Madeira was allowed to sell its wine directly to any British colonies.  Hello, loophole!

Madeira became the wine of choice in the American colonies . . . and the colonists were crazy for the stuff. It was considered patriotic to drink Madeira — it was delicious, and you avoided paying taxes to the Crown. And, because it was already heated and oxidized, a summer sitting on the shelf in the hot, humid American south wouldn’t ruin it the way it would Bordeaux or Champagne. By the end of the 18th century, the colonies were buying up a quarter of all wine produced in Madeira.

Madeira was having a moment. But then . . . a series of really unfortunate events.

In 1851, oidium (a powdery mildew fungus) arrived on the island. By 1854, yields had fallen by 90%. The American Civil War really did a number on Madeira, closing the market completely in the American south. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 diverted shipping routes away from Madeira, further shrinking the market. Phylloxera arrived on the island in 1872 and destroyed vines left and right. And, just when things couldn’t get worse — Prohibition in America closed Madeira’s most historic and important market altogether.

How is Madeira made?

Madeira is an expensive wine to make. The remote, volcanic island forms the top of a giant mountain range under the Atlantic Ocean. It’s extremely humid — the subtropical heat and high rainfall present numerous viticultural challenges, particularly fungal diseases, which thrive in this environment.  Grapes are grown on the tops of the mountains, at altitudes of 600 to 1,300 feet. The sheer cliff faces are extremely difficult to cultivate, so an intricate system of terraces was built centuries ago to mitigate. Grapes are tended and harvested by hand because you can’t get machines up there. And then there’s the leste, an intense heat wave that blows in off the Sahara dessert, raising temperatures to more than 100 degrees F for weeks on end.

It’s a wonder they didn’t rip out the vines in favor of bananas and call it a day.

There are basically two methods in use today to achieve the unique maderized (heated) quality of Madeira:

  1. Estufagem: Sending wine back and forth across the tropics was sort of impractical, so by the 1900s, many producers turned to the estufagem method, which is a stainless steel tank with heated pipes running through it. The wine is deliberately heated to 120°F (50°C) for about three months. It’s much faster and cheaper than the traditional canteiro method (see #2). Today, most inexpensive, large-scale production Madeira is made using the estufa method, and almost all estufa wines are made from the Tinta Negra Mole grape.
  2. Cantiero: The finest Madeiras (only about 3% of output) are heated naturally, using the canteiro method. Wines are placed in the rafters of the Madeira lodges, and sit in the hot sun for years, usually 20ish, but sometimes up to a century. Then they are allowed to rest (sometimes for a year or more), and then put into casks (mostly oak) for more aging, sometimes another 20 years. So conceivably, a really great Madeira could be 40-50 years old before it’s even sold.

Styles of Madeira

The Rare Wine Company Historic Series

The overwhelming majority of Madeira is made with Tinta Negra Mole, a highly versatile grape, capable of producing wine across all levels of sweetness. But the very best Madeiras are made from one of four white grapes — Sercial, Verdelho, Boal, and Malmsey. The hallmark of Madeira is its searing, high acidity, across all levels of sweetness, which can be inferred by the name of the grape on the label. If there’s no grape name on the label, you can bet the farm it’s made from Tinta Negra Mole.

Sercial (the driest style — Extra Dry to Dry)
Pale amber in color. Tangy, almost salty flavors of almond, hazelnut, honey, almonds, and hay. Serve as an aperitif, or with seafood dishes.

Verdelho (medium dry style — Semi-Dry)
Amberish in color. Fuller bodied than Serial, with bitter orange, apricot, mango, cashew, and caramel flavors. Serve as an aperitif, with cream dishes, or pates.

Boal (semi-sweet)
Deep amber in color. Very concentrated and rich, full body. Orange, apricot, golden raisin, fig, date, walnuts, pecan, toffee, coffee, burnt sugar. Serve with lighter desserts, hard cheeses.

Malvasia/Malmsey (the richest, sweetest style)
Deep brown in color. Full, creamy body. Very rich flavors. Orange, golden raisin, fig, prune, date, roasted nuts, coffee, burnt sugar, caramel, molasses. Serve with rich desserts.

Rainwater — a light, off-dry style, bottled before it is five years old. Rainwater Madeira was very popular in the 19th century American south, and takes its name from wine that was supposedly diluted by rain during shipment to America. 

At the time of the American Revolution, there were two dozen producers making Madeira. Today, there are just eight. Madeira continues to face significant challenges. Many vineyards are giving way to real estate development, or other, more profitable forms of agriculture (like bananas). And families that have been in business for decades are finding the current generation has little to no interest in continuing with this challenging business.

So, if you’re looking for an authentic patriotic beverage to toast on 4th of July, look to the original patriot . . . Madeira.

Where to buy a good bottle of Madeira? The Rare Wine Company (based in Sonoma, California), makes a series of historical wines based on the top Madeiras that were once sold in Boston, New York, Savannah, and New Orleans. Locally, MacArthur Beverages in DC has a fantastic selection. And, they ship!



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