Reviving and Imbibing Madeira
By Emily Storrow | Illustrations by Sharon Lacey
Ask any Southerner about the spirits that have soaked our soil, and a few answers will undoubtedly emerge: rum, whiskey, bourbon, moonshine. It’s doubtful you’d hear Madeira, a fortified wine that hails from a Portuguese island of the same name, some 360 miles off the coast of Morocco. But Madeira oft quenched the thirst of our Southern forebears, and these days, it’s making its way back on wine lists and cocktails menus.
America was practically built on the stuff. It was a favorite of the Founding Fathers; George Washington allegedly drank a pint each day. The Declaration of Independence was toasted with Madeira, and Betsy Ross even sipped it while sewing the American flag, so says Bartholomew Broadbent, a Richmond-based wine importer. Madeira rose in popularity and became the darling of Southern planters, who built elaborate collections and entertaining customs around it. Then, in the mid- 1800s, it vanished. And it didn’t come back until now—some century and a half later.
Like a boozy survival of the fittest, Madeira didn’t merely last the transatlantic voyage; it got better along the way
Madeira possesses a distinctive character it owes to a unique production process: the wine is spiked with brandy (to about 19 percent alcohol content) and exposed to excessive heat and movement—methods intrinsically tied to the long, tumultuous voyages that once carried Madeira from the island to ports across the ocean.
The Portuguese planted grapevines on the island upon discovering it in the fifteenth century. Initially, Madeira (like its cousins, port and sherry) was exported as an unfortified table wine. But by the second half of the eighteenth century, the wine was being bolstered with brandy and matured on a voyage to the East Indies and back. Temperatures in the hulls of ships reached upwards of 100 degrees, which, along with agitation of the passage, transformed Madeira. Barrels of it were placed on ships bound for the New World, where the wine developed even more. Like a boozy survival of the fittest, Madeira didn’t merely last the transatlantic voyage; it got better along the way.
Madeira was a hit in the colonies, where efforts to grow wine-quality grapes had consistently failed (though over the years Thomas Jefferson would give it a valiant effort). As the colonists’ discontent with England increased, so did Madeira’s popularity. Trade policies from the crown required all European goods bound for the colonies be carried on British ships, which were heavily taxed in England before making the trip. Though a Portuguese island, Madeira is geographically in Africa, and was treated as an exception to the trade restriction. “Madeira became the first American tax loophole,” Broadbent says. Imbibing was practically an expression of patriotism. Additional global events like the Napoleonic Wars, which disrupted French wine exports, further fortified its stronghold in the New World.
The Southern port cities of Charleston, New Orleans, and Savannah were especially enamored with Madeira. With its varying levels of sweetness and dry, brisk finish, it was refreshing in the sub-tropic heat, and temperatures that would destroy most wines made Madeira even tastier. “In Charleston, they actually built wine attics above the houses,” says Southern food and beverage historian Robert Moss. The wine was virtually indestructible.
DARLING OF THE ELITE
While Madeira spanned social classes as the drink of choice in the colonial South, it became the beverage of the elite as the nineteenth century advanced. With America free from British trade restrictions, wine imports from France and Spain were becoming more available, and thus more affordable for the masses. Madeira was embraced as the darling of the Southern gentry class, especially rice planters of the Lowcountry. “It became the badge of wealth,” Moss says. “Buying fine wine was part of living the elite life and being able to show off what you’ve got.”
Entire social clubs and customs formed around the beverage. Madeira was drunk before, during, and after meals, and the practice of offering company a spread of wines was considered common courtesy for a proper Southern host. It was essential to use the appropriate glassware (small, so the contents would be savored) and serving techniques (each bottle should be better than the last) while guests were expected to know how to imbibe. Madeira, Moss says, was the birth of wine connoisseurship in America.
And, there were the Madeira parties: gatherings during which Southern gentlemen would come together after dinner (around 3 pm) to enjoy half a dozen or more bottles, carefully tasting and commenting on them for an hour or longer. As Moss puts it, “The practice of the elite in Charleston and elsewhere was to have everyone over, lock the door, and drink until everyone was under the table.”
“Madeira became the first American tax loophole,” Broadbent says. Imbibing was practically an expression of patriotism.
THE END OF AN ERA
Just as it had reached its rollicking prime, disaster fell on Madeira in 1851 when odium, a mildew-like fungus (likely brought over on American ships), attacked the island’s vines, effectively wiping out two-thirds of the grapes over the course of three years. Farmers in Madeira plowed over their ailing vineyards and planted other crops.
A different kind of disaster soon fell on the South, when the Civil War began in 1861. Antebellum plantation families had developed extensive collections of Madeira, but when the conflict reached their doorsteps, troves that weren’t carefully hidden were often destroyed or stolen, Moss says. “After the war, the Madeira stock [that survived] was the last remaining wealth from the antebellum era,” he says. Desperate for capital, many Southern planters sold their collections to the new industrialists of the northeast, “effectively selling off their legacy,” Moss adds.
On the heels of the Civil War and Reconstruction came Prohibition, the final and lasting blow to Madeira’s relationship with the South. The island’s Madeira production, already crippled, was seemingly doomed with the loss of the American market—in the wine’s heyday, the US comprised some 95 percent of its market.
By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Madeira had fallen out of fashion. Over time, collectors bought up older bottles that remained on the island, but trade to America had dried up. Madeira was gone. It became a distant memory, a footnote on the pages of Southern history.
Fortunately for us, the story doesn’t end there. In 1989, the Symington family of Portugal, investors in the Madeira Wine Company, asked Broadbent to reintroduce Madeira to the States. “They asked me whether I thought we could sell Madeira in America, and I said, ‘Well yes, of course,’” he says. “And for ten years, all I did was sell Madeira to ports in America.” Nearly thirty years later, Madeira is making a comeback, especially in the great restaurant cities of the South—and perhaps nowhere more so than in Charleston, a city where history is ever-present.
“You can’t talk about Madeira without talking about the history,” says Brandon Plyler of Edmund’s Oast. The high-brow brew pub keeps a stiff Olde Thyme Punch with bourbon, rum, Madeira, lemon shrub, nutmeg, and thyme on draft. Mike Lata’s FIG and Sean Brock’s Husk and McCrady’s have all figured prominently in Madeira’s Holy City revival, with the fortified wine gracing wine lists and blended in cocktails at the restaurants. And nearby, Peninsula Grill and Charleston Grill offer Madeira flights for a thorough taste of the fortified wine.
Now’s the time to pick up a bottle of Madeira, the idiosyncratic original wine of the South. Sit back, start sipping, and enjoy the taste of history.