Badass Sommelier: Madeira for the 4th

Find out what part this delicious wine played in the American Revolution. 

Today is Independence Day, and for many of us here in the States this means barbecue and fireworks. For some, it means a marathon of thematically appropriate movies (a double bill of Independence Day and Jaws is good, but any excuse to watch Jaws will do). Last year I read Fantastic Four comics until sunset and then went to the beach, which I’m convinced is what Ben Franklin would have done. But whatever you plan to do, you should celebrate the way the founding fathers intended.

By getting stone drunk off Madeira.

The Weird and Kind of Awesome Story of Madeira.

Madeira is Portugal’s other less famous fortified wine. We’ve talked about Port before, and especially about the traditions that developed around it, and like Port, Madeira is a finished wine with a neutral spirit added in order to ensure its longevity. Unlike Port, however, the addition of this neutral spirit wasn’t originally done on purpose, at least not by the wineries.

In the 1600s, the Dutch East India Company dominated the world’s shipping lanes. Their ships made stops in every major port, including those on the Portuguese mainland and on the island of Madeira.

Here, ships would load up on massive 100-gallon barrels (called pipes) of the local wine to take with them to India. But the lengthy voyage was detrimental to the wine, which would spoil quickly. So the legend goes that enterprising sailors, taking their lead from the captain’s supply of Port, would add rum* to the wine in order to stabilize it. And so it went for many years, with the trading company buying pipes from the Madeira winemakers and laying them in the holds of their ships, adding neutral spirit on route to India (or wherever else they were going).

Then a curious thing happened. One shipment, having gone all the way around the world, made it back to Madeira intact. And it tasted better than when it left.

Part of it was the fortifying spirit, which sweetened the wine. But the casks had to be opened in the first place in order to introduce it, and this caused the wine to oxidize slightly. Then there was the fact of the journey itself. These great barrels were constantly being jostled around, so the lees** never got a chance to rest, imparting a distinctly honeyed richness to the wine. Most importantly, the pipes of wine were subjected to the diverse range of climates found on the open sea. And it was the tropical heat that played the biggest role.

Heat causes wine to turn quickly, to “cook” in the bottle or the cask. When this occurs the wine takes on unpleasant flavors of stewed fruits. This is not the case with Madeira.

The heat and slight oxidation brings forth the rich and elegant flavors of the wine. The noble grapes of Madeira (in increasing order of sweetness) are Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malvasia, and they produce wines that, when made traditionally, are rustic and abrasive. The island of Madeira has a hot tropical climate that, while perfect for beachgoers, is less than ideal for grapegrowing.

Frankly, it’s so hot that the wines never develop that all-important balancing acidity and they end up fat and overripe. Here is where Madeira’s winemaking takes great effect.

Besides the fortification, which aids in longevity, exposure to air slightly oxidizes the wine and imparts a nutty, slightly sherried flavor. The casks are then heated through the estufagem process, to replicate the effects of a long hot sea voyage. There are several different ways to heat the casks, but the one that produces the best results is both the simplest and the most time-consuming. The casks are simply left in a warm room to age before bottling for a period of many years, even decades.

Madeira in America.

The mid-1700s saw a golden period for Madeira, with the wine reaching a level of prestige throughout the world not seen before or since. Madeira was especially popular in the American colonies, thanks largely to its ability to not only survive long sea voyages but to actually be improved by them. Famous winos of the era, like Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were particularly fond of this wine. So too was John Hancock.

Hancock was a prominent merchant, and one of his biggest imports was the Madeira that was especially popular in Boston. In 1768 his ship, the HMS Liberty, with a hold full of the wine, docked in Massachusetts. But the ship was seized by the British, which led to riots in the streets of Boston and served as one of the first major steps on the road to revolution.

The lesson here to those seeking an illustrious career in world-domination is, and I cannot stress this enough, do not try and take people’s booze away.

When Hancock put pen to paper and was first to sign the Declaration of Independence, he and his fellow representatives toasted the act of defiance that would give birth to a nation with Madeira from Hancock’s own cellars.

And that, my friends, is why I strongly encourage you to pick up a bottle of Madeira for the 4th.

Well, that and it’s delicious. I wouldn’t be anywhere near this interested in the ritual if the wine tasted like battery acid. But Madeira is nutty and earthy, slightly sweet but never cloying, and refreshing when served chilled. It’s also inexpensive, certainly compared to vintage Port, so it’s absolutely worth picking up at least a Reserve bottle of one of the noble varieties (Blandy’s 5 Year Reserve Malmsey is a particular favorite). But be wary of buying cheap cooking Madeira, which is flavored with salt and pepper and not nearly as palatable.

Chill the Madeira, put together a cheese plate, gather your friends and family, and share a toast as the sun sets. If you time it right you’ll finish the bottle as the fireworks start to fly, and I can’t think of anything more appropriate than that.

*Or what passed for rum, in as much as it was the distilled spirit of fermented cane sugar. These days neutral brandy is used, same as in Port.

**Lees are all of the bits that result from winemaking, the dead yeasts and grapeskin and stems and seeds that clump together at the bottom of the barrel. The process of filtering the lees out is fairly new, and certainly didn’t exist in the 1600s. But wine that rests on the lees for a time before bottling develops a richness and a complexity that filtered wines don’t see. For example, the best Muscadets (crisp white wines from the Loire Valley in France) are going to say Muscadet Sur Lie on the label. These wines will have spent time on the lees and will have a round texture to balance the bracing acidity typical of Muscadet.