Madeira: A Revolutionary Way to Celebrate the Fourth of July

Thomas Jefferson's wine cellar at Monticello. Photo courtesy David Fulmer / flickr

Americans aren’t terribly familiar with Madeira. Too often they view it as a sub-par cooking wine, indestructible if not flavorful, and completely irrelevant to modern wine drinking styles.

But history shows we’ve got it all wrong.

During the eighteenth century, the American colonies were the largest market for Madeira. It was actually used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and Thomas Jefferson had more than 4400 bottles of Madeira in his cellar during his presidency. Though over time Madeira has unfortunately been falling out of favor, its immense sip-ability makes it more than worth a second look.

Named for the autonomous tropical island of the same name four hundred miles off the coast of Morocco, Madeira is a fortified wine with a staggeringly long shelf life and a history that dictated its production process. In the sixteenth century, the Dutch East India Company regularly shipped Madeira wines to India, and the intense heat and constant motion during the sea voyages accelerated the ageing of the wines. Madeira producers discovered that customers preferred this style, and began purposefully placing them on ships and having them return to be sold or exported (hence the label “vinho da roda,” or “round trip wine.”)

Since that method didn’t prove to be logistic or cost effective, winemakers developed the estufagem system to generate the same effect on the island. Even today, basic quality wines are placed in concrete tanks and heated for several months by a heating coil, or aged in casks in a room adjacent to the heating element. The highest quality offerings bask in the sun in casks called canteiros for a year or longer.

Most common are wines from the Tinta Negra Mole or Complexa grapes, labeled according to their level of sweetness: “Dry,” “Medium Dry,” “Medium Sweet,” and “Rich.” Priced accordingly, these bottles tend to lack the complexity of varietal bottles.

Worth seeking out are the four main styles of Madeira produced with the classic grapes. Sercial is the driest, followed by Verdelho, and both are characterized by high-toned almond notes; Boal/Bual is medium-sweet, with raisin flavors; and Malmsley/Malvasia is the most luscious style, with prunes, raisins and even coffee caramel. No matter the flavors or sugar levels, all Madeira shares a searing acidity that makes it remarkably bright and fresh, especially for a fortified wine. Blandy’s and Cossart Gordon remain two top producers.

Appropriate to sip all by itself year round, Madeira also makes a lovely addition to a summer punch. In the Parisiana Punch, it gets a refreshing boost from bubbles and fresh lemon juice. Despite its non-American name, it’s a perfect way to celebrate our American past this Independence Day. Cheers!

Recipe: Parisiana Punch

1 bottle chilled Champagne
1 1/4 cups Madeira (a medium-dry or medium-sweet style, according to taste)
1/2 cup Cognac
1/2 cup sugar
2 lemons, washed and halved
Thin lemon slices, for garnish

Add Madeira, Cognac, sugar and lemons to a large pitcher. Mix until sugar dissolves, and chill for 2 or 3 hours. Add the Champagne, and serve in wine glasses. Garnish with a lemon slice.

Published on June 29, 2010
Topics: Wine History