America's First Wine:
Madeira & the Fourth of July
July 2, 2009 by Mannie Berk
With the Fourth of July just two days away, most of us have already figured out what we’ll be drinking or are deep in thought on the subject.
I suspect that for most of us, it will be business as usual, drinking the wines that we most love to drink, while others may be thinking more thematically. But for all of us, I hope that there's room for an important addition, Madeira.
Apart from the fact that Madeira is living history, it has a unique connection to July 4, 1776: it was undoubtedly used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence. You've probably heard this anecdote before, stated as unassailable fact. But if there's any record of what the Signers drank that day, we haven't seen it. In fact, if Madeira was drunk that day (as it almost certainly was), it was because, in 1776, that's what Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Ben Franklin and John Hancock drank. While they may have learned later to love Champagne, Claret, Burgundy and Sauternes, in 1776 they drank Madeira.
Not everyone could afford to drink Madeira. In 1776, it was on the verge of becoming the English-speaking world's most expensive and exclusive wine. From Britain to its farthest-flung colonies in America and the Far East, Madeira was seen as the wine of wealth and discernment, and if you could afford to drink it, you did.
Connoisseurs developed special relationships with the producers, ordering Madeira by the barrel, often to exacting standards. Madeiras that had first been to the East or West Indies were particularly coveted, and the longer they stayed the more valuable they became. Some of Christie's most successful early auctions were of the Madeiras of sea captains who'd just returned from the Indies with their prized wines.
But there was a special affinity between Americans and Madeira. Because of special tax and legal treatment, Madeira was established in the early 1700s as the wine of the North American Colonies, and by 1776 we identified ourselves as Madeira drinkers. It was our wine.
An anecdote that is documented relates to the 1803 dinner in New Orleans that celebrated the ratification of the Louisiana Purchase by France, Spain and the U.S. When the usual series of toasts came around, the ministers of each country were honored in series by being toasted with their country's wine: France with Champagne, Spain with Malaga and the United States with Madeira.
Madeira deserves a special place in this (and every other) Fourth of July celebration. For a rare journey back in time, a number of great Madeiras have survived from the 19th century (and even a few from the late 18th century), allowing us to make not only an emotional, but a physical, connection to the past. But for a more affordable way to relive America's love affair with Madeira, have a glass of one of our Historic Series Madeiras-Boston Bual, New York Malmsey or Charleston Sercial-named for cities that had a particular passion for America's First Wine.