In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Madeira was the United States' most coveted wine.
Every public event—from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to George Washington's Inauguration—was toasted with a glass of Madeira. For more than 150 years, no other wine rivaled it in the eyes of connoisseurs.
But after the Civil War, Madeira drifted into obscurity, the victim of a series of natural, political and economic calamities. It was not until the dawn of the 21st century that America once again embraced this enigmatic wine, helped in no small part by The Rare Wine Co.'s creation of its Historic Series.
The goal of these remarkable wines was to introduce a new generation of American wine lovers not only to our shared history with Madeira, but to the wine’s magical quality: its astonishing bouquet, its glorious richness and balance, and its versatility as an aperitif, dessert wine and food wine.
With this in mind, in 1998 we began working with Vinhos Barbeito's owner, Ricardo Freitas, to create a series of Madeiras reflecting the style and complexity that enchanted our forefathers. The Rare Wine Co. had long been known as America’s pre-eminent source of Vintage Madeiras from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries; yet, Ricardo was perfectly positioned to help us. He, too, possessed a remarkable library of old Madeira, but he also had a unique understanding of the qualities we sought. And, for the project, he could contribute wines ranging in age from ten to sixty years, allowing us to produce superbly complex, aged Madeiras at affordable prices.
To emphasize America's deep historical connection to Madeira, each wine in the series is named for a U.S. city where Madeira was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Thus, Charleston Sercial and Savannah Verdelho celebrate the South's love of drier Madeiras, while Boston Bual and New York Malmsey acknowledge the North’s appreciation of sweeter Madeiras.
Each bottle bears an early engraving from that city, along with a back label describing the wine and America's special link to Madeira's illustrious history.
How remarkable are these wines? They have been instrumental in rekindling interest in Madeira in the United States ... after more than a century of neglect. Each wine offers profound complexity, crisp acidity and marvelous richness on the palate. Below, please find links a detailed description of each Historic Series Madeira:
Among the many virtues of Madeira is that it is not subject to temperature variations, so that it can be stored just about anywhere in the home. It also keeps for months, if not years, after opening. Just put a cork or stopper in the bottle, and store it in your wine cellar or even a kitchen cabinet.
Madeira is best served at a cool room temperature in a small to medium-sized glass, ideally with a tall, or tulip-shaped, bowl.
This is the driest wine in the series and a wine that has been served throughout meals in America for nearly 300 years. Chef Mario Batali won over 1000+ guests at the 2009 New York Wine Experience by boldly pairing Charleston Sercial with a wild boar dish of Wolfgang Puck's creation.
Just two weeks later, in the Wall Street Journal, Alice Feiring picked the same Madeira as a wine of choice for chestnut soup, noting that it "is like a salted caramel without its sugar."
But Mario and Alice were not the first to discover Charleston Sercial's charms. In 2005, Grant Achatz, whom many believe is America's most inventive chef, attracted national press for his cutting-edge pairings of Charleston Sercial with dishes at Alinea in Chicago.
Josh Raynolds, International Wine Cellar 92 rating
Released in April 2010, Savannah Verdelho is simply incredible, its bouquet exuding orange zest and buttery shortbread with hints of ginger, milk chocolate, and almonds. Lightly sweet with zesty acidity to keep it fresh, the palate reveals notes of candied citrus, ginger, and spicy honey. The finish sharpens all of the above into a refreshing and palate-cleansing blend of spiciness and citrus sweetness.
Josh Raynolds, International Wine Cellar 93 rating
Sweeter than either Charleston Sercial or Savannah Verdelho, Boston Bual still boasts incredible balance and refreshing acidity. The hallmark of this wine is its otherworldly complexity, featuring cinnamon-clove spiciness with overtones of citrus peel and woodsmoke. There is just enough sweetness to excel as an after-dinner wine, but its long, dry finish also makes it work beautifully with food.
Port and Madeira expert Roy Hersh has written that Boston Bual "emulates some of the finest qualities of vintage Madeira … exhibiting a light amber-tawny color and a nose of dried figs, walnuts, maple syrup, mahogany and a sense of bouillon cube; the mélange of fragrances is complex and compelling. Medium in weight initially, it develops greater heft after a few days open, with a rich and sumptuous mouthfeel."
Josh Raynolds, International Wine Cellar 92 rating
This, the sweetest wine of the Series, finished in the ‘Top 100 wines of 2006’ in The Wine Enthusiast’s end-of-year wrote that it “unfolds slowly in the glass, gradually revealing layers of depth and flavor. Coffee, toffee and date notes emerge, followed by earthy, almost truffley flavors. Powerful and assertive on the long finish.”
New York Malmsey demonstrates why Madeira can be one of the planet's greatest dessert wines. It marries with an astonishing number of desserts, its kaleidoscopic flavors bonding with chocolate, nuts, citrus and dark fruits. But it can also be served during the meal, with foie gras, sweetbreads and almost any dish that has a rich, sweet sauce.
Josh Raynolds, International Wine Cellar 92 rating
This is only the second release of this cuvée and, like the first, it is extremely limited.
The first release was produced in 2007, with the profits from that release benefiting renewal efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans. Like the 2007 blend, the 2010 is a mindblowing Madeira, reminding us of the great and rare Terrantezes of the 18th and 19th centuries. However, this second release could be even more interesting than the first, as it includes a small amount of incredibly rare Malvasia from Faja dos Padres, Madeira's most historically important vineyard. This adds a fudgy, spice cake complexity to the burnt orange and grilled nut character that pervades the wine. Like Savannah, it is lightly sweet, with all the flavors focused by powerfully tangy, juicy acidity.
Josh Raynolds, International Wine Cellar 94 rating
Madeira was once the most prestigious wine in America. And the most prestigious style of Madeira was Rainwater.
Rainwater took its name from its pale color and delicate texture and flavor. Yet, the origins of the style are shrouded in mystery. Some attributed it to a Savannah wine merchant after the Civil War, but that cannot be, as Rainwaters existed at least a half century earlier. Others said Rainwaters were a freak of nature. Noel Cossart credited his own firm with creating Rainwater in the 1700s, after a barrel of wine was left on a beach.
Rainwater Madeira reached the pinnacle of prestige in Baltimore. In 1902, that city's greatest Madeira connoisseur, Douglas H. Thomas, called Rainwater the highest standard. And the absence of Rainwaters in a 1900 New York auction prompted one merchant to speculate that Baltimore connoisseurs thought so highly of them that they bought them all up and none reached New York.
Unfortunately, in the 20th century the name "Rainwater" became bastardized--used to label inexpensive Madeiras that were too sweet and too soft to have anything in common with the great Rainwaters of the past.
I have long wanted to remind America of Rainwater’s pedigree by making a classic example. And from contemporary descriptions, I had a fairly good idea of what it should taste like. But I hoped to find an actual model for my wine. I finally found it in 2008, when I purchased a few bottles of a very rare Rainwater imported into New York City by Robert Benson in the 1820s. Because the wine was put into glass soon after its arrival in the U.S., its taste was essentially frozen in time, giving us a very good idea of what Rainwaters tasted like in the 19th century. I shared samples of this wine with Barbeito winemaker Ricardo Freitas and asked him to model our Baltimore Rainwater on it.
Ricardo started with a base wine that was 80% Verdelho, made up of two lots ranging in age from 8 to 13 years. Young Verdelho was a perfect starting point, not only because of its delicacy and minimal sweetness, but because Verdelho would have been the most common component in the early Rainwaters.
For a greater sense of age and also a bit more body, but without increasing the wine’s sweetness, Ricardo added two different lots of old Tinta Negra Mole. Prior to entering the Baltimore Rainwater blend, each of the components was aged (like all of our wines) by the time-honored Canteiro method.
Baltimore Rainwater is very possibly the first Madeira made along the lines of a classic, 19th century Rainwater in at least a half century. Hopefully it will mark a return to Rainwater as it should be: a Madeira of ethereal body, great finesse, delicate flavors and just a touch of sweetness.
The idea behind our Lee Family Stratford Hall bottling is a Madeira that Harry "Light Horse" Lee, or his son Robert E. Lee, would have drunk in the early 1800s at their Stratford Hall plantation—after a couple decades of aging in cask and bottle in the warm climate of coastal Virginia.
It is essentially a medium dry wine, 60% Verdelho, made up of three vintage-quality lots ranging in age from 7 to 21 years. To this base wine, Barbeito winemaker Ricardo Freitas first added a small amount of 60-year-old Malmsey, and then two very old and very dry Tinta Negra Moles. The Malmsey gave the blend extra complexity and a touch of additional sweetness. The old Tinta Negras imparted enormous depth and richness of color, as well as the acidity to perfectly balance the Malmsey's sweetness.
The result is a remarkably rich, intense Madeira, whose powerful acidity nearly eliminates any sensation of sugar. If I were to compare it a vintage Madeira, it would be like a 60-year-old Verdelho that has spent much of its life in barrel. It is a remarkable Madeira.
The Rare Wine Co. honors America’s earliest wine connoisseur with a Madeira worthy of his passion.
As an American, Thomas Jefferson had no peer in his appreciation of French wines. But that seed wasn’t planted until he was in his forties, by which time he’d been passionate about Madeira for at least 20 years.
Born in 1743, Jefferson came of age at a time when Madeira was the king of wine in America—always present on affluent tables and ready to toast important events.
For years, we’ve wanted to honor Jefferson’s love of Madeira with a commemorative bottling as part of our Historic Series. And in 2012, The Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Monticello agreed to collaborate with us on this project.
After more than a year’s work—perfecting the blend and producing the wine—we launched it with a tasting and lecture at Monticello on October 9, 2013.
Joining us was Ricardo Freitas, who’d masterfully blended the wine, and Monticello’s resident wine historian, Gabriele Rausse.
The wine itself is a spectacular fusion of elegance and depth, and youth and antiquity. The oldest component in the blend is more than 80 years old, a fact that Jefferson would undoubtedly have appreciated.
Like others of his time, Jefferson had his own Madeira preferences. While a student, he fell in love with a “recipe” for a particularly elegant Madeira he’d learned from the wife of his law school mentor.
That recipe called for a blend of one-tenth “superfine Malmsey” with nine-tenths dry Madeira. Jefferson never lost his taste for what he came to call “silky Madeira.”
Decades later, he defined “silky” wines as having the taste of “dry wine dashed with a little sweetness, barely sensible to the palate: the silky Madeira we sometimes get in this country is made so by putting a small quantity of Malmsey into the dry Madeira.”
Our Thomas Jefferson Special Reserve captures the spirit of this elegant style. The blend is sheer genius, with the 10% of Malmsey represented by a Favilla Americans consider any article owned by Thomas Jefferson to be nearly sacred, and this extends to wine.
But since Jefferson’s death in 1826, only a few “Jefferson” Madeiras are known to have surfaced, always bringing high prices at auction.
The earliest sighting of a Madeira supposedly owned by Jefferson belonged to an Alexandria, VA, tavern owner John Gadsby. These were auctioned in 1839, and then subsequently in 1843 and 1845.
In 1852, a demijohn of Thomas Jefferson-owned Madeira was among the prized lots in the famous Josiah Lee sale in Baltimore. These were purchased by the descendants of the Revolutionary hero John Eager Howard and remained in that family for at least another four decades.
And finally, there’s the 1800 "Jefferson" Madeira acquired by the great Baltimore connoisseur Douglas H. Thomas in 1890. In 1896, Thomas gifted a bottle to President Grover Cleveland, as thanks for having “perpetuated Jeffersonian democracy.”
For all of these Madeiras, actual ties to Thomas Jefferson are as yet unproven. But Aaron Nix-Gomez is doing the best original research we've seen on Jefferson and Madeira. Look for an in-depth article soon on his blog, hogsheadwine.com. Our thanks to Aaron for his help with our own research.
Vieira Malvasia believed to be at least 80 years old. For the first release, fewer than 100 cases were made, of which about one-third were set aside for Monticello.
As President, Jefferson ordered (in barrel) the equivalent of more than 3500 bottles of Madeira for the White House cellar over the first three years of his presidency.
These were supplied by Thomas Newton of Norfolk, Virginia. Newton recommended them to Jefferson as “Brasil Quality … superior to any other.”
Jefferson loved the Brasil Madeira, reordering it on a regular basis. But on one occasion Newton was able to supply only “good” rather than “superior” quality as the latter was already spoken for.
So, Jefferson took Newton up on his offer of a yearly allocation of the “superior” shipped directly from the island. And when in France in the 1780s—as the American minister—Jefferson asked that his Madeira be shipped via the U.S. rather than risk getting Madeira of questionable quality on the Continent.
Jefferson was not only the foremost American wine enthusiast of his time, he was also its savviest.
The Thomas Jefferson Special Reserve is a fitting tribute to a towering American, both as statesman and wine connoisseur. We are pleased and honored to be able to offer it.
RWC Honored our Fourth President on the 200th Anniversary of the British Burning of the American Capitol
Two hundred years ago this year, towards the end of the War of 1812, British troops burned the U.S. Capitol, as well as the President’s House, then occupied by President James Madison. The afternoon of August 24, 1814, the President’s table had been set for the afternoon meal, with a cooler of Madison’s best Madeira. On his website, hogsheadwine.com, Aaron Nix-Gomez recounts that day:
“After setting fire to the Capitol (the British troops) marched down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the White House or President’s House as it was known then. The last guards of the President’s House fled just minutes before the British arrived. The British entered the house without resistance to find the President’s dining room table set for a meal with a ‘large store of super-excellent Madeira and other costly wines’ cooling on ice.
“It was evening and the men were surely tired and hungry. One officer found that ‘never was nectar more grateful to the palates of the gods, than the crystal goblet of Madeira and water.’ After being satisfied by the wines the British forces set the President’s House on fire. The house burned to a shell ….
“Between consumption and the burning of the wine cellar only one demijohn of ‘pure wine’ is known to have survived that night. News of the loss reached James Leander Cathcart, an American consul in Madeira who shipped wine to James Madison. Upon returning to Washington, DC, James Leander Cathcart brought a fresh supply of wine ‘upon a supposition that your stock was burn’t by the Goths.’”
Earlier this year, with the event’s 200th anniversary approaching, we collaborated with Montpelier, Madison’s home, to recreate a Madeira that might have been on the President’s table that day.
Mr. Madison’s Madeira joins other Rare Wine Co. bottlings named for our Founding Fathers--including wines dedicated to Ben Franklin,Thomas Jefferson and the Lee Family of Virginia. All have been made in support of not-for-profit foundations that preserve the honorees’ legacies.
Only 450 liters of Mr. Madison’s Madeira were produced, most of which was earmarked for Montpelier and commemorative events held this fall. But we were sure to set aside a few cases for our own clients.
Madison had been devoted to Madeira since his youth in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and he stocked the Presidential cellar with the finest vintages. He drank Bordeaux and other French wines, but he remained
devoted to Madeira as a central part of his life.
He ordered the finest Madeiras to his specifications and then aged them in casks for no less than five years. This was followed by further aging in bottle in a warm place, such as his attic at Montpelier.
In early 1809, Madison purchased a barrel of seven year-old Malmsey from the U.S. Consul Cathcart.
“Mr. Madison’s Madeira” recreates that wine in grape variety, age and taste. It is primarily 2006 Malmsey, with a small amount of very old Tinta Negra to replicate the effects of the ocean voyage to America. To add a further touch of authenticity, each bottle is sealed with wax and a recreation of an original James Madison bottle seal.
As with all of the Madeiras in our Historic Series, this wine was blended for us by Ricardo Freitas, and produced by Vinhos Barbeito, from selected stocks of wine aged by the time-honored canteiro method.
Our thanks to Montpelier and to Aaron Nix-Gomez for their assistance in this project. You can learn more about James Madison at www.montpelier.org.
A Fabulous Madeira Honoring Franklin
None of the Founding Fathers had a more lasting influence on America than Benjamin Franklin. Largely unschooled, he became one of the 18th century’s towering figures, as printer and journalist; philosopher, scientist and inventor; public servant and diplomat, and leader of the American Revolution. And like other Americans of his time, he loved Madeira.
Last year, in conjunction with Philadelphia's Christ Church, where Franklin is buried, we set about to create a Madeira in Franklin's memory—and to financially support the ongoing restoration of the church and burying ground.
Just 45 cases of Benjamin Franklin Special Reserve were made, and in March, the Madeira was launched at a dinner of rare Madeiras at Philly's Fork Restaurant. Impressively, Ben's wine held its own against Madeiras more than 150 years old.
Most of Ben’s Madeira was set aside for the Philadelphia market—where it is now essentially sold out—but we held back a few cases for this newsletter offering, just in time for Thanksgiving.
The wine itself is rich, powerful and long, with Bual predominating in the blend. The components have an average age of more than 20 years—all aged in barrel by the classic
canteiro method. Yet, thanks to the masterful blending of Barbeito's brilliant Ricardo Freitas, the finished wine has the size and richness of a half-century-old Bual.
Even in Franklin's day, Bual was rare and prized, and this is a wine he would have loved.
Of the many stories about Franklin and Madeira, the most famous is one he wrote himself. Believing that science could one day resurrect the dead, he wished he could be laid to rest in a barrel of Madeira:
"... having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence, I should prefer to any ordinary death, being immersed in a cask of Madeira wine, with a few friends, till that time, to be then recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country!"
He also figured in Madeira's development, recommending in Poor Richard's Almanack in 1743 that wines like Madeira be fortified with brandy. Within a decade, the addition of a bucket of brandy to each cask of Madeira became a common practice among merchants.
In his autobiography, Franklin credited Madeira with helping defend Philadelphia during the French and Indian War. In search of a battery of cannon to protect the city, and having exhausted other resources, he asked New York’s Colonial Governor Clinton for the cannon, but was initially refused.
However, “at a Dinner with his Council where there was great Drinking of Madeira Wine ... (Clinton) soften’d by degrees, and said he would lend us Six. After a few more Bumpers he advanc’d to Ten. And at length he very goodnaturedly conceded Eighteen. They were fine Cannon, 18 pounders, with their Carriages, which we soon transported and mounted on our Battery ...”
The Benjamin Franklin Special Reserve is a fitting tribute to a great American and a great Madeira lover— yet we must limit purchases to two bottles per customer. If you happen to be among the lucky buyers, try to get yours before Thanksgiving. It will be ambrosial with pumpkin or pecan pie.