On a 1950 visit to Madeira, Sir Winston Churchill was honored by the island's British community with a dinner party. As a special tribute, his hosts opened a rare 1792 vintage Madeira bottled in 1840.
When served in 1950, the wine was 158 years old, but in fine condition, still boasting Madeira’s trademark rich, sweet, velvety taste and roomfilling aromas of butterscotch, cocoa and coffee. Sir Winston insisted on serving the guests himself, asking each in turn, “Do you realize that when this wine was vintaged Marie Antoinette was alive?”
Madeira’s longevity earns it a special place in the realm of old wine. What other wine requires over a half century to mature? And what other wine, when a century old, still benefits from several hours of breathing and can stand up to weeks in a decanter, without losing its complexity or its richness? And how many wines can live for two centuries and still offer not only the pleasure of their antiquity, but also the enjoyment of drinking?
Madeira’s Mountain Vineyards
Madeira is produced on a breathtakingly beautiful volcanic island of the same name which surges from the sea at a point 360 miles west of Morocco and 700 miles south of Portugal, which governs it. The history of Madeira’s wine is nearly as old as that of the island. The island was first settled by Europeans—led by the Portuguese explorer Zarco—in 1419. By 1455 a visitor from Venice wrote that Madeira’s vineyards were the world's most beautiful. Within a century, the wine from these vineyards was well established in markets throughout Europe and by the 1600’s it had become the most popular wine in Britain’s North American colonies.
America’s First Wine
The popularity of Madeira in the American colonies got a huge boost in 1665 when the British authorities banned the importation of products made or grown in Europe, unless shipped on British vessels from British ports. Products from Madeira were specifically exempted. British merchants in Madeira took full advantage of this by establishing close ties with merchants in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston and Savannah. A steady trade developed in which wine from Madeira was traded for such American products as indigo, corn and cotton. This trade continued unabated until the early 1800’s, except when politics and war interfered in the 1770’s.
For two centuries, Madeira was the wine of choice for most affluent Americans. Francis Scott Keyes is said to have penned the Star Spangled Banner, sipping from a glass of Madeira. George Washington's inauguration was toasted with Madeira, as was the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Wealthy families from Boston to Savannah established extensive collections of Madeiras. Madeira became high fashion, and“Madeira parties” (a forerunner of today’s wine tasting) became major social events.
How Madeira is Made
This heating (called “estufagem”) had its origins in the days when merchant ships called at Madeira on their way to the East and West Indies. Beginning in the late 1600's, wines from Madeira's vineyards were frequent cargo on ships sailing to the Americas, as well as to mainland Portugal, England and India. According to legend, the value of a trip to the tropics was learned when an orphan cask, forgotten in a ship's hold, returned to Madeira from a trip across the Equator. The wine was found to be rich and velvety, far better than when it left, and a tropical cruise became part of the Madeira winemaking tradition.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, producers continued to send casks of their wines on long voyages, for no other reason than to develop greater character. The ocean traveling wines were called vina da roda (“wines of the round voyage”) and those that crossed the Equator twice were considered the best. Some Madeiras were named for the vessels with which they sailed (Constitution, Balthazar, Red jacket, Hurricane, Comet) or the places they had been (East Indies, West Indies, Japan, Argentina). Although this practice ended in the first decade of the 20th century, heating is still a critical step in the making of all Madeiras.
A Century of Change
While the majority of Madeiras are blends of vintages and grape varieties, it is the vintage wines, and the now-vanishing soleras that are Madeira’s claim to greatness. Vintage and solera Madeiras are not simply a selection of the best wines from the best years, they are made from particular “noble” grape varieties after which the wines are named. These names—Malmsey, Bual, Verdelho, Sercial—not only describe a grape variety; they also describe a style, with Malmsey being the sweetest and richest (and therefore the most like Vintage Port) and Sercial being the lightest and the driest.
There are other grape varieties whose names you may stumble across on old bottles of Madeira. Terrantez and Bastardo, in particular, are grapes that were widely grown up to the late 1800's and whose old wines can still be found on occasion. The virtual extinction of Terrantez and Bastardo grapevines in the late 1800's coincided with the decline of the Madeira wine trade and resulted from the same causes: two diseases of the vine, Oidium and Phylloxera, both of which also struck the vineyards of Europe, but in Madeira caused much greater, and more lasting, destruction.
The Oidium crisis began in 1852 and lasted about a decade; during this time some 90 percent of the island's vines were destroyed by powdery mildew, and the number of firms producing wine decreased by over 75 percent. There was a brief period of replanting and rebuilding in the 1860's, but then Phylloxera struck in 1872, reducing the island's vine acreage to about 1,000 by the early 1880’s.
The Phylloxera crisis, too, passed, and by the turn of the century production had been restored throughout the island, albeit at somewhat lower levels. But the costs had been heavy. Madeira had largely lost its traditional markets—America, England and the British East Indian colonies. Relatively less of the classic grape varieties were now grown, as they gave way to more prolific, but less distinguished, varieties. And, of course, stocks of older wines had been largely depleted, after a half century during which little young wine was being produced.
Today, the world's supply of fine Madeira is negligible. However, those few examples that have survived from the 19th and early 20th centuries are among the world's most majestic wines, which no wine lover should fail to experience.
Over the past twenty years, our passion for these noble wines has grown with each passing month. We believe that they are among the greatest, most individual wines this planet has ever produced. They possess a richness and grandeur shared by only a few wines.
And their ability to age makes them absolutely unique. Most wines are dead and gone at age 100; and at best they are barely drinkable. But after a century, a Madeira can be just reaching its prime, possessing the depth of great age, but also the vigor of youth.
The gradual depletion of the world’s stocks of these irreplaceable wines has only encouraged us to try harder to find the wines that remain.
A Note on Prices and Quality
As they have grown in rarity, and the sources of supply diminish, the price of Madeira on the world market has skyrocketed. Though many of the older wines arguably are worth whatever you may be asked to pay, the rising tide—combined with Madeira’s mystique—has also raised the prices of mediocrities to the levels of the greats.
We are proud of the role we have played in sorting through which are the truly classic Madeiras, and in preserving their availability and keeping them affordable.