Madeira is the wine that the forefathers drank more than any other. The price and the tax for the wines of France, Porto from Portugal and Sherry from Spain was sky high. Ever the cost-cutters, it was time to find some different options. There was this little island named Madeira, far out in the Atlantic, west of the Straight of Gibraltar and is today property of Portugal, that was more than willing to send them their fortified wine on the cheap. America gobbled it up.
At first, long before that, Madeira's wines were like any other. The island was an important stop for sailors and they'd load up with the local wine there. Then eventually the wine was fortified with spirits to slow down spoilage on long journeys. At some point somebody left a barrel out in the sun for too long and noticed that when exposed to heat the fortified wines of Madeira got even better. The style became standard and Madeira became, basically, a slow-baked fortified wine. Back in the day they would just put it in hot sheds and warehouses for years until it was ready. Today this is used for the high-end stuff. The most common way of aging Madeira is a bit more modern. They put the completed, fortified wine in a stainless steel or concrete tank, then they heat it with coils that have hot water running through them. That'll take about three months and it's good to go.
The grapes used are planted by elevation on the island's mountain. Sercial is planted half way up, Verdelho below that, Bual and Malvasia towards the bottom and even near the coast, and Tinta Negra Mole mixed in on every tier. Traditionally Sercial was used for dry Madeira, Verdelho for medium-dry, Bual and Malvasia for sweet, and Tinta Negra Mole as a blender. But eventually this became a sweetness indicator, so the bottle might be labeled Sercial because it was dry but it could be mostly Bual and Tinta Negra Mole. When the EU put its wine laws into place it brought those shenanigans to a screeching halt because of its label restrictions on listing varietals. If a bottle is labeled as Sercial it has to be 85% Sercial at the very least, a percentage that's rarely met in Madeira, so now you're seeing lots of made-up names to refer to blends. Rainwater is a non-specific blend but it's been around since the 1700's. It's light in color and body, pretty mild, and mostly found in the USA.
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Thomas Jefferson was America's first wine collector and connoisseur. He had everything from crazy expensive Sauternes to first growth Bordeaux, but his everyday drinker was Madeira. John Adams wrote to his wife about how awesome the Madeira was that he was drinking in Continental Congress. Benjamin Franklin wrote about it in his autobiography. One of John Hancock's boats, the Liberty, was stocked with over 3,000 gallons of Madeira when it was seized by the British. The streets of Boston became a riot scene over that one, and it was one of the major deciding events that lead the colonies to revolution.
But most importantly: Madeira was actually the wine that these men chose to use for the toast of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
You should toast with it too, for this one night of the year, to honor those badass dudes that created our country. Happy birthday, America! :)
- Joey Casco, CSW