Fine Madeira wine is rich in flavor, with history and tradition swirling in every glass. In the 18th century, the distinctive Portuguese beverage was the premier wine imported into the Thirteen Colonies. By 1800, it became the most expensive wine of the day. Madeira’s air of gentility helped make it a favorite beverage of the Founding Fathers and well-to-do colonists. South Carolinians held the wine in high esteem, particularly in Charleston — the self-designated capital of Madeira consumption.
A Wine for the Ages
Old vintage Madeira is said to be practically immortal. It’s still possible to taste Madeira produced when the Founding Fathers lived — but for a price! The Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C. owns one of the largest and oldest Madeira collections in the country, with some bottles dating back to the historic 1790 vintage. That’s one year after George Washington gave his first inaugural speech. Madeira authority Manny Burk, of The Rare Wine Company, says, “Most wines are dead and gone at age 100 … a Madeira can be just reaching its prime, possessing the depth of great age and the vigor of youth.”
The flourishing Madeira trade peaked mid 19th century but was devastated when Oidium, a powdery mildew, attacked the vines in 1851. Phylloxera louse finished them off in 1872. A solution advanced by the Blandy and Leacock families was to replant the land with disease-resistant American vines and the hearty Tinta Negra grape. The red grape’s chameleon abilities mimicked the old grapes, and it adapted well. Import of Madeira into America was further diminished by Civil War Naval blockades and Prohibition, although historian Walter Edgar writes the latter was a big failure in South Carolina, and Charleston remained “wringing, sopping, dripping wet.”
Madeira wine — all but forgotten except for those interested in its connoisseurship — is undergoing a renaissance. Sommeliers, innovative chefs and mixologists are writing a new chapter in its history. This is especially evident in Charleston, where a nostalgic, parallel revival of traditional Southern cuisine is taking place.
Wine producer Bartholomew Broadbent says Madeira’s dry finish prevents it from clashing with sweetness in desserts, and its versatility allows it to be paired with savory foods too. “Madeira’s extremely high searing acidity isn’t killed by citrus or balsamic vinegar,” he explains. “What’s not to like about Madeira!” While experiencing its range of perfumed aromas and flavors like honey, orange blossom, vanilla, apricot, old leather, figs and spice, it’s quite easy to become enchanted.
The Noble Grape
The four white Noble grapes of Madeira are: Sercial (dry and light); Verdelho (medium dry); Bual (medium sweet); and Malvasia Cândida —Anglicized to Malmsey (the richest, sweetest style). Malmsey is from Crete and is the original grape to be grown on Madeira. The Noble Terrantez grape is rare, and the Bastardo grape nearly extinct.
Aging determines Madeira’s quality. Madeira is labeled by Noble grape and aged in wood casks five years (reserve), 10 years (special reserve) or 15 years (extra reserve). Rare vintage Madeira of a single year is made in small quantities, and spends 20 to 100 years in casks. Generic wine is aged three years. Lower quality wines are sold without age designation.
Recently designated as Noble, Tinta Negra is still not as prestigious but it is a workhorse used in complementary blends with other wines. If one of the coveted white grape varietals is listed on a label, the wine must contain a minimum 85 percent of that grape, and the rest will be made up with Tinta Negra. These wines can provide an exceptional taste experience.
A popular new style is Colheita or “harvest” wine. It is produced from a single grape variety and aged in wood less than 20 years. Rainwater Madeira, a light medium-dry wine, is a soft style Verdelho, aged three years. Produced from a blend, it was well regarded in early America. One theory of origin is that wooden casks of wine were heavily soaked with rainwater when left on the beach awaiting shipment to Savannah. The water thus diluted the wine.
Navigating the Wine World
The story of Madeira wine is as rich and enduring as its robust, special flavor, stretching back to the Age of Exploration on the eponymous Ilha da Madeira (“island of wood”). Situated in the Madeiran Archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean, the island belongs to Africa geographically but has been a Portuguese province since 1425.
Madeira is the peak of a large underwater volcano, astonishingly beautiful with mist-shrouded mountains, luxuriant vegetation and waterfalls. German naturalist Georg Forster called it “a fairy garden” on a scientific voyage with Captain James Cook. Records show vineyards and wine exports were established late in the 15th century. Wine is the commodity that put these islands on the world map.
Because of its location along the Gulf Stream and trade winds, Madeira was a strategic port for European ships traveling to Africa and the Americas. The export-driven wine economy that developed by the early 17th century benefited from close political ties between Portugal and England.
Charles II issued The Staple Act in 1663, forbidding export of most European goods to the American colonists unless they arrived on British ships from British ports — with duties and shipping costs. Madeira wine was an exception and when demand skyrocketed in the colonies, British shippers led the booming trade.
Turning up the Heat
In the 16th century, Madeira was a simple, cheap table wine that didn’t travel well. It was fortified with neutral spirits in the 1700s to add stability and prevent spoilage during seafaring voyages. The colonists often complained wine had arrived acidic, so producers added a “bucket or two” of brandy to each export pipe. Note: Pipe is the old name for 95 gallon barrels that wealthy patrons purchased when they preferred to bottle their own wine.
Brandy is now the spirit of choice and added midpoint in the fermentation process, elevating alcohol to 20 percent. Fermentation stops, leaving behind some unfermented natural grape sugar. For drier wines, brandy is added after full fermentation consumes the sugar.
Wine casks were used as ballast in the cargo holds of trading ships. Lengthy transatlantic voyages through the steamy tropics accelerated the wine’s maturation process. Exposure to excessive heat, evaporation and sloshing around in a pitching, rolling ship transformed the rustic spirits into a smooth, amber beverage with rich concentrated flavors and caramelized overtones. The best wines crossed the equator twice and were often named after ships they traveled on, or ports visited along the way. The traveling wines were known as the “vines of the round voyage.”
The fortuitous discovery of adding heat was a turning point in the refinement of Madeira. In experiments to recreate “cooked” wine, winemakers crafted a shortcut called estufagem. New wine was placed in storage tanks (estufa), with a pipe system of heated water to slowly raise the temperature to 120 degrees F (50 degrees C) for about three months, depending on the producer.
The traditional Canteiro system is a gentler heating method that produces finer quality Madeira with complex layering of flavors and aromas. Wooden casks of wine are baked in the hot, south-facing lofts of Madeira’s wine lodges from 20 to 100 years. The Madeira Wine Institute heats casks of wine in a specially designed steam room for as long as the process takes. These methods are still in use, giving Madeira longevity that seems eternal.
“America’s Wine” — Its Historic Roots
The United States developed a close association with Madeira wine in the 18th century. Founding Fathers Ben Franklin and John Adams regularly enjoyed a convivial sip. Adams remarked that a few glasses of Madeira could make anyone capable of being president! Thomas Jefferson was fond of French wines, but he stocked far more Madeira.
It wasn’t tea that started the Boston riot in 1768, when British customs officials seized John Hancock’s sloop Liberty on suspicion of illegally importing Madeira. Efforts to prosecute Hancock failed.
As Francis Scott Key sipped Madeira, he penned The Star Spangled Banner. Madeira joined the celebration at the signing of the Declaration of Independence and at George Washington’s inauguration. In 1852, Commodore Mathew G. Perry stopped at Madeira island during his Japan expedition to purchase wine for President Filmore’s cabinet.
The Carolina Connection
In the 1720s, Madeiran ships regularly sailed for “Carolina” where Charleston was a major entrepôt. After the Revolutionary War, Madeira producers still believed trade with America was superior to any other place. From 1789 to 1791, 46 percent of wine imported into South Carolina was Madeira. Carolina Gold rice was traded for Madeira until Portugal imposed a heavy duty on rice not grown in its own possession.
Wine merchants developed companies in the plantation regions of the Lowcountry. Business was built on personal relationships — beginning with family, kinship and acquaintances. Doing business “the Madeira way” meant engaging consumers in all aspects of the wine trade.
Madeira was commonplace in the 18th century South Carolina diet. Decanters were placed on the sideboard daily, and the wine was consumed like water. It was thought to be healthier than water, a restorative and an aid to digestion. A glass of Madeira could make the world a better place!
Wine producers adjusted their formulas to please customer’s tastes. Since South Carolinians served Madeira throughout the meal, they preferred a slightly dryer wine, as “white-as-water” pale and moderately fortified. Historical correspondence between producers and patrons reveal in-depth discussions on the wine’s fortification, smoothness, body, flavor, and color.
Charleston — A Wine Culture Uncorked
A wine culture developed in the Lowcountry, with male-only Madeira parties given in the spirit of modern wine tastings. When Daniel Webster visited Major Pierce Butler in Charleston, he drank several of his best bottles. Butler, a signer of the Constitution, was a recognized Madeira authority, and his expertise is mentioned in Silas Mitchel’s entertaining book, The Madeira Party.
Through extant records of planters and other wealthy Madeira enthusiasts, we know many established cellars with valuable old Madeira collections survived the Civil War by being hidden, buried, or transported elsewhere for safekeeping.
The elite Charleston Jockey Club feared an attack from the Union Army in 1863, so they buried an extensive Madeira collection in the basement of the brick and stone Insane Asylum in Columbia. The wine was regularly served during club balls. In 1865, General William T. Sherman’s troops bypassed Charleston to burn Columbia. Fortunately, the hospital, patients, and wine were spared. Charleston resident Henry Gourdin then recovered the wine a few years later. He was the Jockey Club’s vice president and owner of the largest Madeira import company in Charleston. A large amount was shipped to an English buyer, who promptly disposed of it through an American sale. The returned wine was in bad shape from mishandling, but the new owners were able to restore it to some of its former glory.
In 1890, Dr. Gabriel E. Manigault wrote in his memoir about a hidden Madeira cache his father, Charles, defiantly smuggled into Charleston 50 years earlier. Only 300 of the original 2,000 bottles were located after the Civil War. To raise cash, the family sold numerous bottles for $5 each. Some of it was from the Jockey Club’s famous 1838 Belvidera vintage stash (of the HMS Belvidera). Several demijohns turned up at the Astor House Hotel and Delmonico’s in New York City and at the White House in President Chester Arthur’s possession (1881).
A 1901 Pennsylvania newspaper article tells about the “pangs of unhappiness” afflicting Charleston’s “aristocratic people” over the disappearance of their fine old Madeira. “Much of the Jockey Club Madeira, older than the century, is being guarded as a priceless heritage.” Indeed, the fine wines of Colonial Charleston were so famous that the British Council regularly shipped Madeira to England for the Queen’s table.
According to Debbie Marlowe, owner of The Wine Shop of Charleston, there are nine historic Charleston houses with unique attic wine closets for Madeira storage. Debbie explains, “It fared better there than in a cool cellar. Heat is the enemy of regular wine, but it couldn’t hurt the fortified ‘cooked’ Madeira. Subtropical heat and the slight movement of the house were considered beneficial.” Stockpiles of the old Jockey Club and Belvedere wines reposed in many of these attic wine closets.
Madeira Wine Tips
Madeira’s revival has encouraged new food/wine pairings. Madeira matches up with many contemporary foods including Asian dishes, roast duck and shrimp and grits. Try a Sercial or Verdelho aperitif with herb-roasted Marcona almonds, olives, Cheddar, fresh goat cheese or with grilled fish, tuna sashimi or pasta. Bual compliments tarte tatin, crème brulee and curry. Malmsey complements fruitcake, spice and pound cakes, trifle, chocolate desserts and boiled peanuts. Pair Sercial with chestnut, onion and butternut squash soups or savory grilled steak.
Don’t confuse Madeira with seasoned cooking wine. (Toss out the cooking wine!) Never cook with wine you wouldn’t drink. Avoid cheap domestic Madeira. Try a three-to-five year old wine like Sandeman Rainwater or Fine Rich, or a five-year-old reserve Madeira. You can use Madeira in place of Marsala.
An easy, affordable way to taste premium Madeira is by the glass from fine restaurants. Some offer tasting programs with half glasses at half price.
Five-year-old wines can be nice, but to experience the complexity and depth of fine aged Madeira, try a 10 to 15 year old wine made with Noble grapes and aged in wood.
For the best aroma and flavor, serve Madeira at room temperature. Never add ice. You can store bottles standing up. Very old Madeira needs decanting 24 hours ahead.
Eighteenth century Madeira was served in small heavy crystal glasses and cordial glasses. Specialized Madeira glasses appeared around 1875 in England and America. Substitute a fortified wine glass meant for port or sherry or a cognac glass. A small-to-medium tulip-shape or bowl-shape glass will allow room to swirl the wine.
Domestic Madeira doesn’t conform to European Union (EU), Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) regulations. Flavors don’t compare with imported wines but a few independent winemakers have been creating excellent Madeira-style wines.
Top Madeira Wine Producers
The Rare Wine Company
Founder Manny Berk teamed up with Barbeito and created The Historic Series to educate a new generation of Americans on fine Madeira. He has conducted educational wine tastings in Charleston. Each wine in The Historic Series is named for a U.S. city where Madeira was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Priced around $50, the wines reflect the style and complexity of great vintage Madeira. They are produced in small lots and may contain parcels of old wines exceeding 30 years old.
The Historic Series
Charleston Sercial Special Reserve
Savannah Verdelho Special Reserve
Boston Bual Special Reserve
New York Malmsey Special Reserve
New Orleans Special Reserve
Baltimore Rainwater Special Reserve
Lee Family Special Reserve
Award-winning, family-owned business since 1946 with all Canteiro wines aged in French Oak.
The Madeira Wine Company Lda.
Superior Madeira with original brands like Blandy’s, Miles, Cossart Gordon & Co Ltd. and Leacock’s — a mid 18th century company started by John Leacock and John Patient, a “Charles Town” South Carolina resident.
Henriques & Henriques
This is the largest independent producer dating back to 1850. The company relies on estate vineyards, rather than purchased fruit.
Dating back to 1820, this is one of the oldest family-run Madeira producers. Stock includes very old Madeira and young vintages.
Broadbent Selections, Inc.
A top Madeira and port producer. Bartholomew Broadbent is responsible for the re-introduction of Madeira to America in 1989 and is one of the “fifty most influential people in the wine world.”
House of Sandeman
Founded in London by Scotsman George Sandeman in the 19th century. Family-owned with strong Portuguese ties. Fine Madeira, port, sherry and brandy.
Buy Madeira Locally
Madeira supplies are limited in Columbia but several companies carried excellent Madeira.
Morganelli’s Party Store
3155 Forest Drive
Columbia, SC 29204
Sandeman Fine Rich
Blandy’s Maderia Sercial (5 years old)
Blandy’s Malmsey (5 years old)
Total Wine And More
275 Harbison Blvd.
Columbia, SC 29212
Sandeman Fine Rich
4012 Fernandina Road
400 Assembly Street
Sandeman Rainwater Madeira
The Wine Shop of Charleston
3 Lockwood Drive, Charleston, SC
Owner Debbie Marlowe has an extensive, 25-year background in the world of wine. A Madeira connoisseur, she sells several fine, affordable Madeira wines including The Historic Series from the Rare Wine Company. Old vintage wines also available.
Orange-Pecan Madeira Cake Recipe
By: Susan Fuller Slack, CCP
A slice of plain Madeira cake, accompanied by a glass of Madeira wine, served as a light morning repast in some 18th-century British households. Over time, the cake migrated to the tea table, as it did in the American colonies. The Madeira cake was a simple sponge cake, or what Americans know as a pound cake. Madeira was never added to the cake, but offered on the side. This citrusy version calls for a small amount of Madeira to macerate the raisins for flavor. A glass of Madeira can also be accompanied by a slice of your favorite pound cake, fruitcake or dense applesauce cake.
1/3 cup golden raisins
2 tablespoons Malmsey (sweet) Madeira
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1-1/2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla or almond extract
Grated zest (outer rind) of 1 small orange
1/2 cup fresh–squeezed orange juice or milk
1/4 cup toasted, chopped pecans or almonds
Soak raisins in Madeira at least 1 hour. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt; set aside. Butter a large loaf pan; dust with extra flour. In a large bowl with a mixer, cream butter and sugar 3 to 4 minutes, until creamy. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add vanilla, orange zest and orange juice. On low speed, beat in half the flour mixture then add the rest, mixing until blended. By hand, stir in pecans and raisins until incorporated. Scrape batter into pan; bake 45 minutes OR until cake tests done. Brush warm Glaze over hot cake, then cool. Remove from pan.
Heat 1/3 cup honey heated with 1 to 2 tablespoons Madeira or orange juice.