Robert Allston was always heard to exclaim to his thrifty wife, Adele, when she lectured him on cutting short the Christmas Madeira: “But you know, Mrs. Allston, it wouldn’t be Christmas without Madeira.” Squire Robert knew that the larder wasn’t as full this year owing to a smaller rice yield, but diminished Madeira and the absence of ruddy cheeks occasioned thereby would not be his fault during these most joyous days of a country winter. “No skimping the Madeira, my dear,” he insisted with a smile as honest and reassuring as Father Christmas’ own, for it was tall, dignified English Father Christmas and not the short, fat Dutch Santa Claus who paid them visits. As the Allston lads said, “Who’d trust a man who sneaked down a chimney and didn’t knock at the front door!”
By the Allstons’ day, the preference for Madeira, a fortified wine made on a Portuguese island off the coast of Morocco since the 15th century, had long been a custom. In Colonial times, planters even acquired it by trading Carolina Gold rice. Planters like Allston would conclude that today the land has fallen under the shadow of Puritan miserliness and far below the cultural poverty line, for it was Madeira, not tea — sweet, iced, or otherwise — not coffee, never bourbon, not even the venerable mint julep, that was always the signature necessary drink of patrician Carolina.
The historical record substantiates the fact. In Carolina letters, diaries, and memoirs, Madeira is ever-present. Up until the 1860s, Madeira at the daily table, both throughout the meal and after, was as familiar as rice and actually took a fourth spot in the time-honored plantation trinity of M’s: meat, meal, and molasses.
It may be significant that Madeira started going out when Santa Claus started coming down the chimney. Squire Robert always suspected that the secretive Dutch elf was a milk-drinking teetotaler, and being such, was not to be fully trusted. Honest Father Christmas, like any Carolina gentleman, would look one straight in the eye and share the family bowl.
Madeira, like Father Christmas, originated from Carolina’s English heritage. Elizabethan England must have drunk its share of Madeira. Shakespeare’s villains dispatch their royal rivals by drowning them in casks of Malmsey. An aged Malmsey Madeira is indeed a royal thing. Was Shakespeare also hinting that too much Madeira might prove a death sentence? Fortified as it is with brandy, it cannot be sold in South Carolina wine stores without a liquor license.
Madeira was also the popular choice for gentlemen when they wanted to relax and discuss the events of the day. Charleston author William Gilmore Simms noted how he, Henry Timrod, Paul Hayne, and others at the Charleston Courier office always talked poetry over their walnuts and Madeira, followed with a Cuban “long nine” cigar — that is, an imported choice Cuban cigar 9 inches long.
Perhaps the best record of a Carolina planter’s purchase, storage, and use of Madeira happens to be in the papers of our Squire Robert Allston. His letters were edited by J.H. Easterby in 1945. Squire Robert’s main notations about Madeira spanned the period between 1830 and 1851, before Madeira’s grapes were infected by mildew in 1851 and before Allston became very busy as governor in 1856. His 20 years of carefully detailed descriptions of all matters concerning Madeira constitute a veritable documentary on the subject.
Allston ordered Madeira through several Charleston importers. The orders were usually for a half or quarter-pipe. A pipe is a wooden cask holding 126 gallons or 504 quarts. After the wine came to the plantation, Allston kept it for a year or two before decanting it from May to July into bottles containing about a quart each.
Allston’s ledger entitled “Contents of the Wine Room” records a spectacular collection of Madeira enumerated by year of purchase, wine merchant, date of bottling, and cost. His first listing is for 96 bottles of “good” and “superior” Madeira given him before 1830 by Mrs. B. Huger. Allston’s reference is intriguing because Benjamin Huger was of the same family whose progenitor, Gen. Isaac Huger (1743-1797), grew on his Wateree plantation the original Madeira and native grape cross brought to Columbia and later known as Herbemont’s Madeira. French born Nicholas Laurent Michel Herbemont had so much success growing this grape and others in the Midlands that in 1822 he proposed ending the slave system and making central South Carolina a wine growing region. His proposal two years later for the state to abandon its cotton culture and instead sponsor large scale grape cultivation failed by a single vote in the S.C. Senate committee. His wines were later declared by The American Farmer as the finest American wines ever produced.
Allston’s next entry is the purchase in 1831 of a quarter-pipe of “10-year-old Madeira.” It yielded 250 bottles at around $10 per bottle in today’s currency — an excellent price then or now.
In 1835, he purchased two lots — a quarter-pipe of “Tinta Madeira,” presumably made from the Tinta Negra grape — at $22 per bottle, and a quarter-pipe of “Burgundy Madeira” yielding 127 bottles at $16 each. Both these lots were kept a year and decanted in 1836.
In 1836, Allston purchased his most expensive Madeira, a cask of a quarter-pipe of “rich, Reserve 1817” shared by his rice planter neighbor Joshua Ward and yielding Allston 72 quart bottles at about $150 each. By this time, Allston was becoming quite knowledgeable about quality and sought out the better vintages. In 1837, he and three other Carolina planters went together and bought a full-pipe of “fine nutty Madeira” at about $40 per bottle. The other three men were then-current South Carolina Gov. Pierce Butler, Wade Hampton II, and Joshua Ward. Governor Butler was recognized in Mitchell’s The Wine Party as one of the world’s leading experts on Madeira, so Allston was in good company.
In 1838, Allston bought one-quarter pipe of “old Sercial” yielding 132 quart bottles at $26 each. He noted that the wine was “old as reputed, but I think ’fined.” In 1842, his half-pipe of “Leacock Madeira” was kept until May 1844. Allston elaborated that the “cask was exposed to the weather and turned every day or two for two years until bottled.” It yielded 252 bottles at $25 each. The bottles were then “stored in [the] Attic.” In 1845, he imported another half-pipe of “Leacock’s” that yielded 244 bottles when decanted in July of the following year. They were again “stored in the Attic.” Allston noted: “In [the] Cask it has been 6 months exposed to Sun and weather and agitated occasionally.”
Allston’s elaborations about aging in the sun, “agitating” or turning the casks every day or two, then storing bottles in the heat of an attic might at first be perplexing. The history of Madeira in the South explains the mystery. When the Island of Madeira first exported what Europeans considered an inferior wine to the Colonial South, the Colonials soon found the wine superior. The explanation was that in the sea voyage to Carolina, the jostling of the casks and the passage of the ships through the tropics changed the wine. Heat, unlike the usual cool of a wine cellar, was Madeira’s friend. This explains why at least nine houses in downtown Charleston today have “wine closets” in the attic, not a cellar.
South Carolinians on the Grand Tour of Europe quickly realized that back home their Madeira was better than the best sorts they drank in the Old World. Queen Victoria relished the Carolina Madeira to such a degree that she had an English consul in Charleston whose express duty was to ship Charleston Madeira for the royal table. So popular in the South was Madeira that in some years of good vintage, the planters from the Lowcountry purchased through their wine merchants in Charleston the island’s entire production of wine. Allston’s notes on the handling and attic storage of Madeira are thus significant new additions to the history of the wine.
In 1847, Allston’s quarter-pipe of “Mansinilla” was decanted into 144 bottles and stored in the attic of the plantation schoolhouse, possibly under a tin roof. In 1849, a quarter-pipe of unnamed Madeira yielding 130 bottles was again “stored in Attic” along with 170 bottles of “Tinta Madeira.” Allston’s last entry was for 161 bottles of “Leacock’s” bought from A. M. Allen’s estate sale in 1856.
The date 1851 is significant, for in that year mildew was destroying the vines on Madeira. Allston’s importations cease accordingly. His 1856 purchase from an estate proves his continued interest, but this and trading were about the only ways Madeira could be acquired post-1851. The values rose accordingly. Allston then notes purchases of pale, “bronze,” and golden sherries, Amontillado, ten cases of clarets, 24 bottles of an 1805 brandy, and 120 gallons of choice “brandy Larronde.” These were all stored properly in the basement.
Allston’s wine list from 1830 to 1851 shows the acquisition of a minimum of 3,340 quart bottles of Madeira. The number was not exceptional among wealthy planters. Thomas Jefferson’s Madeira for everyday table and entertaining amounted to an annual expenditure of around $40,000 in today’s currency.
Squire Robert told his daughter Elizabeth Allston Pringle that in hard times old Madeira would prove better than currency. In her Chronicles of Chicora, Elizabeth recounts that before his death in 1864, “Papa had once said that Madeira might prove the most saleable of items after the war.” She describes the way she hid “the old madeira” of which we “still had a good deal” in 1865. They packed it in straw in the large wooden box their piano had come in, and that was repurposed as a grain bin. This they buried in the road and ran wagons over it to obscure the raw earth, for the pillaging soldiers had learned to dig up any freshly turned dirt, even new graves in cemeteries in search for valuables. She also hid other choice bottles under the attic flooring.
Madeira that survived the war occasioned comment. When Governor Allston’s youngest son, Charley, visited his uncle on East Bay Street in Charleston, he commented on how like old times it seemed when he was served a fine old Madeira that his uncle had saved from looters.
Governor Allston’s advice to Elizabeth about the value of Madeira after the war proved correct. The Charleston Jockey Club also successfully hid its extensive collection of 2,000 bottles. Its gradual sale northward saved many a family from want. In 1917, cultural historian Julian Street wrote in American Adventures, “The Jockey Club’s old Sherries, Ports, and Madeiras went to New York where they were purchased by Delmonico — among them a Calderon de la Barca Madeira of 1848.” Street noted further that Delmonico’s Restaurant “still has a few bottles of Charleston’s Calderon 1851.” Charleston Madeira also surfaced at New York’s Astor House and President Chester Arthur’s White House in 1881.
Street paid Charleston the highest compliment in his account of his American tour. He wrote: “Charleston is unqualifiedly the aristocratic capitol of the United States.” As a primary criterion for his judgment, he cited Madeira. Charleston, he declared, is “the last remaining American city in which Madeira and Port and noblesse oblige are fully and widely understood, and are employed according to the best traditions.”
In South Carolina today, the times are looking more auspicious for those who love Madeira, for its quiet revival is underway. Recent Madeira garden parties have been hosted at several country houses in Newberry and Greenwood counties. Charleston restaurants are offering a wide variety by the bottle or glass. In 2014 Madeira was made the official drink of both the Euphradian Society at USC and the Pomaria Society. The St. John’s Hunt Club serves it at head table, while the rank and file drink port — a very good one, by the way. St. John’s continues the tradition described by William Gilmore Simms in 1846 as an obligatory long-standing custom at all the hunt club gatherings.
One may once again envision Squire Robert at his Christmas hearth toasting friends and saying to his good wife, “Merry Christmas, and have some Madeira, my dear.”