Those wines have a tireless advocate in Berk. When not tending to other business, he travels around the United States holding Madeira tastings for sommeliers, retailers, consumers, and journalists, all part of his quarter-century-long quest to "bring this country back to Madeira," as he puts it. In the late 1990s, he teamed up with a producer called Barbeito to create a line of wines directly linking Madeira to its venerable American past: The Historic Series, as it is called, consists of five Madeiras, each named for an American city with a rich Madeiran heritage. The first of the wines, the Boston Bual Special Reserve and the New York Malmsey Special Reserve, were released in 2002. Berk says sales of the Historic Series Madeiras, which retail for $46.50-$60 a bottle, were steady from the start but have exploded in the last 18 months. He credits the boom to the enthusiasm that restaurants have shown for the wines, and also to the fact that the most recent additions to the roster, the Charleston Sercial Special Reserve, the Savannah Verdelho Special Reserve, and the New Orleans Special Reserve, are made in a drier style. At a time when sweet wines are a tough sell, dryness is a virtue.
When Berk and I got together in New York a few weeks ago, he came with 15 Madeiras, the oldest from 1825. We met up at Alto, a well-regarded Italian restaurant in midtown. Lunch happened to be the hour that worked best for both of us, but he also wanted to demonstrate a point: that Madeiras, though usually drunk as aperitifs or with dessert, can be consumed throughout a meal. What makes them so versatile (and also accounts in part for their remarkable longevity) is the potent acidity, which cuts through the richness and leaves your mouth feeling almost refreshed. And then there is the killer bouquet: Madeiras have some of the most enthralling aromatics of any wines ("there is possibly something of the unlawful about their rapture," gushed the English writer George Saintsbury). Orange peel, brown sugar, nuts, figs, raisins, honey, leather, chocolate, spices—the perfume alone will completely hook you on these wines.
Berk first had me try the Historic Series Madeiras. I particularly liked the Savannah Verdelho, an elegant, gently spicy wine with a pronounced nuttiness and a felicitous rose petal note, and the New York Malmsey, bursting with fig and toffee flavors. This being Madeira, the Historic Series wines can be drunk over the course of many months once the bottles are opened, and true to Berk's word, they paired pretty well with the food. We then tasted a clutch of vintage Madeiras, which by law must spend at least 20 years in cask (the extended barrel aging exposes the wines to oxygen and over time turns them brownish) and can range in price from under $100 a bottle to well north of $1,000. We began with a 1989 D'Oliveira Malvasia, moved on to wines from 1968, 1954, 1922, 1920, and 1903, and finished with a trio from the 19th century: an 1863 Barbeito Bual, an 1834 Barbeito Malvasia, and an 1825 Leacock Seco. Apart from one corked bottle and one wine that seemed crotchety and out of sorts, the vintage Madeiras were sensational (the 1903 D'Oliveira Bual, with its piercing sea-salt aroma and silken texture, was unforgettable, ditto the earthy, ethereally mellow 1834). More than that, they were humbling. Nearly 200 years of history were poured into those nine glasses, touching some significant milestones along the way—the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Wright brothers' first flight (1903), the Gettysburg Address (1863). It seemed small-minded, even vaguely sacrilegious, to be taking tasting notes rather than just, well, contemplating the wines. It occurred to me, too, that the Founding Fathers, in addition to being great visionaries, had impeccable taste in wine, and that if they could observe the current state of American political discourse, they'd probably be hitting the Madeira hard.