Hey, Tea Partiers, this wine's for you!

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Oct. 22 2010 3:17 PM

Hey, Tea Partiers, This Wine's for You!

The patriotic history of Madeira.

Thomas Jefferson. Click image to expand.
Thomas Jefferson

In response to the advent of the Tea Party movement, some people have demanded to know where all these deficit hawks and defenders of the Constitution were during the Bush years. I have a different question: "Where's the Madeira?" If the Tea Partiers wish to evoke the spirit of 1776, it seems to me that alongside the powdered wigs and pantaloons, they ought to be accessorizing themselves with bottles of Madeira, which was a favorite tipple of the Founding Fathers and was supposedly used to toast the Declaration of Independence. Up until the mid-19th century, no alcoholic beverage enjoyed greater cachet among well-to-do Americans than this fortified wine hailing from the Portuguese island of the same name. Today, though, Madeira is an obscurity; most consumers, if they know it at all, know it only as something used for cooking. A wine treasured by Thomas Jefferson is now relegated mainly to saucepans. How did Madeira so completely lose its stature, and what can it do to get it back?

These are questions that have long preoccupied Mannie Berk, who has spent his career championing Madeira and trying to rekindle interest in a wine that was once so integral to the American experience. The 60-year-old Berk is the founder of the The Rare Wine Co., an acclaimed Sonoma-based retailer, wholesaler, and importer. (It is the U.S. agent for Jacques Selosse, the king of grower Champagnes; represents Italian greats Giacomo Conterno and Giuseppe Mascarello; and earlier this year added the fabled Vouvray producer Domaine Huet to its portfolio.) Shotgun marriages are the result of passion overwhelming prudence, and so was Berk's business. In 1988, he paid a chance visit to a wine shop in London that turned out to have an impressive stash of 19th-century Madeiras. A recently minted Madeira enthusiast, he learned that the wines came from a British importer who had many more old bottles to sell. With a friend bankrolling the transaction, Berk took 400 cases off their hands (he swears he was sober at the time). He needed an import license to bring the wines into the United States, and thus was born The Rare Wine Co. Berk then had to create a market for the nearly 5,000 bottles that he had purchased, and he has been proselytizing on Madeira's behalf ever since.

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In this role, he is not merely a salesman; he has also become a historian of Madeira, which happens to be a wine with a fascinating history. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the island of Madeira was a popular port of call for ships traveling to Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Before leaving, the boats were loaded with casks of the local quaffer, which was usually a blend of several grapes: verdelho, sercial, bual, malvasia (also known as malmsey), and terrantez. So that the wines could better withstand the long journeys, it became standard practice to top them up with sugarcane brandy or a grape spirit, a step known as fortification. (Thanks to the added booze, Madeiras are typically between 19 percent and  21 percent alcohol, versus 12 percent to14 percent for table wines.) It turned out, though, that being stored in the warm hulls of ships and bounced around on the waves actually benefited the wines, producing smoother, more refined flavors. For a time, barrels of Madeira were sent out on round-trip journeys solely for the purpose of shaking and baking them. However, most Madeiras were ushered to maturity either by artificially heating the casks or by storing them in warm rooms (the latter method was and remains the preferred means of rearing quality Madeiras). Among its many virtues, Madeira is surely the world's most durable wine, which explains why bottles from the 19th and even 18th centuries are still drinking well.

Amid all this oceangoing, Madeiras found a receptive audience in the American colonies, an enthusiasm that endured through and beyond the Revolutionary War. By the end of the 18th century, the United States was importing roughly a quarter of all the Madeira on the market. Among the affluent, having a Madeira collection was a totem of success and sophistication; according to Berk, banking titan J.P. Morgan had probably the finest Madeira cellar in the world. In cities such as Baltimore, Charleston, and Savannah, the machers of local society frequently hosted Madeira parties. These were generally male-only affairs, during which a small group would gather around a table to taste maybe a half-dozen wines, the evenings invariably ending in a cloud of cigar smoke.

Beginning in the mid-19th century, Madeira producers were hit by a series of calamities that ultimately cost the wines their popularity. First, the island's vineyards were struck by a devastating outbreak of powdery mildew. Next, they were attacked by the phylloxera root louse, which forced growers to tear out huge swathes of vines. As was the case in other regions decimated by phylloxera, many farmers replanted with workhorse grapes, notably tinta negra mole. The natural disasters were followed by a pair of man-made ones: The Russian revolution deprived Madeira of one of its major markets, and Prohibition in the United States cut off another. From almost 200 wineries in 1880, the Madeira industry shrank steadily, and today there are only six houses left (and two of them are currently in the process of merging). A large percentage of the wines exported these days are bulk Madeiras, destined for kitchen pantries. But thanks to stricter regulations and a gradual comeback by traditional grapes such as sercial and bual, there are still high-quality Madeiras being made on the island.

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