LOS ANGELES, Dec. 18 -- Madeira wine -- like Portugal's other great "fortified" (alcohol added) wine, Port -- is an old winter holiday tradition. Just as Port added to Christmas jollity in Dickensian England, Madeira lightened many a dark winter day in Jeffersonian America.
In 1768, five years before the Boston Tea Party, Bostonians staged a dress rehearsal over a new tax on Madeira. Outraged that Parliament's 1764 Sugar Act had imposed the first tariff on the wine, Bostonians rioted on the docks to provide cover for John Hancock to smuggle Madeira ashore untaxed.
In 1776, the signers of the Declaration of Independence toasted each other with what Americans called "the drink of patriots."
Due to Madeira wine's extraordinary resilience, a lucky few connoisseurs can actually drink history. For example, a Las Vegas casino owner recently paid $22,000 for a bottle of 1800 vintage Madeira once owned by President Thomas Jefferson. According to restaurateur Glenn Roberts of Charleston, S.C., a founding member of the philanthropic Madeira Society, Jefferson was the new nation's leading Madeira expert north of the Carolinas.
Unlike more fragile wines, Madeira just keeps getting better century after century.
The Madeira Society recently drank an 1802 vintage, from the year Napoleon briefly visited this Portuguese island four hundred miles west of Morocco.
"While the 1802 was very good," Roberts remarked, "The 1795 was fabulous, the best wine I ever drank." Even 17th Century Madeiras remain drinkable. A bottle from 1682 was recently judged by experts from the Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses to be 'fresh, clean, lively and well-balanced."
There are no American Madeiras. "Like champagne, Madeira denotes not grapes, but dirt," said Roberts, who works for a company that owns neo-traditionalist Southern Coastal restaurants, including the historic Olde Pink House of Savannah, Georgia. "If the winemaker stays out of the way, the soil will come through in the wine," he added.
And the soil of Madeira is as unique as its history. In 1418, Admiral Zarco reported to Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator his discovery of a 35-mile long mountainous island so swathed in forests that he named it "Madeira," the Portuguese word for "wood."
The Prince, the prime instigator of Europe's Age of Discovery, ordered the uninhabited island colonized immediately. To make farming possible, the first settlers lit a fire that burned for seven years. This inferno reduced the entire semi-tropical rain forest into an ash that enriched the volcanic soil.
The steep slopes of the now semi-arid island then had to be laboriously terraced and irrigated. Brilliant Jesuit priests turned Madeira into a center for scientific agriculture.
The Jesuits soon began adding neutral alcohol to Madeira wine to help it survive the long, hot voyage to their tropical colonies of East Timor in the East Indies and Goa, in India. The priests then noticed something odd. The heat and the rocking and rolling on the ocean, which would ruin other wines, only made Madeira taste better.
Madeira's connection to American history began about 300 years ago. During its conflicts with France's King Louis XIV, England banned French wines from its American and Caribbean colonies. To ease the drought, London allowed tax-free wine imports from Madeira, the colony of England's ancient ally, Portugal. Madeira first caught on on Barbados. When rich Barbadian planters settled South Carolina, they brought their taste for Madeira with them.
Soon, the taste for Madeira spread outward, from the Southern Atlantic states to the elites of other American ports. Still, elegant and hedonistic Southeastern lowland cities, such as Charleston and Savannah, remained the center of what modern enthusiasts such as Roberts call "Madeiran culture."
Jim Williams, the main character in John Berendt's bestseller "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story," claimed, "Drinking Madeira is a great Savannah ritual, you know. It's a celebration of failure, actually. The British sent whole shiploads of grapevines over from Madeira in the eighteenth century in hopes of turning Georgia into a wine-producing colony. Savannah's on the same latitude as Madeira. Well, the vines died, but Savannah never lost its taste for Madeira."
Beginning around 1750, the Madeira party became a daily ritual. At 5 p.m., following dinner, eight men sat at a table and passed at least six different kinds of Madeira around in a clockwise fashion, while smoking cigars. (Madeira is the only wine whose connoisseurs endorse smoking during tastings). The goal was not just to get sloshed. Roberts noted, "These were real, honest, analytical wine tastings that we'd recognize today. They had their roots in the Jesuit winemakers' tastings on Madeira Island."
Women were never invited to Madeira Parties, but they tippled with other ladies. These sessions often began at 10 a.m. The society dames would often smoke pipes with their wine.
Madeira, a powerful wine, was drunk primarily in the winter, following the harvest. New shipments seldom arrived until the early autumn hurricane season was over. In the coastal South, Madeira was an essential part of Christmas celebrations and "the Rice Dinner." This was the tidewater version of New England's Thanksgiving dinner.
Rich Americans paid to have their bottles of Madeira shipped all the way to the Indian Ocean and back to properly improve the taste. Not surprisingly, both the producers in Madeira and the consumers in America soon began experimenting with artificially agitating and heating the wine so the detour could be skipped. The Habersham family, who built the Olde Pink House in Savannah in 1771, stored their Madeira in a solarium and used giant magnifying glasses to heat it.
Our leading citizens' thirst for Madeira was so huge that the small island's capacity became strained. "Alas, there is not enough Madeira to service the need," lamented Jefferson. Then, in the mid-19th century, back-to-back blights destroyed most of Madeira's wine industry. America turned toward French wines. "There are still phenomenal wines being made on the island," observed Roberts, "But up until the last five years, they were obscure."
After 1850, the Madeira Party lapsed into disuse, until the Madeira Club of Savannah revived it following World War II. Recent years have seen a growth in appreciation of the most refined elements of Southern Coastal culture, as exemplified by the huge sales of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."
Today, according to Roberts, "the Madeira Society encourages the preservation of diversity, both cultural and genetic." Besides encouraging Madeira connoisseurship, it aids in the upkeep of Jefferson's Monticello and other landmark houses.
Thus, after a long dry spell, the future of Madeiran Culture looks as impressive as its past.