If wine bottles came with an instruction book, one caveat under Care and Maintenance would be printed in large, underscored, bold type: Do not heat. Then there's Madeira. In the 1600s, ships from the East Indies stopped at Madeira, a small island southwest of Portugal. A volcanic oasis in the trade winds between Europe and America, Madeira was the last stop for ships headed west across the Atlantic. Vessels loaded with wine casks found that their cargo often arrived spoiled because of heat exposure and the turbulence of long voyages. Madeira, however, improved from the abuse, so much so that laws once demanded the wine had to cross the Equator twice before it could be sold. Today, to mimic the tortuous route from wine to wonder, Madeira is fortified with brandy and left in estufas, large outdoor hot rooms, for a minimum of three months at 115 to 120 degrees.
Port gets all the press, but Madeira is what the founding fathers toasted when they signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Growing demand from the Colonies pretty much gave rise to Madeira, and given its historic import and the fact that the United States represented 95 percent of the market before 1920, it's no wonder that international wine importer (and Brit-turned-Richmonder) Bartholomew Broadbent calls Madeira "the most American drink you'll ever drink." But when Prohibition hit, Madeira's dependence upon America meant a knockout punch. Combined with phylloxera (a vine-root-destroying louse) and the Russian Revolution (the Tsarist aristocracy fancied Madeira too), producers were forced to rip out vineyards and replant with bananas or other crops.
Back in the early 15th century, Prince Henry the Navigator sent Capt. João Gonçalves Zarco in search of new lands. Zarco, or "squinter" as he was called, had been wounded in one eye fighting the Moors, though he still had the acuity to recognize a cloud that never moved. Turns out that cloud hovered over Madeira ("island of woods"), a deeply umbrageous and rugged isle barely 40 miles across. To clear the land, Zarco set it ablaze. The fire was said to have burned for seven years, infusing the volcanic soil with potash that later proved ideal for wine growing. A shame, then, that we nearly destroyed the drink with an act of Congress.
In 1987, Broadbent brought out the defibrillator and revived Madeira. At the time, only one restaurant in the country (Masa's in San Francisco) served the drink, he says. "We did a tasting at the Four Seasons Clift Hotel using about 45 Madeiras going back to 1845. About 300 [representatives] of the wine trade attended. Overnight, Madeira was reborn."
Legend has it that Thomas Jefferson sipped Madeira while writing the Declaration at Boston's Green Dragon Tavern. He also enjoyed it at home. Look closely the next time you're on tour at Monticello — that's a bottle of Madeira on the rolling dumbwaiter. As you celebrate TJ's 267th birthday on April 13, hoist a bottle he knew well. If you don't finish it, no sweat: Leave it in your trunk for a decade, upright in the cellar or just open on the table. Everything that can go wrong with the wine already has. Madeira is indestructible.
Its high acidity and dry finish make Madeira much more than a dessert wine. Try pairing it with brothy soups and dishes with balsamic vinegar or citrus elements. Sweeter varieties match Taleggio cheese or Roquefort. It works wonderfully with chocolate, too, as well as nuts and pecan pie. There are four distinct types.
Sercial: a light, pale, nutty, dry aperitif
- Verdelho: medium-dry and smoky
- Bual: medium-sweet and raisiny
- Malmsey: full-bodied, dark and rich
- Colheita: The Portuguese word for vintage; the wine is at least 20 years old.
Where to find it
Expect to spend less than $25 for Broadbent Madeira's 5-year-old reserve (sweet). The price climbs with age. Look for it at J. Emerson (5716 Grove Ave.), River City Cellars (2931 W. Cary St.), Strawberry Street Vineyard (407 Strawberry St.), Lemaire restaurant at The Jefferson Hotel (101 W. Franklin) and Zeus Gallery Café (201 N. Belmont Ave.).