In honor of Independence Day, I decided to be patriotic and review the wine our Founding Fathers drank to toast the Declaration of Independence way back in July of 1776. It’s a wine that used to be everywhere in Colonial America, but is a bit harder to find these days. I had to go to a specific wine shop to find it, and they only had one bottle, which I bought, and tasted for you last night.
It’s Madeira, a fortified wine you probably have never tried before. Until last night, I had never had it, either. Now that I have, I can see why George Washington had it with his dinner every night! Before my review, some history.
Madeira is actually one of a group of islands off the coast of Portugal, which were colonized back in 1419, and began exporting wine from there shortly thereafter. Much like Port, another Portuguese export, Madeira was fortified with Brandy to survive the long journey overseas in large casks. Without fortification, the wine would have been vinegar by the time it reached the American coast! But something else happened to the barrels which gave Madeira its unique taste: they literally cooked the wine inside as the ships traveled through the hot and humid Caribbean, tossing and turning in the 100 degree heat. Normally, this would ruin a wine, but the combination of grapes and brandy used instead gave Madeira a rich, nutty character which the Founding Fathers were wild about.
Much has been made about the Boston Tea Party, with our colonial brethren acting out against unfair taxation, specifically on tea and coffee; but the tax on Madeira really made the colonists angry. John Hancock himself was furious when British soldiers demanded duties (taxes) on his shipment of 3000 gallons of Madeira when it reached port in Boston. He refused to pay, British soldiers seized his boat and its contents, and Boston rioted.
So Madeira, just like tea, is identified with the struggle for American freedom so much so that Thomas Jefferson called for a toast to the Declaration of Independence with Madeira. The Constitution was toasted with it, Francis Scott Key sipped it as he composed “The Star Spangled Banner,” even Betsy Ross, it is said, sipped from a glass of Madeira while sewing the American flag.
After the Revolution, Madeira continued to be an American favorite, right up until Prohibition, when it completely disappeared. After Prohibition, it wasn’t seen in the U.S. again until 1988, and it’s been a slow climb back on restaurant wine lists ever since.
OK, enough history! How the heck does it taste?
The Madeira I tasted last night is called Rainwater, made in a medium-dry style, by Leacock’s Madeira Wine Company, which was established in 1700. (It very well could have been one of the companies from which John Hancock purchased his infamous shipment back in 1776!)
What struck me about this particular wine was how light it tasted, despite it being nearly 18% alcohol. Unlike some of the other fortified wines I have tried – Sherry and Port, for example – this Madeira was almost airy. It looks reddish gold in the glass, and I tasted mostly orange at first, which was interesting to me. As it warmed up, there were buttery apricot and melon flavors, and a nutty finish of walnut. Maderia is unlike anything I have ever tasted: not syrupy sweet or viscous, which is what I expected, just a really interesting, tasty wine, at a reasonable price.
You can find this particular Madeira locally for around $18, but not everywhere. Try a dedicated wine store and see what you can find.
On my five-cork scale based on taste and value, Leacock’s Rainwater Madeira gets 3.75 corks. If you have never had Madeira before, this would be a decent place to start, and this week would be especially appropriate, if you want to be truly patriotic.
If you’d like to try interesting wines like this, please join me at our next private wine party at Walt’s Hitching Post, 3300 Madison Pike, Fort Wright, KY! I host a wine dinner there every month, and we feature several interesting wines, each paired with a delicious course. There are always cool prizes to win, too, so listen Wednesday at 4:15 to win your spot on the guest list, or click here for a chance to win!