Madeira is famous for two things - cake and wine. Oh yes, and if you’re a football fan, Cristiano Ronaldo! He grew up here as did the fortified wine business.
While Ronaldo’s talent was God-given and natural, the unique flavour of Madeira Wine was a bit of a fluke. Legend has it that sailors, keen to take a few barrels of table wine with them on their Atlantic voyages found it prone to spoiling. Brandy was added to try and stop it going off and somehow an unopened cask of this blend arrived back in Madeira. On sampling, much to the delight of the merchants, it was discovered that the heat of the ship’s hold coupled with the constant rolling had vastly improved the wine’s flavour.
The process was further refined by adding distilled alcohol made from cane sugar to boost the alcohol content. But rather than send it on a round trip to the Tropics, they stored the wine in Funchal's lofty attics and let the Madeiran sun do the rest. You can learn all about the making of Madeira Wine as well as sample a vintage or two during a Vintage Tour of Blandy’s Wine Lodge which is in the centre of Funchal.
The Blandy’s family's private vintage collection is held within thick stone walls below-ground to keep it cool. I enjoyed an exclusive view of the collection followed by a tasting in the Vintage Room with Blandy’s head winemaker, Francisco Albuquerque.
Francisco (Chico) is the leading expert on Madeiran winemaking and led me through the various vintages (it's a hard job sometimes).
Madeira Wine ranges from dry, which make a nice aperitif to sweet versions that are better after a meal or with dessert. And then go downtown and you might see Chico and his band mixing up some great sounds in one of the many night spots; a man of many talents!
Madeira in the USA
The Island of Madeira made a huge contribution to the discovery and development of The New World. I don’t think the island's role is fully appreciated! There are two major factors; the voyager Christopher Columbus and perhaps to some more importantly, Madeira Wine!
It could be argued that Madeira Wine fueled the American Revolution? As no wine-quality grapes could be grown among the original thirteen colonies of America in the 1600s, Madeira Wine, with its sturdy resilience and ability to travel became evermore popular.
By the late 1600s, Madeira had monopolized the American wine market and a certain shipping agent, John Hancock was the leading importer. Eager to increased his profits, Hancock took to smuggling the Madeira into the colonies under the noses of the English excisemen but this finally lead to the seizing of his ship, ‘Liberty’ in the port of Boston. A lawsuit filed against him by the English governor for unpaid taxes led Hancock to enlist top lawyer of the day and future president, John Adams as his defense attorney. Adams won the case, dealing the first blow to British rule in the colonies and kindling the flames of revolution. Hancock himself entered into politics, becoming friends with the colonial leaders and no doubt encouraging them with his (and their) favourite product. You can see how similarly big business today seeks to influence the corridors of power.
Madeira Wine had taken centre stage in American politics and, when independance finally came, Thomas Jefferson used ‘Malmsey’ Madeira to toast the Declaration! The new nation’s first president, George Washington was also a very keen imbiber as were Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Madeira was America's first tipple!
Savannah was a major port of entry for Madeira in colonial times and a favourite in the early wine cellars of Savannah. There is still a Madeira Club in Savannah today - although it was only formed in the 1950s.
Just last year (2017) at the Liberty Hall Museum in New Jersey, Madeira wines dating back to just after the American War of Independence were discovered in a cellar during restoration work. Three cases of Madeira were discovered imported in 1796, according to their labels.