True Bottled History
Napoleon, Blackbeard, Churchill and Jefferson all walk into a bar…
There’s only one thing they could all order. Rich, nutty, acidic, sweet, ancient, drunk by pirates and by those witnessing the birth of the most powerful nation on earth – Madeira is a complex, contradictory and resilient drink. It is the distillation of history in glass, something that wine does so charismatically well. When I first began this blog (well over a year and a half ago) the aim was to link the enjoyment of wine with stories its creation or ancestry.The wine known as ‘Madeira’ totally tips this on its head. It is not a wine with connections to history –
but a living, sometimes literally breathing, example of it.
Madeira should really not exist. It’s a wine from a tiny group of islands just off the north coast of Africa. As part of Portugal it has a viticultural history dating back centuries. But given its sub tropical conditions and high levels of rainfall, something else was needed to really swell the popularity of this island’s produce. A natural port at the foot of the Atlantic, it was found that the highly acidic, volatile wine made on its shores were good enough as ballast on the great wooden behemoths of the Early Modern Merchant-ships. These ships would traverse the humid conditions of the Caribbean, South America and beyond, baking the wine in their hulls. But Madeira, being the contrary little devil it is, actually came out of the process… better.
With the addition of fortification (a few cups of brandy chucked in for good measure) this system of baking wines in sea-going ovens made Madeira more mellow, richer, complex and extremely enticing. Soon wines were being sent on long voyages in great pipes just to achieve this desired effect – something known as ‘Vinho da Roda’. The process, which continued right up to the 1900’s, has now been overtaken by huge heated ‘estufas’ on the island itself which replicate the effect. The wine is a literal product of historical necessity.
Madeira has had a long and noble history. It’s often recounted moment of glory came across the Atlantic. When the Declaration of Independence was toasted in 1776, it was Madeira which filled the glasses of those in attendance. But there’s much less prestige about its other great supporter. The fact that Madeira had pretty much become indestructible by the time it was ready to drink, with fierce oxidation and thermal application all part of its unique character, made it a favourite of some no-good piratical types. The infamous Blackbeard once relieved a merchant ship (ferociously named ‘Betty’) of much of its 40 tonne load of pipes of Madeira.
And these days? Well you can still buy a bottle of Madeira produced in 1720. And yes, it is still reputed to be “superb”. You can buy Madeira from nearly every decade since, and all will be drinkable. For me, this creates compelling wonderful little historical links. When Napoleon was escorted to his exile on St Helena, the British ship carrying stopped off at Madeira. Napoleon bought a full pipe for the onward journey, but due to ill-health never drank it. Some 135 years later, Churchill would open a bottle of Napoleon’s Madeira when he visited the island in 1950. Sir Winston insisted on pouring every glass himself, informing all present “Do you realise that when this wine was vintaged, Marie Antoinette was still alive?”.
Sadly, like many of its modern-day fortified partners (Port, Sherry et al) sales of more contemporary Madeira are at a much lower level. It surely deserves some more modern patronage.