Rare Wine Co. Madeira: Tasting America's Past

This wine company is looking to bring vintage madeira back in style

No secret: colonial Americans loved to drink. Ale and porter in the cities, corn whiskey on the frontier — these time-tested quaffs never went fully out of style. But there’s a different story behind madeira, America’s favorite wine in the 18th and 19th century.

These wines, made from grapes grown on an eponymous island 600 miles off the coast of Portugal, arrived by the shipload in the major ports of young America — thirsty towns like Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Baltimore. Connoisseurs would buy madeira by the cask, and set the wine aside to age. Age it did. Madeira is a fortified wine, with neutral spirits added in the midst of fermentation to halt the process. The casks are then intentionally exposed to high temperatures and oxygen. All these steps, combined with the high acidity in the grapes, make madeira an exceptionally sturdy wine.

It took crisis to quell our urban forefathers’ fervor for the drink: successive plagues of Oïdium and Phylloxera hit the island’s vines in the second half of the 19th century and delivered a crushing blow to production.

Bringing Classics Back

Thus, credit to the Rare Wine Company, which has not only been working to raise the profile of vintage madeira in the U.S., but also to demonstrate our own unique history with the wine.

Back in madeira’s heyday, each port developed its own unique preference for madeira, which can be made from any of four different grape varieties. In the northern city of Boston, fanciers liked a sweeter wine, made from the bual grape; while to the south, in Charleston, local tastes settled on a drier style, made from the sercial grape.

While vintage madeira — with bottles regularly a half century or older — can be crushingly expensive, the Rare Wine Company’s Historic Series aims to offer wines representative of these classic styles, with plenty of vintage character, at reasonable prices.

The key here is careful blending: Madeiras representing the classic styles of Boston, New York, Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans are each crafted from wines of different ages, often including parcels that are over thirty years old. Next up in the series is the delicate Rainwater Madeira of Baltimore.

Each of these blends offers a different take on madeira: ranging on a wide spectrum from semi-dry to full-on-sweet. Thus, the Historic Series is an inducement to exploration. If you are able to find these special creations (California residents can order directly from Rare Wine Co.; in other states, you may need to ask your favorite wine bar to order for you) consider a parade of drinks after dinner to determine which taste of the past you prefer today. 

— Dan Packel, The Drink Nation


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