Strong Drink for General Washington

Imagine yourself loaded into a watertight cask and rolled down into the deepest hold of an 18th century sailing ship. You are buffeted about in a sea-voyage of many months. The warmth is oppressive, even in the belly of the ship, and the humidity is worse. From time to time, you hear the scrabbling of ship rats—black rats, the sort that carry the bubonic plague, but in your barrel they can’t get at you.

Sounds foul, doesn’t it? But this rough treatment is how Madeira wine was first made. And the process (well, maybe not the rats) is still simulated in the estufas of that beautiful island, 400 miles from the nearest mainland, out in the broad Atlantic. It’s no wonder that all four sorts of Madeira, from the driest (Sercial) to the sweetest (Malmsey), are a fine nutty brown color. Madeira in its raw state is a white wine, but by the time it’s ready to drink it’s been cooked—“maderized”—in fact and it’s this cooking that produces its distinctive flavor. There are four varieties of Madeira, named for the four grapes involved: there’s the unctuous sweetness of Malmsey, the less sugary savor of Bual, or the more austere Verdelho and Sercial.

Verdelho is often known in America as Rainwater, although it would have to be rainwater off a pretty rusty tin roof to match the color. Rainwater is wonderful when you drink it with a plain cracker (try the English biscuit known as the Bath Oliver) or perhaps a piece of Madeira cake on a cool spring afternoon. Rainwater also makes a pleasant substitute for sherry as a drink before dinner, since it doesn’t disturb the stomach the way a dry sherry can.
Malmsey is good after dinner. If you go to Mount Vernon in Virginia, by all means admire George Washington’s wooden false teeth. Then go downstairs to see his dining room, which is set up for an 18th century after-dinner dessert. This would consist not of cake or pie, but of fruit, nuts, and sweet wines. You can imagine the Father of the Nation talking treason against the British and sipping Malmsey from the small glasses set on the table. Good Malmsey is not just sickly-sweet, it sets a Haydn symphony of sweet and sour playing in your brain.

The Romans knew about maderizing wine. But we have 18th century America and England to thank for the nectar we enjoy today. The island of Madeira was a convenient mid-Atlantic harbor in colonial times. (Readers of Patrick O’Brien’s novels about Nelson’s Navy will know Madeira simply as “the Island.”) His Majesty’s Government in England would not permit trade between the American colonies and other European nations, and the 18th century was punctuated by frequent wars between France and England. The absence of French wines made early Americans thirsty.

One could argue that Madeira was not Europe but Africa. Besides, it belonged to Portugal and the alliance between England and Portugal is the oldest diplomatic alliance in the world, dating back to the Middle Ages. So when they found that the unappealing white wines of the island, which had previously been used as ballast in the bottoms of ships, could be made palatable by long sea voyages, vine-growers and merchants hastened to supply the Colonials’ favorite lubricant.

You can sip your way into all this history for as little as $15 a bottle, and you don’t have to drink it all at once when you’ve opened it. After all that abuse in its manufacture, Madeira has the patience to wait for you to enjoy it.