As with most things these days, it all boils down to politics.
In 1665, King Charles II of England decreed that all European goods being shipped to the West Indies and the Americas had to be transported on British ships setting sail from British ports.
The exception to the rule was commerce from the Portuguese island of Madeira. The colonies could trade with them directly and with relative impunity.
This was because Charles had married Catharina of Braganca of Portugal, and although the island, a prized Portuguese possession, was not part of the dowry, the income from taxes collected on its sea trade were.
The King was no dummy. Since he wrote the laws, he could circumvent them as he pleased. Not much has changed in the world of politics these days, but trade with the tiny island has certainly lessened and the wine it produced has lost its place of renown within the global wine market.
The fortified wines of Madeira were all the rage in the colonies in the 18th and 19th centuries. Not only were they good, but Americans could sail to the island and pick them up on American ships and bring them home to such famed ports as Baltimore, Boston, Charleston, Philadelphia, New York and Savannah.
The wine became an important part of upper-class society and a symbol of our independence as a nation. We drank madeira at George Washington's inauguration. We toasted with madeira when Washington, D.C., became our capital. Our forefathers drank madeira when they signed the Declaration of Independence and our navy baptized its frigates with the same.
Unfortunately, the vineyards of Madeira succumbed to the vineyard scourges that ravaged the rest of Europe in the late 1800s and the vineyards never recovered their place in vinous history until a new and quiet madeira movement started a few years back.
The Sonoma-based "Rare Wine Company" partnered with Vinhos Barbietos of Madeira to revive a centuries-old drink tradition and American trading legacy. After two years of trials and another two years of work perfecting the blends, the Rare Wine Company has been gradually releasing styles of madeira that were popular in the cities for which they are named.
Its portfolio consists of Charleston Sercial, Savannah Verdelho, Boston Bual and New York Malmsey madeiras. The label nomenclature reflects the grape variety that constitutes 85 percent of the blend. The lots of wine used in each bottling are between 15 to 20 years old. (The balance is made up of 40- to 60-year-old Tinta Negra Mole; the age quoted referring to the wine in the blend, not the age of the vines in the ground!)
These wines have literally spent decades in large barrels weathering through the seasonal cycle of hot and cold while picking up a nutty, complex patina of age. They are fortified with neutral grape spirit (like port) and clock in at 19.5 percent alcohol.
The fortification makes them virtually indestructible after opening. And, as they have suffered through significant heat exposure during the aging process, the summer swelter does them no harm. Madeira was made for warm climates, as made evident by the American cities that imported them.
They are nowhere near as sweet as port (which hovers around 10 percent residual sugar). The driest is Sercial, at less than 2 percent residual sugar; the sweetest is Malmsey, at just over 4 percent residual sugar. Verdelho is second and Bual is third with regard to sugar content.
A 1.5-3 oz. pour is perfect as dessert or with dessert, or simply as a post-prandial drink to end the day on a sweet and nutty note.
The Rare Wine Company Historic Series Madeiras are $55 a bottle and worth every penny.
Charleston Sercial: The wine explodes upon the palate with explosive aromas of a very concentrated citrus-ginger crème brulee. A stunning glass of wine.
Savannah Verdelho: Toffee, cashews, nut brittle. Rich, mellow and satisfying. The sweetness is barely perceptible.
Boston Bual: The wine tastes like a combination of dates and figs. Very exotic in flavor; very subtle in sweetness.
New York Malmsey: Complex with hints of citrus, smoke, fig and nut. Finishes with a delicious touch of caramelized sugar.