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07 Oct 2017 | Randy Kemner

Time to Discover Madeira, the Wines our Founding Fathers Enjoyed

Wine shoppers may wonder why The Wine Country stubbornly offers a selection of Madeira wine in when most wine outlets offer none. Madeira, the historic wine of the American Revolution, favorite of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Betsy Ross, and the wine used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence, has been out of fashion since the 1800s.

Whiskey was America's drink. It was cheaper to buy, got you high faster, and could be made from corn, wheat, rye and barley, which grew everywhere and could be stored so that it could be made all year round.

But Madeira, the unique fortified wine made in off-dry to very sweet styles, remains a mystery to most wine consumers, used mainly in recipes for cooking, if at all. Unraveling that mystery has always been a mission for me as I learned about the great, classic wines of the world.

Perhaps we're drawn to our historic connection with these precious wines, how the ports of Charleston, Savannah, New York and Boston eagerly off-loaded prized barrels from sailing ships that had used them for ballast during multiple Atlantic crossings through the Indies.

We have always been intrigued by the fact that the super-acidic white wines from this small island actually improved when treated in a manner that would kill most other wines--exposure to air and heat-and that the resulting wine was, in the words of Hugh Johnson "nearly immortal."

And, I freely admit, I root for the underdogs in wine, championing classics like rosés and Riojas before they became popular again. In this context there are a few great and historic wines deserving of more attention, like Tokaji Aszu, Quarts de Chaume, Vin Santo, Marsala and even Port wine, but none more compelling than the wines of Madeira.

The main island of Madeira, only 35 miles long and 14 miles at its widest, is a Portuguese-owned mountainous wonder, 400 miles west of Casablanca in the Atlantic Ocean. It was discovered in the 1400s by explorers and over the next several centuries (and a short administration by the British) merchants used the island as a provisioning stop and trading center. Christopher Columbus lived for a short while on the neighboring island of Porto Santo, taking one of its residents as his wife.

A series of misfortunes hit the island during the 1800s through the last century, some natural disasters and some man-made--powdery mildew and phylloxera outbreaks in the 1850s and '70s, the Russian revolution, two World Wars, the Great Depression--which all had a hand in reducing a once thriving wine industry into one that has consolidated into a handful of companies dependent on other enterprises, like shipping, tourism, hotels and trade, to keep their wine traditions alive.

Small farmers among the population of 300,000 grow small plots of vines with names like Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, Malmsey, Terrantez and Tinta Negra Mole, selling them to those few surviving companies, the finest of which are Blandy's and Cossart-Gordon, which in turn make their best wines simulating the heat and storage of the sailing ships, storing their best casks in sweltering attics, and lesser casks in rooms heated by estufas for up to six months.

More than a third of Madeira's 300,000 residents live in Funchal, a thriving tourist destination in a deep-water bay on Madeira's south shore. The rest live on farms and in small villages throughout the islands. Funchal hosts cruise ships, and offers botanical gardens nearby, one reached by cable car where spectacular views of the port, tiled roofs on whitewashed buildings, verdant mountains and banana trees alongside tiny rows of vines tucked into backyards below.

It is a temperate island, year-round temperatures average just 72°F, although the spectacular northern shore is so verdant, it reminds one of Kauai.

Dale and I visited the island for five days in September 2014, where we visited the incredible market in Funchal, dined on limpets and scabbard fish roe and drank the excellent red and white wines of mainland Portugal as well as the wines of our host island.

On one of the most memorable days of our lives, we were met at our hotel by Chris Blandy who had graciously cleared his day for us and after a tour of the Blandy's lodge and a memorable tasting of Madeiras that included a 1954 Leacock, hosted us on a tour of the island where we witnessed the famous thatched roofs of Santana, ate beef skewered on laurel stems, drank Poncho, visited the new vineyard the company was nurturing, and witnessed sights so beautiful they haunt us to this day.

We will return.

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