In response to the advent of the Tea Party movement, some people have demanded to know where all these deficit hawks and defenders of the Constitution were during the Bush years. I have a different question: “Where’s the Madeira?” If the Tea Partiers wish to evoke the spirit of 1776, it seems to me that alongside the powdered wigs and pantaloons, they ought to be accessorizing themselves with bottles of Madeira, which was a favorite tipple of the Founding Fathers and was supposedly used to toast the Declaration of Independence. Up until the mid-19th century, no alcoholic beverage enjoyed greater cachet among well-to-do Americans than this fortified wine hailing from the Portuguese island of the same name. Today, though, Madeira is an obscurity; most consumers, if they know it at all, know it only as something used for cooking. A wine treasured by Thomas Jefferson is now relegated mainly to saucepans. How did Madeira so completely lose its stature, and what can it do to get it back?
These are questions that have long preoccupied Mannie Berk, who has spent his career championing Madeira and trying to rekindle interest in a wine that was once so integral to the American experience. The 60-year-old Berk is the founder of the The Rare Wine Co., an acclaimed Sonoma-based retailer, wholesaler, and importer. (It is the U.S. agent for Jacques Selosse, the king of grower Champagnes; represents Italian greats Giacomo Conterno and Giuseppe Mascarello; and earlier this year added the fabled Vouvray producer Domaine Huet to its portfolio.) Shotgun marriages are the result of passion overwhelming prudence, and so was Berk’s business. In 1988, he paid a chance visit to a wine shop in London that turned out to have an impressive stash of 19th-century Madeiras. A recently minted Madeira enthusiast, he learned that the wines came from a British importer who had many more old bottles to sell. With a friend bankrolling the transaction, Berk took 400 cases off their hands (he swears he was sober at the time). He needed an import license to bring the wines into the United States, and thus was born The Rare Wine Co. Berk then had to create a market for the nearly 5,000 bottles that he had purchased, and he has been proselytizing on Madeira’s behalf ever since.
In this role, he is not merely a salesman; he has also become a historian of Madeira, which happens to be a wine with a fascinating history. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the island of Madeira was a popular port of call for ships traveling to Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Before leaving, the boats were loaded with casks of the local quaffer, which was usually a blend of several grapes: verdelho, sercial, bual, malvasia (also known as malmsey), and terrantez. So that the wines could better withstand the long journeys, it became standard practice to top them up with sugarcane brandy or a grape spirit, a step known as fortification. (Thanks to the added booze, Madeiras are typically between 19 percent and 21 percent alcohol, versus 12 percent to14 percent for table wines.) It turned out, though, that being stored in the warm hulls of ships and bounced around on the waves actually benefited the wines, producing smoother, more refined flavors. For a time, barrels of Madeira were sent out on round-trip journeys solely for the purpose of shaking and baking them. However, most Madeiras were ushered to maturity either by artificially heating the casks or by storing them in warm rooms (the latter method was and remains the preferred means of rearing quality Madeiras). Among its many virtues, Madeira is surely the world’s most durable wine, which explains why bottles from the 19th and even 18th centuries are still drinking well.
Amid all this oceangoing, Madeiras found a receptive audience in the American colonies, an enthusiasm that endured through and beyond the Revolutionary War. By the end of the 18th century, the United States was importing roughly a quarter of all the Madeira on the market. Among the affluent, having a Madeira collection was a totem of success and sophistication; according to Berk, banking titan J.P. Morgan had probably the finest Madeira cellar in the world. In cities such as Baltimore, Charleston, and Savannah, the machers of local society frequently hosted Madeira parties. These were generally male-only affairs, during which a small group would gather around a table to taste maybe a half-dozen wines, the evenings invariably ending in a cloud of cigar smoke.
Beginning in the mid-19th century, Madeira producers were hit by a series of calamities that ultimately cost the wines their popularity. First, the island’s vineyards were struck by a devastating outbreak of powdery mildew. Next, they were attacked by the phylloxera root louse, which forced growers to tear out huge swathes of vines. As was the case in other regions decimated by phylloxera, many farmers replanted with workhorse grapes, notably tinta negra mole. The natural disasters were followed by a pair of man-made ones: The Russian revolution deprived Madeira of one of its major markets, and Prohibition in the United States cut off another. From almost 200 wineries in 1880, the Madeira industry shrank steadily, and today there are only six houses left (and two of them are currently in the process of merging). A large percentage of the wines exported these days are bulk Madeiras, destined for kitchen pantries. But thanks to stricter regulations and a gradual comeback by traditional grapes such as sercial and bual, there are still high-quality Madeiras being made on the island.
Those wines have a tireless advocate in Berk. When not tending to other business, he travels around the United States holding Madeira tastings for sommeliers, retailers, consumers, and journalists, all part of his quarter-century-long quest to “bring this country back to Madeira,” as he puts it. In the late 1990s, he teamed up with a producer called Barbeito to create a line of wines directly linking Madeira to its venerable American past: The Historic Series, as it is called, consists of five Madeiras, each named for an American city with a rich Madeiran heritage. The first of the wines, the Boston Bual Special Reserve and the New York Malmsey Special Reserve, were released in 2002. Berk says sales of the Historic Series Madeiras, which retail for $46.50-$60 a bottle, were steady from the start but have exploded in the last 18 months. He credits the boom to the enthusiasm that restaurants have shown for the wines, and also to the fact that the most recent additions to the roster, the Charleston Sercial Special Reserve, the Savannah Verdelho Special Reserve, and the New Orleans Special Reserve, are made in a drier style. At a time when sweet wines are a tough sell, dryness is a virtue.
When Berk and I got together in New York a few weeks ago, he came with 15 Madeiras, the oldest from 1825. We met up at Alto, a well-regarded Italian restaurant in midtown. Lunch happened to be the hour that worked best for both of us, but he also wanted to demonstrate a point: that Madeiras, though usually drunk as aperitifs or with dessert, can be consumed throughout a meal. What makes them so versatile (and also accounts in part for their remarkable longevity) is the potent acidity, which cuts through the richness and leaves your mouth feeling almost refreshed. And then there is the killer bouquet: Madeiras have some of the most enthralling aromatics of any wines (“there is possibly something of the unlawful about their rapture,” gushed the English writer George Saintsbury). Orange peel, brown sugar, nuts, figs, raisins, honey, leather, chocolate, spices—the perfume alone will completely hook you on these wines.
Berk first had me try the Historic Series Madeiras. I particularly liked the Savannah Verdelho, an elegant, gently spicy wine with a pronounced nuttiness and a felicitous rose petal note, and the New York Malmsey, bursting with fig and toffee flavors. This being Madeira, the Historic Series wines can be drunk over the course of many months once the bottles are opened, and true to Berk’s word, they paired pretty well with the food. We then tasted a clutch of vintage Madeiras, which by law must spend at least 20 years in cask (the extended barrel aging exposes the wines to oxygen and over time turns them brownish) and can range in price from under $100 a bottle to well north of $1,000. We began with a 1989 D’Oliveira Malvasia, moved on to wines from 1968, 1954, 1922, 1920, and 1903, and finished with a trio from the 19th century: an 1863 Barbeito Bual, an 1834 Barbeito Malvasia, and an 1825 Leacock Seco. Apart from one corked bottle and one wine that seemed crotchety and out of sorts, the vintage Madeiras were sensational (the 1903 D’Oliveira Bual, with its piercing sea-salt aroma and silken texture, was unforgettable, ditto the earthy, ethereally mellow 1834). More than that, they were humbling. Nearly 200 years of history were poured into those nine glasses, touching some significant milestones along the way—the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Wright brothers’ first flight (1903), the Gettysburg Address (1863). It seemed small-minded, even vaguely sacrilegious, to be taking tasting notes rather than just, well, contemplating the wines. It occurred to me, too, that the Founding Fathers, in addition to being great visionaries, had impeccable taste in wine, and that if they could observe the current state of American political discourse, they’d probably be hitting the Madeira hard.