We have an unusual relationship with Madeira. Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, a town that was once the Madeira-consuming capital of America, we learned in history class the mythic status this curious beverage had held in the region before the Civil War. But our fascination with the fortified wine actually began much earlier, with the mystery of our grandfather’s death on the island of Madeira, 39 years ago. And it’s what finally led us there in 2002, during a time when—after the deep damage done to the wine’s reputation left it virtually neglected for nearly a century—the region was returning to form. We fell in love with Madeira on the island, and over the next 10 years we watched as its revival spread all the way back to Charleston, where Madeira has found its way back into Lowcountry drink culture in ways old and new.
Madeira, which means “wood” in Portuguese, is a fortified wine made on the island of the same name, some 200 miles off the coast of Morocco. It’s known for its unique production process, which involves oxidizing and then heating the wine to temperatures as high as 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This process is called estufagem and what it breeds is a wine that is practically indestructible (hence Madeira’s reputation as the “immortal wine”) and ranges in sweetness from fairly dry to dessert-wine sweet. While the majority of the Madeiras that make their way to the U.S. market are blends of varieties and vintages, the better wines are single-varietal bottlings of the four principal grapes: sercial, verdelho, bual and malvasia, and, more rarely, terrantez. These varieties correspond also to the style of the wine, with sercial being the driest of Madeiras and malvasia (or malmsey, as it is called on the island) the sweetest.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, our hometown was the epicenter of Madeira consumption in America. The port city was perfectly situated on the Atlantic coast to receive British cargo vessels sailing from Madeira—which was often the last loading, trading, and provisioning stop for boats heading west. Prior to the island’s establishment of estufas (which then referred to hot houses where the wines were aged) at the close of the 18th century, the Madeira’s transatlantic voyage—the rocking motion and, more importantly, intense heat—was an integral part of the wine’s development. As interest in Madeira grew, longer voyages were planned specifically for this purpose and many consumers began to draw connections between the quality of the wine and the route taken. The novelty of its transatlantic aging process helped establish it as a luxury among prosperous planters and merchants of the Carolina Lowcountry during a time when the upper classes were notorious for their conspicuous consumption.
We know from letters of the period that many Madeira collections had been hidden in cellars with false walls and in garrets where casks were typically stored to age, and thus survived plundering by the Union Army. The largest collection to oulive the war belonged to the Carolina Jockey Club, whose president and vice president went so far as to stash it in the underground basement of an insane asylum in Columbia, South Carolina.
A culture of collecting and entertaining sprung up around it. Madeira tasting parties became popular, offering a chance for wealthy plantation owners to show off their knowledge of producers and vintages, as well as precisely which Atlantic crossings had been favorable to aging. Madeira collecting also became, as James H. Tuten points out in his essay Liquid Assets: Madeira Wine and Cultural Capital Among Lowcountry Planters, “part of the legacy within a family.” Because it required not only cash, but knowledge, it became a sort of “cultural capital” among the wealthy. It remained as such until the Civil War, when the devastation of the South coupled with the Union’s naval blockade made Madeira collecting seem not only out of place, but increasingly impossible.
We know from letters of the period that many Madeira collections had been hidden in cellars with false walls and in garrets where casks were typically stored to age, and thus survived plundering by the Union Army. The largest collection to outlive the war belonged to the Carolina Jockey Club, whose president and vice president went so far as to stash it in the underground basement of an insane asylum in Columbia, South Carolina.
After the Civil War, most of the remaining stocks were auctioned off to collectors in Britain and New England, and by the beginning of the 20th century, Madeira had become little more than a footnote in Charleston, making only one notable appearance—albeit an astonishing one—in the city’s 20th century cooking bible, Charleston Receipts. It is listed as an ingredient for ratafia, a liqueur that calls for a gallon of brandy, a quart of Madeira, a bottle of muscat wine and 1000 peach kernels.
By the time we were old enough to drink, the wine had all but disappeared, becoming a ghost-beverage in the city’s history—a dusty bottle on the bar that mom might reach for to add a splash of intrigue to she-crab soup. But little did we know, that teaspoon of intrigue would become, to our adult selves, one of the most magical, mature liquid pleasures at our disposal.
It also remains, to this day, a reminder of the mortality of our own grandfather, who we met just a few times as toddlers. In 1974, he and our grandmother were vacationing on the island of Madeira in room 136 at Reid’s Palace Hotel—a white stucco building perched on a cliff above the churning blue Atlantic—when he died. He was only 64 years old, but our mother’s father had been ailing from emphysema and painkiller abuse for years. Whether his exotic demise was by accident or design became a nagging question for us, and one that our dear Gran never directly addressed.
When we arrived in Madeira in 2002, we didn’t exactly discover the mystery of his death (we did, however, realize that Madeira isn’t a bad place to shuffle off). We instead found ourselves captivated by a wine industry that was in the midst of rebirth. A younger generation of winemakers—led by the Madeiran master-blender Ricardo Frietas—was returning to the old ways: demanding better quality from grape growers, returning to traditional methods of aging, and blending newer wines with the dwindling stocks of quality vintage wines. He’d recently teamed up with American wine importer Mannie Berk to launch a line of better quality Madeiras priced above the blends, but well below the prized vintages.
The caramel-colored, sticky wines we’d sipped in Charleston bore no relation to what we tasted on the island. There we encountered wines from the 19th century that were astonishingly vivacious and complex, as well as relatively “young” 10-year-old blends that balanced toffee and dried fruit flavors with the hallmark bracing acidity of a fine Madeira. But at that point the news of the region renaissance had yet to reach North America.
What a difference a decade makes.
Since our foray, we’ve watched the wine regain a foothold in its original American stomping grounds. And although Madeira parties in Charleston remain largely a memory, there’s evidence of resurgent interest.
Consider the “Malvasians,” a half-dozen wine nerds anchored by our high-school pal Edward Hart. Hart, a longtime Madeira lover, turned a 1948 malvasia—a gift celebrating his son’s birth six years ago—into a Madeira tasting club. The group convenes when a member experiences a “landmark occasion,” which is defined by Hart as a birth, job promotion or organ donation. The traditional 19th-century Charleston Madeira party was, according to Hart, “Six men, six bottles, and a bowl of nuts.” But the Malvasians’ soirées begin with a supper of venison—or quail, or dove or other member-hunted game birds—in Madeira gravy, as they realized quickly that a bowl of nuts does nothing to save you from Madeira’s morning-after fury.
For as long as Hart can remember, Madeira has been a part of his consciousness and Charleston’s identity. “From an early age, I knew Madeira was a Charleston wine,” says Hart. “We are cosmopolitan, but we’re very tradition-bound.” He’s embraced Madeira as a way to connect to his heritage.
While Hart is careful not to overstate Madeira’s popularity in today’s Holy City, we’ve noticed the connection between the revival of traditional Southern cooking and ingredients at the hands of influential Charleston chefs like Sean Brock (of Husk and McCrady’s), and the city’s growing interest in reconnecting with its drinking traditions, whether through the ages-old Charleston ritual of post-prandial Madeira and cheese or its revival as a classic cocktail ingredient.
While it’s true that Madeira’s niche revival is the result of many changes—improved quality, a growing openness among consumers and a general revolution in taste—it’s also a little bit about nostalgia too.
“There’s not much romance left in the world,” says Hart. “From time to time, it’s nice to have a little.” With cheese, of course.
DRINKING MADEIRA WITH THE LEE BROS.
We find the drier, more acidic sercials and verdelhos make a perfect aperitif in winter months and their acidity makes some knockout pairings with food. We drink the richer, sweeter buals and malmseys with dessert, or after dinner, with cheese. And while vintage wines are hard to come by and heavy on the pocket, Rare Wine Company’s Historic Series Madeiras are widely distributed and the best value for the money at roughly $50 a bottle.
While it may seem heretical to use such fine wines in punches and cocktails, we find it worth the splurge—the more character and flavor in the wine, the better the punch or cocktail. Esteemed cocktail historian and writer David Wondrich told us, “In a punch, Madeira serves as a bridge between the watery elements and the spirituous ones—it adds flavor and funk.” Beyond appearing in punches, Madeira was also common in cobblers—simple cocktails common in the early 19th century composed of crushed ice, fortified wine, and citrus peel—shaken vigorously and garnished with fruit. According to Wondrich, Madeira (and its fortified cousins) are excellent in cocktails because, “Madeira has the flavor intensity of brandy, but not the proof. So you can dilute it, and ice it, and still have a pleasant drink.”