Madeira: A Tangy Little Taste of History

Madeira: A Tangy Little Taste of History

Even though I’m all about making wine accessible, I have to admit to some inside baseball, wine geek tendencies. One of the geekiest is my love — obsession, really — with Madeira. Now I don’t mean the cheap crap you cook with. I’m talking about the insanely tangy, insanely long-lived, and incredibly delicious stuff that comes at a (deservedly) high price.

Usually I shy away from talking too much about wine history, but in this case, Madeira’s storied past is part of its appeal. From the sub-tropical volcanic island of the same time, Madeira was, they say, the wine Thomas Jefferson & co. used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Madeira’s main port, Funchal, was a major stop for ships on the way to and from India, Africa, and the Americas, and through trial and error, the Portuguese discovered that the huge casks of wine they loaded on the ships tasted better after long sea voyages. That’s because the tropical heat “cooked” the wine, imparting nutty and caramel flavors. The grapes grown on Madeira were — and still are — very high in acidity, which acts as a kind of preservative, ensuring that the wines have a lot of longevity. And, for someone like me with a major sour tooth, is a major plus. One of my dorky wine dreams is to one day taste a great Madeira from the early 19th-century, which are supposed to still taste fresh and lively.

Barring that, I really like the Rare Wine Co’s Historic Series. Each is made primarily from a different grape and named for one of the historic American markets for these wines. The Charleston Sercial, served chilled, would make an impressive match for a pumpkin or chestnut soup, and the New York Malmsey would be a good partner for a nutty dessert. I can think of worse ways to start and finish a Thanksgiving feast. At around $50 a pop, they’re not exactly bargains, but who can put a price on tasting history?

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