Home > History of Wine > “[I]t will not be exceeded by an[y] Wine in the Universe”: Descriptions of James Madison’s Madeira

“[I]t will not be exceeded by an[y] Wine in the Universe”: Descriptions of James Madison’s Madeira


During retirement, James Madison preferred to drink the Madeira he “put away in the pediment of the portico…above all new importations”.[1]  These were the bottles he purposely stored in the attic of Montpelier, his home in Virginia.  James Madison also had “several large wine cellars” full of “old-fashioned wines” in the basement of Montpelier.[2]   This storage preference is telling because it illustrates an appreciation of flavor affected by the cycling of temperature throughout the year over the stable development in a wine cellar.  James Madison’s father also stored his Madeira “in the wall” so it is possible this preference developed early in life.

The Islands of Madeira Porto Santo and Dezertas. Surveyed by Captain ATE Vidal RN in HMS Styx 1843. 1847. Copyright National Maritime Museum, London

The Islands of Madeira Porto Santo and Dezertas. Surveyed by Captain ATE Vidal RN in HMS Styx 1843. 1847. Copyright National Maritime Museum, London

A letter to James Madison from a local wine merchant encapsulates what were considered important attributes for Madeira.[3]  The letter states that the agents would “pay strict attention to your directions as to the body, flavor, [&] Color of the wine.”  These were actually widespread concerns meant to address geographically different preferences for Madeira.  While living in Washington, DC, James Madison could have readily purchased all of his wine from merchants in Georgetown and Alexandria but instead he chose to specifically order his Madeira.  I suspect he was looking for certain qualities in his favorite drink, Madeira.  While we do not yet know what James Madison’s specific importations of Madeira looked, smelled, and tasted like, it is possible to form a general idea.  To do so, it is helpful to broaden the correspondence reviewed.

The Island of Madeira with the Brig Comet Thomas Ormston Master entering the Bay of Funchal. 1831. Copyright National Maritime Museum, London.

The Island of Madeira with the Brig Comet Thomas Ormston Master entering the Bay of Funchal. 1831. Copyright National Maritime Museum, London.

Color is the first aspect one notices of wine in a glass.  A desirable color was of such importance that a wine merchant wrote to George Washington in 1760 that his cask of Madeira had a “Color we have endeavored Carefully to please you.”[4]  Merchants were not simply picking casks of a particular color, they were coloring the wines.  Benjamin Franklin received a case of wine split between “high coloured or Madeira Wine” and “pale Wine”.[5]  It was even recommended that cyder be colored for “It will add Greatly to its beauty to have it a little coloured”.[6]  Contemporary to James Madison’s orders was Thomas Jefferson’s receipt of a “half Pipe Natural Sherry” and a half pipe “Sherry with Color”.[7]  The “Natural Sherry” was without “color or any additives”.[8]

There is but one example of the actual color of Madeira from this period.  George Washington received three year old “very choice Particulr Madeira Wine” that was “of a fine Amber Colour”.[9]  This description matches an advertisement in New York City for similarly aged Madeira[10] and is distinct from “old pale” Madeira.[11]  The implication is that the Amber wine was more colorful.  James Madison preferred Madeira that was “rather of the deeper colour”.[12]  A later order of Madeira was also described as “of a very deep colour”.[13]

Advertisement for "Amber colour Madeira Wine". [10]

Advertisement for “Amber colour Madeira Wine”. [10]

I can find no descriptions of body in the James Madison’s papers.  We know that George Washington requested a “rich oily Wine” for one of his Madeira orders.[14]  Thomas Jefferson later wrote of “silky Madeira” that was made by “putting a small portion of Malmsey into the dry Madeira.”[15]

James Madison was very specific when it came to the handling of Madeira for he desired to achieve a particular flavor.  He preferred to age his Madeira in cask for at least five years.[16]  If he received an order of Madeira he was sure to let the cask remain stationery for quite some time.[17]  This allowed all of the lees or dead yeast cells to settle on the bottom.  As an alternative to waiting, many people would fine their wines to remove the lees.  This usually involved putting an ingredient into the cask to help bind the lees together so they would settle down on the bottom.  One correspondent noted his wines were frequently spoiled in finning.  His preferred method was to pour a pint of milk into the cask.[18]   After agitating the cask the top third of the cask would be clear in one week and the bottom would be clear in two weeks.  He drank his wine from the cask for it was “milder than when bottled” and that bottled wine “has a sediment which often fouls the wine.”

James Madison did not drink his Madeira straight from cask.  After letting the cask age and settle he preferred to bottle the Madeira for further aging.  He felt that this was the ideal “mode of compleating its flavour.”  He wrote that “wine is said to attain its perfection best by lying 5 or 6 years in Cask, and then going into bottles and kept throughout in warm situations.”  James Madison found that a particular parcel of Madeira which he had bottled then stored in the garret or attic for 18 months had become “exquisite”.

Advertisement for "old south side Madeira Wine". Date: Monday, July 24, 1815  Paper: Baltimore Patriot (Baltimore, MD)   Volume: VI   Issue: 798   Page: 3.

Advertisement for “old south side Madeira Wine”. Date: Monday, July 24, 1815 Paper: Baltimore Patriot (Baltimore, MD) Volume: VI Issue: 798 Page: 3.

James Madison was succinct in describing the Madeira he particularly enjoyed.  In one case, two pipes of 1800 Madeira were sourced from the private stock of Don Jao de Carvahal.[19]  Described as the “richest man” on the Madeira island the wine came from “the best plantations”.  Tasted at 11 years of age, James Madison found the Madeira “proved very satisfying” and that the pipes “seem to be unusually fine and well flavored”.[20]  He naturally requested two more pipes.  The quality of this Madeira was due to it being “pure” unmixed south-side Madeira from a good old vintage.  The vintages of 1808-1811 were “remarkably bad” forcing merchants to mix “new & north wines with the old south” to ripen during the sea voyage.

James Madison ordered a wide variety of Madeira such as London Market, London Particular, Malmsey, Sercial, and Terita [sic].  While there is not enough surviving documentation to learn what all of these wines were like, it is clear that James Madison enjoyed the flavor of Madeira affected by age.  As one guest of James Madison wrote in 1816, the “Madeira that he purchased in Philadelphia in :96 made a part of every day’s fare!”.[21]


[1] Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. MRD-S 23538
[2] See both Hunt, Gaillard. The life of James Madison. 1902. URL:  http://books.google.com/books?id=-A35AwAAQBAJ&lpg=PP1&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false and Homes of American Statesmen. 1855. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=uvUUAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[3] “To James Madison from Adams Herbert and Company, 3 May 1816,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/99-01-02-5116, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: this is an Early Access document from The Papers of James Madison. It is not an authoritative final version.
[4] “To George Washington from Hill, Lamar & Hill, 28 March 1760,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-06-02-0219, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 6, 4 September 1758 – 26 December 1760, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988, pp. 404–405.
[5] “To Benjamin Franklin from Thomas Wharton, 18 November 1767,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-14-02-0189, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 14, January 1 through December 31, 1767, ed. Leonard W. Labaree. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1970, pp. 310–311.
[6] “To Thomas Jefferson from Adam Lindsay, 12 April 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-23-02-0361, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 23, 1 January–31 May 1792, ed. Charles T. Cullen. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 409–410.
[7] “To Thomas Jefferson from Joseph Yznardi, Sr., 12 February 1802,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-36-02-0375, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 36, 1 December 1801–3 March 1802, ed. Barbara B. Oberg. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009, pp. 572–573.
[8] “To Thomas Jefferson from Joseph Yznardi, Sr., 30 January 1802,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-36-02-0307, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 36, 1 December 1801–3 March 1802, ed. Barbara B. Oberg. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009, pp. 482–484.
[9] “To George Washington from John Searle, 15 July 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11598, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: this is an Early Access document from The Papers of George Washington. It is not an authoritative final version.
[10] Advertisement. Date: Monday, April 25, 1763           Paper: New-York Mercury (New York, NY)   Issue: 600   Page: 3
[11] Advertisement. Date: Monday, September 12, 1763               Paper: Boston Post-Boy (Boston, MA)   Issue: 317   Page: 4
[12] “From James Madison to William Jarvis, 30 October 1807,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/99-01-02-2276, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: this is an Early Access document from The Papers of James Madison. It is not an authoritative final version.
[13] “To James Madison from Anthony-Charles Cazenove, 13 July 1815,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/99-01-02-4510, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: this is an Early Access document from The Papers of James Madison. It is not an authoritative final version.
[14] “From George Washington to John and James Searle, 30 April 1763,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-07-02-0127 [last update: 2014-09-30]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 7, 1 January 1761 – 15 June 1767, ed. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990, p. 208.
[15] “From Thomas Jefferson to Stephen Cathalan, Jr., 26 May 1819,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-0434 [last update: 2014-09-30]). Source: this is an Early Access document from The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series. It is not an authoritative final version.
[16] “From James Madison to Isaac Hite, 15 December 1804,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/02-08-02-0403 [last update: 2014-09-30]). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series, vol. 8, 1 September 1804 – 31 January 1805 and supplement 1776 – 23 June 1804, ed. Mary A. Hackett, J. C. A. Stagg, Mary Parke Johnson, Anne Mandeville Colony, Angela Kreider, Jeanne Kerr Cross, and Wendy Ellen Perry. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007, p. 381.
[17] “From James Madison to Francis Corbin, 28 May 1817,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/04-01-02-0051 [last update: 2014-09-30]). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Retirement Series, vol. 1, 4 March 1817 – 31 January 1820, ed. David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Mary Parke Johnson, and Anne Mandeville Colony. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009, pp. 52–53.
[18] “To James Madison from Thomas Newton, 28 November 1806,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/99-01-02-1118 [last update: 2014-09-30]). Source: this is an Early Access document from The Papers of James Madison. It is not an authoritative final version.
[19] “To James Madison from James Leander Cathcart, 13 August 1810 (Abstract),” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/03-02-02-0594 [last update: 2014-09-30]). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Presidential Series, vol. 2, 1 October 1809–2 November 1810, ed. J. C. A. Stagg, Jeanne Kerr Cross, and Susan Holbrook Perdue. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992, p. 483.
[20] “From James Madison to James Leander Cathcart, 28 May 1811 (Abstract),” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/03-03-02-0371 [last update: 2014-09-30]). Source: The Papers of James Madison, Presidential Series, vol. 3, 3 November 1810–4 November 1811, ed. J. C. A. Stagg, Jeanne Kerr Cross, and Susan Holbrook Perdue. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, p. 320.
[21] Richard Rush to Charles Jared Ingersoll, October 9, 1816, box 3, folder 8, Charles Jared Ingersoll Papers, MS 1812, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. MRD-S 29167

  1. Peter Morrell
    November 14, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    Fascinating! Madeira is an undeservedly forgotten fantastic wine, especially very old ones that enjoy the longest lives of any type of wine.

    • November 14, 2014 at 3:12 pm

      Yes, it is hard to believe people still drink the same vintages that James Madison did.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: