Home > History of Wine > “Very rich and old”: Malmsey in America at the turn of the 19th century

“Very rich and old”: Malmsey in America at the turn of the 19th century


On April 11, 2015, I attended The Majesty of Malvasia Tasting in New York City.  This was the fourth in a series of definitive annual Madeira tastings organized by Mannie Berk (The Rare Wine Co.) and Roy Hersh (For The Love of Port).  I was invited to write an article about Malmsey in America for the tasting booklet.  This post is a slight variation of that original article.  I will publish my tasting notes and pictures from that historic day over the next two weeks.

Madeira’s location off the northwest coast of Africa made it a natural stopping point for ships that followed the trade winds and currents to the shores of the American colonies. In 1665 British trade negotiations required all European wines exported to America to travel on British ships destined from British ports. The wines of Madeira were exempted creating a healthy trade and widespread thirst for the wine in the colonies. Early shipping news illustrates the continuous arrival of ships and their cargo from Madeira. The wines of Madeira were so dominant in the American market that it is the only wine listed in the current price reports for Philadelphia and New York from the 1720s through the 1760s. Other wines from Portugal eventually made the lists in the 1780s but Madeira held its place both in volume and price.

James Griffiths' advertisement for "very rich and old" Malmsey Madeira in the Independent Journal (New York, NY)  1784.

James Griffiths’ advertisement for “very rich and old” Malmsey Madeira in the Independent Journal (New York, NY) 1784.

Priced at £40 to £100 per pipe, the introductory price for Madeira was the same as the most expensive alternative wine. Advertisements, from Boston down to Savannah, detail the various types and ages of Madeira that were imported into America. Amongst the most expensive offerings was the “very rich and old” Malmsey. Whereas other types of Madeira were available by the pipe, Malmsey was produced in such small quantities that it was typically sold by the quarter-cask and occasionally the bottle.

Madeira was priced in a realm that only affluent Americans could afford. Amongst these men it was the wine of choice for the earliest Presidents, Congressmen, and Supreme Court justices. Madeira figured prominently in the lives of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. All three men routinely sought the finest and oldest Madeira which they served both for private use and at the Presidential dining table.

These three purchased their Madeira together as well as separately. Their wines were ordered from merchants in America, from commercial agents in Europe, and directly from houses in Madeira. They continued to seek Madeira throughput the years when American went from being a British colony to an independent country. Despite their dedication to Madeira, Malmsey was purchased only a handful of times. Their correspondence show that even for these men, Malmsey could be hard to obtain.

The creation of the city of Washington was approved in 1790. During the years that the President’s House, now known as the White House, and the Capitol were under construction, Madeira in general could be purchased in nearby Georgetown and Alexandria, Virginia. The closest offerings of Malmsey first appear in 1791 up at Baltimore, Maryland. Malmsey was not advertised with any frequency until shortly after the first session of Congress was held in November, 1800. After which, Malmsey was typically on hand in Georgetown.

The occupation of the capital city brought in enough people that the local supply of Madeira was drained. One city merchant noted that “during the recess of Congress” he added a large stock of Madeira “some of which is of a very superior quality.” Of all the selections for one Madeira shipper, Malmsey was the only one to be listed without price; instead credit terms were offered based on age. Thomas Jefferson would eventually classify Malmsey at nearly twice the cost of the high-quality London Particular. Malmsey, rare and expensive, had found a market in Washington.

If the taste for Malmsey was brought in by elected officials it certainly could have developed both in Williamsburg, Virginia and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In both cities Malmsey was advertised as early as the mid-1760s. Indeed, while Thomas Jefferson was a law student in Williamsburg, he noted in 1773, that “Mrs. Wythe puts one tenth very rich superfine Malmsey to a dry Madeira, and makes a fine wine.” In a later classification of the “different flavors or characters of wines” he labeled this blend as “silky Madeira”. It soon became more difficult to make Mrs. Wythe’s blend as a ban on the importation of Madeira into America went into effect in December 1774 shortly before the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War and lasted until the end.

Thomas Jefferson maintained his specific interest in Malmsey after the war ended. In 1786, while Minister Plenipotentiary in Paris, he ordered “very good Malvoisie de Madeira” or Malmsey, through a French firm. Only part of the order arrived so Thomas Jefferson requested the remaining be sent. As if to make up for the short-coming, an even larger amount was arrived. Incredibly, most of the extra Malmsey came from New York. Half of this order was intended for the Marquis de Lafayette. This particular pipe of Malmsey, noted as Madeira “de l’Amerique” in a memo to Lafayette’s secretary, was selected by Francis Lewis. Francis Lewis wrote to Thomas Jefferson in the spring of 1786 how he picked the best of 40 pipes and that it was eight years old.

From Thomas Jefferson to Lefévre, Roussac & Cie., 8 August 1786 ordering six dozen bottles of "Malvoisie de Madeire".  The William and Mary Digital Archive.

From Thomas Jefferson to Lefévre, Roussac & Cie., 8 August 1786 ordering six dozen bottles of “Malvoisie de Madeire”. The William and Mary Digital Archive.

The Malmsey of Jefferson and Lafayette then was from the 1778 vintage. This post-Independence vintage was most likely imported into New York sometime after the end of the Revolutionary War. The war had disrupted the importation of Madeira into America making the availability of “choice Old Madeira Wine…exceedingly Scarce & Dear”. There were just over one dozen advertisements for Madeira in the newspapers of Maryland and Virginia during 1782. There was more than ten times that amount in 1786. The thirst for Madeira which existed during the Colonial years had survived the difficulties of war.

Thomas Jefferson wrote from Paris that it was “impossible to get good and genuine Madeira wine” in the city. Malmsey was in general a scarce wine. Thomas Jefferson’s difficulty in obtaining it Paris was undoubtedly increased by the very “short” vintage of 1784 which was followed by the total “failure” for Malmsey of the 1785, 1786, and 1787 vintages.

The very same year that Jefferson imported his Malvoisie, George Washington requested vines slips of the “best eating Grape” from Madeira for planting at his Mount Vernon home in Virginia. What he received included a barrel of “Fine malmsey Grape” slips which did not survive the long ocean voyage. George Washington also ordered Madeira that year but was so surprised by the post-war expense that he wrote, “I have not yet tasted it, but presume it is fine: it ought to be so, for the cost of it”. The Madeira shipper explained that the British factory had raised the price of “first quality” pipes by 10% in response to the small and “not very generally good” vintage of 1784.

Madeira remained the favorite wine throughout James Madison’s life. To meet one particular order of Madeira he was shipped seven year old Sercial, “Terita or Burgundy Madeira”, and Malmsey. These wines were scarce and shipped in quarter-casks as a result. Though several letters are missing it appears that James Madison enjoyed the Malmsey so much that he placed another order. Unfortunately “not a drop of that description” could be found on the island and of the scarce wines he was just sent another quarter cask of Sercial from the personal cellar of Don Joao de Carvalhal. Regarded as the richest man on the island with the best plantations, it appears that even Don Carvalhal did not have any Malmsey.

Many guests of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison wrote in their diaries about the fine taste of these rare and old bottles. George Washington even designed such special coolers to hold his Madeira that they had to be made in London. James Madison also served his Madeira in coolers. On the evening of the Burning of Washington, during the War of 1812, the occupying British forces found his “super-Excellent Madeira” cooling in the Presidential dining room. The British drank this Madeira before torching the President’s House. Though the Presidential cellar was destroyed, the rest of James Madison’s wines were safe at Montpelier including a parcel of Madeira he had ordered together with George Washington known as his “Washington Wine”. James Madison’s habits of long aging, storage in a warm area, and naming of a parcel were soon to become the hallmarks of the great 19th century Madeira connoisseurs of the South and the North.

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