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A photograph of men carrying wine in skins on the island of Madeira, circa 1906.

This image shows approximately two dozen men carrying wine in skins.  The image itself is from the photograph album of Charles Page Bryan who was U.S. Minister to Portugal from 1903 to 1909.  The wine skins themselves are carried in two different fashions.  The first involves a long pole, rested on a shoulder.  The second involves one rather long skin lashed around the shoulders with roping that rests on the forehead.  Some men employ both methods by wedging one arm between their head and the lashings, with both hands holding a pole that supports the back of the long skin.

Men carrying wine in skins on the island of Madeira.  c. 1906. [1]

Men carrying wine in skins on the island of Madeira. c. 1906. [1]


[1] Image from the Photograph album of Charles Page Bryan. c. 1906.  William & Mary Digital Archive.  URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10288/13410

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

June 15, 2015 1 comment

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.

A pair of excellent 2011 Gigondas from Domaine Santa Duc

This pair of 2011 Gigondas from Domaine Santa Duc sport remarkable power with surprising drinkability given the appellation.  The 2011 Domaine Santa Duc, Aux Lieux-Dits, Gigondas was formerly the cuvee Tradition as evidenced by the branded cork.  This particular bottle was evocative of young, old-school Gigondas with a rather earthy profile.  I find that particularly attractive.  If you purchase several bottles then you may enjoy the evolution of this wine.  The 2011 Domaine Santa Duc, Prestige des Hautes Garrigues, Gigondas is a step up in terms of power, concentration, and structure.  I have found some past vintages a bit intense, in terms of the new oak, but not in this one.  The core of deep fruit is there, the structure is very supportive and not obvious as new oak, and the whole bit is kept lively by the acidity.  These wines have remarkable staying power so be sure to stock up for future drinking.  These wines are available at MacArthur Beverages.

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2011 Domaine Santa Duc, Aux Lieux-Dits, Gigondas – $27
Imported by Robert Kacher Selections.  This wine is a blend of 70% Grenache, 15% Mourvedre, 10% Syrah, and 5% Cinsault sourced from vines averaging 35-50 years old that was aged for 18 months in wood casks and tuns.  Alcohol 15%.  There were brighter, red fruit aromas followed by earthy, greenhouse, and wood infused flavors.  The wine had a cooler entry with quickly building red fruit, weight, and texture.  There was an undeniably ripe core of fruit, that with air, developed some lifted complexity, creaminess, and more wood notes.  The wine sheds earthiness with air.  ***(*) Now-2030.

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2011 Domaine Santa Duc, Prestige des Hautes Garrigues, Gigondas – $40
Imported by Robert Kacher Selections.  This wine is a blend of 80% Grenache and 20% Mourvedre sourced from vines averaging 35-90 years old that was aged 18 months in 100% new oak casks.  Alcohol 15%. The more subtle nose made way to brighter red fruit that was lively with acidity.  With air the wine showed plenty of clean fruit, good quality tannins, and mineral infused black and red fruit.  The spicy, Big Red structure was present, supporting a core of complex fruit.  There was extract and a bit of structural roughness in the finish followed by a long aftertaste.  **** Now-2035+.

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“when it proved to be of an intermediate character, the Dutch flag floated”: The flags of Chateau Gruaud

"Chateau Gruau-Larose a St-Julien" [1]

“Chateau Gruau-Larose a St-Julien” [1]

“[D]uring the last century when the M. Gruaud, who has given his name to the vineyard, owned the property, it was his practice at the conclusion of each vintage to hoist above his chateau the flag of the particular nation which he thought his wine most likely to suit.  Thus whenever it was thin and poor, and consequently cheap, he ran up the German colours; if full of flavour and body, and correspondingly dear, the British standard was unfurled; and on those occasions when it proved to be of an intermediate character, the Dutch flag floated over the square tower of the Chateau Gruaud.” [2]


[1] Danflou, Alfred. Les Grands Crus Bordelais. Premiere Part. 1867. Gallica Bibliotheque Numerique. URL: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b86256511
[2] Vizetelly, Henry. “Report on the Wines tasted at the Vienna Universal Exhibition of 1873”.  Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons and Command, Volume 73, Part 4. 1874. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=wDUTAAAAYAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false

An aromatic bottle of 1975 Chateau Gruaud-Larose

Chateau Gruaud-Larose is one of several estates in the Domaines Cordier portfolio.  While the Gruaud-Larose estate itself dates back to the 18th century, it was not until the 1930s when it was fully acquired by the Cordier family.  The estate encompasses some 150 hectares of which more than half are planted with vines.  By the 1980s these vines were comprised mostly of Cabernet Sauvignon followed by Merlot with smaller amounts of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.  There was a bad fire in 1965 that resulted in a portion of the cellers being rebuilt.  The cuvier comprised a long line of large wooden vats on one side with glass-lined vats on the opposite side.  The wine was fermented in the glass-lined vats then immediately transferred to the large wooden vats.  Here the wine was aged for one or two months before being transferred into traditional Bordeaux barriques. The period in large vats slowed maturation thus enhancing the fruit.

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You will notice that our bottle of 1975 Chateau Gruaud-Larose is not of the standard Bordeaux shape.  This special bottle was introduced in 1960.  Throughout the 1960s the glass seal reproduced an image of M. George Cordier but in 1970 this was replaced by his initials.

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The 1975 vintage experienced a hot and dry summer.  The berries with their high sugar content, ample pigment, and thick skins yielded fruity wines of high alcohol but also high tannins. Thus the vintage was received favourably after the miserable 1972, 1973, and 1974 vintages.  Trade tastings in the 1980s confirmed the tannic nature of these wines.  Tasting in 1990, David Peppercorn found the 1975 to be the best of the decade being “very rich and concentrated, tannic without being too dry, with a dimension lacking in the 1978.”  Tasting during the same year Clive Coates was less enthusiastic noting, “There is fruit here, but the whole thing is rather dense and charmless.  Not exciting.”  Apparently tasted in the early 2000s, Michael Broadbent was pleased, “excellent nose; surprisingly sweet entry leading to a very dry astringent finish by way of attractive fragrance and flavour ****“.

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Lou and I randomly grabbed this particular bottle from a lot of three.  The fill was at the very top of the sloped shoulders.  Upon cutting the foil, the cork was covered with a quarter-inch of mold which when wet, took the appears of mud. The cork answered well to the screw of the Durand, revealing both its excellent state and ultimately, that it was firmly stoppering the bottle.  With some effort it was removed and being longer than the screw, the end had to be removed separately.  Michael Broadbent’s tasting note reveals the main characteristic of our particular bottle and that is the nose.  From the very first pour the wine had that sweet, mature, cedar box aroma.  Indeed, the next day the dregs still smelled that way with the cork maintaining an added wet tobacco aroma.  The nose alone provided enough pleasure but the modest amount of remaining fruit carried the wine through cheering us up at the end of the work week. This wine was purchased at MacArthur Beverages.

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1975 Chateau Gruaud-Larose, Saint-Julien (730 mL indicated on both labels but 75 cL on bottle)
Imported by Majestic Wine and Spirits, Inc.  11% – 13%.  For over two hours there was a lovely cedar box nose.  In the mouth were tart red fruit flavors followed by plenty of tangy acidity.  The firm flavors mixed with an attractive, old wood note.  The wine finished with citric tannins that coated the gums.  ** Now but will last.

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Broadbent, Michael.  Pocket Vintage Wine Companion. Harcourt, Inc. 2007.
Coates M.W., Clive. Grands Vins. University of California Press. 1995.
Penning-Rowsell, Edmund. The Wines of Bordeaux, Sixth Edition. Penguin Books. 1989
Peppercorn, David. Bordeaux, Second Edition. Faber & Faber. 1991.

Grape picking in Australia

Grape picking in Australia. [1]

Grape picking in Australia. [1]


[1] George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library. “Grape Picking in Australia.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-b2d7-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

The latest 2010 vintage from des Tours

Even if you just purchased some wine you must turn around to pick up the two latest selections from des Tours.  The wines of Chateau des Tours and Domaine des Tours are produced by Emmanuel Reynaud.  He took over the winemaking at the legendary Chateau Rayas in Chateauneuf du Pape after the death of his uncle Jacques Reynaud.  Emmanuel continues the tradition of low-yields, late harvest, and gentle winemaking.  Together they produce uniquely aromatic wines with mouth filling complexity that avoids any sense of heaviness.  No Rhone wine lover nor sommelier should miss these wines.  These wines are available at MacArthur Beverages.

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2010 Chateau des Tours, Reserve, Cotes du Rhone Blanc – $30
Imported by MacArthur Liquors.  This wine is 100% Grenache blanc.  Alcohol 14%.  With air a bit of apple orchard and yeast develop on the nose.  In the mouth was a rounded, weighty start with a creamy middle.  On top of the pleasurable mouthfeel rides a firm, white flavor.  The wine develops a glycerin body that delivers a very long finish of ripe, spices which are left on the gums.  **** Now – 2017.

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2010 Domaine des Tours, VdP Vaucluse – $30
Imported by MacArthur Liquors.  This wine is a blend of Grenache, Counoise, Syrah, Cinsault, Merlot, and other varieties that were fermented in a mixture of stainless steel tanks and cement vats.  Alcohol 13.5%.  There were low-lying aromas of orange-tinged red fruit and garrigue.  The mouth filling red fruit was already complex and mixed with kirsch and ample flavors of ripe, spices though the aftertaste.  The wine is in no way heavy, instead it is kept taut by the acidity and a mineral finish.  Already, a very complex and compelling wine.  **** Now-2025.

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A soldier guarding a vineyard in Ay after the Champagne riots of 1911

A soldier guarding a vineyard in Ay after the Champagne riots of 1911. [1]

A soldier guarding a vineyard in Ay after the Champagne riots of 1911. [1]


[1] Après le pillage, sentinelle gardant les vignes, Ay [avril] 1911.  Agence Rol. Agence photographique. Gallica Bibliotheque Numerique. URL: http://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb40474333c

Aromatic Brachetto from the ancient Malabaila di Canale estate

I had absolutely no clue what to expect upon opening my bottle of NV Malabaila di Canale, Cardunaj.  My first wave of thoughts were of sheer enjoyment.  Then I was reminded of the  Matteo Correggia, Anthos which is made from Brachetto. It turns out this wine is as well!  Both this non-vintage Canale and the vintage dated Correggia are excellent.  This particular wine was very aromatic with acidity-driven, articulate flavors.  The wine leans towards the floral and orange-citrus spectrum making it lighter in nature.  Our bottle drank best on the first night so I recommend that you share one with your friends. These wines seem to slip under the radar so spread the word.  This wine is available at MacArthur Beverages.

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NV Malabaila di Canale, Cardunaj – $15
Imported by deGrazia Imports.  This wine is 100% Brachetto del Roero sourced from vines planted in 1990. Alcohol 13%. The nose was very aromatic with floral notes.  The flavors were articulate just like the nose.  They were lively and acidity driven at first before fleshing out to show bright, orange-citrus backed red fruit.  The wine remained vibrant with round, minerals, and black tannins.  *** Now-2016.

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Setting vines in a vineyard at Mattersburg, Burgenland circa 1931

Settings vines in a vineyard. c. 1931. [1]

Settings vines in a vineyard. c. 1931. [1]


[1] Mattersburg. Austrian Photo Agency. c. 1931. Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek. URL: http://data.onb.ac.at/rec/baa4673483