“very Scarce” Sercial in America at the turn of the 19th century.
On April 30, 2016, I attended The Sercial Tasting in New York City. This was the fifth in a series of definitive annual Madeira tastings organized by Mannie Berk (The Rare Wine Co.) and Roy Hersh (For The Love of Port). This post is the article I wrote for the tasting booklet.
During the late 1700s and early 1800s, Madeira was typically ordered not by grape variety but by level of quality: from India and New York Market at the low end, to Old London Particular at the high end.
But it was always possible to buy a small barrel of single-varietal Madeira, especially Malmsey, Bual and Sercial. And for at least one early U.S. President, James Madison, Sercial was particularly prized.
Madison had developed a life-long love for Madeira, typically ordering the finest and oldest London Particular quality. As Secretary of State under President Thomas Jefferson, he expanded upon his usual orders by purchasing a hogshead of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite Brazil quality Madeira. When Madison became President after Thomas Jefferson in 1809, he purchased the remaining bottles of Jefferson’s Madeira that lay in the White House cellar.
But that wasn’t all he did to stock the White House cellar. Just one week into his Presidency, he placed an unusually large order of Madeira including old and new London Particular, Tinta or Madeira Burgundy, Malmsey, and Sercial. The Sercial was the only type of Madeira in his order described as “very Scarce” and as such was shipped in a quarter-cask. This is the first known order for Sercial amongst our Founding Fathers and one of the earliest in America.
Madison placed another order for Sercial a year later in 1810. Still being scarce, it could only be sourced from the private stock of Count Joao de Carvalhal who was considered the richest man on Madeira with “the best plantations.” Madison received his order the following year in 1811 and found the wine “very satisfactory.”
It is possible that Madison had to wait until he was President to afford Sercial. The British Factory established the prices for all Madeira shipped from the island by British firms. Madison paid £60 per pipe for old London Particular and the equivalent of £72 per pipe for Sercial. A year later in 1811, the Factory maintained the price on London Particular but the price of Sercial rose to £94 per pipe. Sercial was the most expensive type of Madeira which could be purchased.
Sercial was believed to stem from German vines at Hockheim and at times was called Madeira Hock. It only grew well at particular locations and altitudes on Madeira. Sercial was considered “superior to any dry wine, much esteemed on account of its scarcity and high flavor.” It was, however, unpalatable when young, requiring six to eight years before becoming drinkable. James Madison’s Sercial was seven years of age thus considered ready to drink. If scarcity raised the price then the requirement for age drove it up even further.
Advertisements for Sercial in American first appear in 1799 when one butt was offered for private sale. It is not until 1805 that Sercial was periodically advertised for sale. These advertisements continue through the beginning of the War of 1812 between American and Great Britain. It is possible the war prevented James Madison from placing a third order. Sercial essentially disappears from advertisements until 1816 when trade largely resumed. It now fetched a price of £100 per pipe.
James Madison’s Presidency lasted only one more year after the resumption of Madeira imports in 1816. We do not know why Madison did not continue his orders for Sercial. One possibility is that there was no affordable old Sercial to be had. In a normal year it could be difficult for a shipper to obtain even just two or three casks. In 1816, drinkable Sercial would have been from the 1809 or 1810 vintages. These were amongst a run of four bad years.
Count João de Carvalhal was considered to have wines as fine as any other on the island. In 1801, he purchased and developed the Palheiro estate in the hills near Funchal (and now owned by members of the Blandy family). It is here that Count Carvalhal kept his store of wine. When the Portuguese royal family moved back to Portugal from Brazil, a power struggle broke out. The new governor of Madeira confiscated the Palheiro estate, sending some 700 pipes of Count Carvalhal’s old wine to Lisbon.
The Madeira of Carvalhal was soon to return to America. “Carvalhal, vintage 1815, confiscated and sold under Don Miguel, in 1828” appears on wine lists and auction announcements beginning in the 1840s. The most famous of all Carvalhal wines is the 1808 Lomelino Carvalhal Sercial. This was the “highlight” of Sir Stephen Gaselee’s Madeira collection, bottles of which still survive to this day.
Incredibly, this vintage would have lain in Count Carvalhal’s cellar when James Madison’s Sercial orders were filled. It was not yet ready to drink so James Madison was sent the 1802 vintage.