Home > History of Wine > Madeira in Early America, Part 1

Madeira in Early America, Part 1


During April of this year I flew to San Francisco to attend the latest annual Madeira tasting organized by Mannie Berk (The Rare Wine Co.) and Roy Hersh (For The Love of Port).  These tastings draw an international group of Madeira experts whose presence was leveraged by The Stanford Wine Society.  Together with The Rare Wine Company, a series of talks and a tasting was organized for both Wine Society members and Stanford university alumni.  At this event, Mannie Berk delivered an introductory talk on the history of Madeira.  This was followed by three breakout sessions: Collecting Madeira with David Boobbyer (Reid Wines of Bath, England) and Paul Day (Madeira collector and expert), Madeira Blending with Ricardo Freitas (Vinhos Barbeito of Madeira), and Madeira in Early America with myself.  These sessions were then followed by a walk around tasting. I will present the core of my talk over the course of four posts this week.

Madeira in Early America

When Henry Knox, the Boston book seller turned Secretary of War under General George Washington, was notified that his four pipes of Madeira wine had arrived into Philadelphia during the summer of 1796, more than one year had elapsed since his order was placed. This was a long time even given the standards of 18th century shipping but these were no ordinary pipes of wine for they arrived from Madeira via India.

Madeira was long the favorite wine in America and more specifically, the only wine of choice amongst the wealthy and powerful. It is true that they ordered bottles of Chateau Haut-Brion, Lafite, Latour, and Margux by the dozen but the main expenditure was on top-quality Madeira acquired by the hundreds of gallons. Madeira was available from merchants up and down the coast of America but the choicest parcels could only be secured by ordering straight from the Island.

The period marked by the Revolutionary War, from 1775-1783, and the War of 1812 (1812-1815), both between Great Britain and America, are particularly rich with regards to the history of Madeira. No longer could one count on orders arriving with regularity for blockades, seizures at sea, and embargos were constantly interrupting the supply of Madeira. Though inconvenient, this was not disastrous for with the development of American independence came new trade routes. Thus in the time of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, Madeira came not only straight from the Island but also the East Indies, China, the West Indies, and even Brazil.

It is this period that I will focus on today. I will describe how Madeira was ordered, how it was aged, provide descriptions of the wine, and finally look at the introduction of India Madeira in America.

Ordering

In the 18th century Madeira was sold based on quality with such increasing designations as New York Market, London Market, and London Particular. The top London Particular is what the Founding Fathers would order or as a young Washington wrote, “from the best House in Madeira a Pipe of the best old wine”. These wines were ordered by the pipe, containing 110 gallons each. While these wines were blended, there were also unblended varieties such as Sercial and Malvasia. These were quite rare, expensive, and typically available only by the quarter-cask.

As London Particular was a blend, shippers would listen to their customers’ requests for color, body, and flavor. Thus the best Madeira for one’s taste was obtained by ordering straight from the island. The shippers kept track of their annual orders to cultivate the relationship; making sure to set aside good pipes such as what one firm did for Governor Penn.

Orders could take place in several ways. In some instances the shipping house reached out directly to the customer as when Martha Custis, future wife of George Washington, received a letter stating the house would like to send her a pipe yearly and that she could “depend on being supplied with the best.” In other instances orders were direct as with Madison.

John Marsden Pintard, US Commercial Agent and later Consul at Madeira, tried a patriotic approach. In the 1780s and 1790s, the Barbary pirates sailing out of North Africa, began to capture American vessels and enslave the crews. In 1794, the same year that the American Navy was commissioned to fight this threat, Pintard sent a letter to Knox, Washington, and others. He proposed to ship wines “superior to any House on the Island” and pay $4 per pipe, which cost $250 with freight, towards a fund for the relief of any American captured now or in the future. He also guaranteed that the wine would match the superior quality or he would not charge for it.

With Independence came the development of commercial relationships and diplomatic agreements between countries. American agents in foreign lands often took the initiative. When James Leander Cathcart, US Consul General in Spain, learned of the destruction of the President’s House with the Madeira contained within, during the War of 1812, he immediately had one house send several pipes of “excellent quality” supposing “that your stock was burnt by the Goths”. Cathcart himself was held captive in Algiers for 11 years but we do not know if he benefited from Pintard’s fund.

Up Next: Madeira in Early American, How it was Aged


[1] William Speiden journals: Vol. 1, Mar. 9, 1852-July 2, 1854. Manuscript Division, The Library of Congress.  URL: https://www.loc.gov/item/mss830450001/

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