Home > History of Wine > Madeira in Early America, Part 2

Madeira in Early America, Part 2


This is the second of four posts based on my talk presented to The Stanford Wine Society in April of this year.

Vüe ​​de la ville et de la rade de Funchal capitale de l’ile de Madere, Volume 2 of the “Histoire générale des voyages” of AF Prévost (Paris: Didot, 1746). (1)

How It Was Aged

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. When he received an order of Madeira he was sure to let the cask remain stationery for quite some time. 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. 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. The correspondent 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.”

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.” 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”.

It is curious as to when people first started storing their Madeira, not in the cellar, but in the attic or garret. I thought, at first, that this tradition might have come from such Madeira loving cities as Charleston. Located on the water, many existing 18th century houses do not have basements due to the high water level. However, the earliest reference I can find comes from Sir Hans Sloane, the famous naturalist whose immense collection formed the backbone of The British Museum. Sir Sloane wrote in 1707, “Madera Wines have this particular to them, different from French Wines, and all others coming hither, that it keeps better in a hot Place, and expos’d to the Sun, than in a cool Cellar”.

Philadelphia was a great Madeira city where houses contained both cellars and garrets. We know from probate inventories that during our period of interest, of houses with cellars, ¼ kept liquor and beer down below. Over the same period, of houses with garrets, 1/8 kept liquor and beer in the garret. Elizabeth Drinker, the wife of wealthy merchant Henry Drinker, noted that one fall day in 1804, her husband and his coachmen “have been busy this Afternoon moving a Cask of wine from the Cellar up 2 pr. Stairs, obliged to nearly empty the cask before they could get it up, and then fill it again.” We know from his 1809 inventory that there were “4 demijohns containing wine” up two pairs of stairs. The wine mentioned would be Madeira stored in his garret and I wonder if that’s where he filled the demijohns.

George Washington always stored his Madeira in the cellar of his home at Mount Vernon. However, for one particular order of India Madeira, near the end of his second term as President, he was advised that his recently arrived pipes of Madeira would improve better if left in the counting house above ground than in any cellar. This was a change for Washington for most of his life he had his Madeira drawn from the pipe on a daily basis. By this point you must now wonder what these wines were like.

Up Next: Descriptions of Madeira


[1] Vüe ​​de la ville et de la rade de Funchal capitale de l’ile de Madere, Volume 2 of the “Histoire générale des voyages” of AF Prévost (Paris: Didot, 1746).  Wikicommons. URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:V%C3%BCe_de_la_ville_et_de_la_rade_de_Funchal_capitale_de_l%E2%80%99ile_de_Madere_(1746).jpg

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