Home > History of Wine > Madeira in Early America, Part 3

Madeira in Early America, Part 3


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

Descriptions of Madeira

Color is the first aspect one notices of wine in a glass. A desirable color was of such importance that a wine merchant wrote to George Washington in 1760 that his cask of Madeira had a “Color we have endeavored Carefully to please you.” Merchants were not simply picking casks of a particular color, they were coloring the wines. Benjamin Franklin received a case of wine split between “high coloured or Madeira Wine” and “pale Wine”. It was even recommended that cyder be colored for “It will add Greatly to its beauty to have it a little coloured”. Contemporary to James Madison’s orders was Thomas Jefferson’s receipt of a “half Pipe Natural Sherry” and a half pipe “Sherry with Color”. The “Natural Sherry” was without “color or any additives”.

There is but one example of the actual color of Madeira from this period. George Washington received three year old “very choice Particulr Madeira Wine” that was “of a fine Amber Colour”. This description matches an advertisement in New York City for similarly aged Madeira and is distinct from “old pale” Madeira. The implication is that the Amber wine was more colorful. James Madison preferred Madeira that was “rather of the deeper colour”. A later order of Madeira was also described as “of a very deep colour”.

I can find no descriptions of body in the James Madison’s papers. We know that George Washington requested a “rich oily Wine” for one of his Madeira orders. Thomas Jefferson later wrote of “silky Madeira” that was made by “putting a small portion of Malmsey into the dry Madeira.”

Though this mixture was made famous by Jefferson we also find it in a letter from John Drayton written several decades earlier. Drayton was a chief Justice of South Carolina and a wealthy planter who built the Palladian mansion Drayton Hall which still exists on the Ashley River near Charleston. He wrote to his merchant Newton-Gordon in 1771 that he wanted “a couple of pipes of the best madeira for my use, of the finest flavor. Silkey-soft & smooth upon the palate — no ways ruff, sweetish & a little more Malmsey in it than usual.” Drayton regarded the silky character as highly important. His 28 Pound Sterling Madeira is described as “a silky fine flavoured wine, and is allowed 10 by good judges here.” I take that to mean 10 points, hopefully out of 10. That Drayton scored his wine may not be so unusual for he made his fortune from rice which was rated according to the quality of its milling.

I mentioned before how Madison liked to finish aging his Madeira in his garret. The term “mellow” appears in the 1780s to describe the Madeira stored by Americans in “the tops of the houses”. At the same time it was acknowledged in a committee meeting about providing the best investment for returning British East India ships, that Madeira mellowed from the long journey in the hot holds. Despite this early acknowledgement, it was not until after the end of the War of 1812, when it became more common for wine to travel from Madeira to India or China before returning to America, did the term become more frequent. In fact it became synonymous with wine from that trade route.

Up Next: India Madeira in America


[1]  Mallet, Allain Manesson.  Description de l’univers. 1683. URL: https://archive.org/details/descriptiondelun03mall

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