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Syrah from Viala and Vermorel’s Ampelographie

As the previous post featured a wine made from Syrah I decided to include an illustration of a Syrah bunch from Viala and Vermorel’s Ampélographie.  It was published just over one century ago in seven volumes, featuring 500 chromolithographed images of grape varieties.

Syrah from Viala and Vermorel Ampélographie. [1]


[1] Ampélographie. Tome 2 / publiée sous la direction de P. Viala,…, V. Vermorel,… ; avec la collaboration de A. Bacon, A. Barbier, A. Berget… [et al.] 1901-1910. Bibliothèque nationale de France. URL: http://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb35281023z

[2] I was also inspired by Mannie Berk’s inclusion of the Bastardo variety in our most recent Madeira tasting booklet.

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A forgotten 19th c. account of a hogshead of Chateau Haut-Brion purchased in 1669

Long View of London from Bankside by Wenceslaus Hollar, 1647. Wikimedia.

The earliest references to the wine of Chateau Haut-Brion in England are found in the cellar book of King Charles II for whom 169 bottles of “wine of Hobriono” were served in 1660 and 1661.[1]  Just a few years later Samuel Pepys famously drank “a sort of French wine, called Ho Bryan” at the Royal Oak Tavern.[2]  Unbeknownst at the time it would soon be difficult to procure French wine.

Between 1665 and 1666, the Great Plague of London killed almost one quarter of the London population only to be followed by the Great Fire of 1666 which destroyed the central part of London.

Outside of London, the Second Anglo Dutch War raged on the seas during the same period.  It was a war fought to control the sea and trade routes.  The Calendar of State Papers of the reign of Charles II are full of references to wine.  During the war the accounts detail the capture of prize ships sometimes “richly laden” with wine.  So much wine was brought into some ports that prices even lowered.

After the war merchants resumed purchasing wine from France.  The calendered accounts follow this normal trade in wine but now add comments on size, price, and sometimes quality of the vintage.  For example during October 1668, many English ships were loading up on wine at Bordeaux even though “the French hold the wines at great price.”[3]  There was less of the 1669 Bordeaux vintage to go around with one report from October 1669 claiming “that there will not be so much wine made there as formerly”.[4]

It is possible that the smaller 1669 vintage is what Lord Montague purchased from Richard Blatchford when he was billed £24 for two hogsheads of “Aubryan wine” on November 19, 1669.[5]  This is, of course, the wine of Chateau Haut-Brion. The 19th century account of this bill was only brought back to contemporary attention by Asa Briggs in Haut-Brion (1994).

It turns out there is another 19th century account of the purchase of “Aubryan” which has been forgotten.  In 1669, Eton College purchased one hogshead also at £12.[6] This account was perhaps forgotten because the author confesses, “I am entirely in the dark as to Aubryan, Cawos, and Palm wine.  The first is low priced”.

 


[1] Robinson, Jancis. The Oxford Companion to Wine. 2015.

[2] Friday 10 April 1663. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. URL: http://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1663/04/10/

[3] John Pocock to James Hickes. October 19, 1668. Calendar of State Papers, domestic series, of the reign of Charles II, October 1668 to December 1669. 1894. URL: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015066345714

[4] Thomas Holden to James Hickes. October 25, 1669. Calendar of State Papers, domestic series, of the reign of Charles II, October 1668 to December 1669. 1894. URL: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015066345714

[5] Sussex Archaeological Collections Relating to the History and Antiquities of the County, Volume 15. 1863. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=jDcGAAAAQAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

[6] Rogers, James E. Thorold.  A History of Agriculture and Prices in England: 1583-1702. https://books.google.com/books?id=iwRGAQAAMAAJ&dq=1660%20england%20wine%20prices%20fixed&pg=PR3#v=onepage&q=wine&f=false

“I intend, however, to have them examined”: George Washington’s 1785 Chateau Margaux

Extract from Fenwick Mason & Company to George Washington, August 10, 1790, with Invoice. [4]

During the summer of 1791, George Washington received two orders of claret from the firm of Fenwick, Mason & Co. in Bordeaux.  These orders are of interest because they shed light on the quality of the late 18th century Bordeaux vintages.  From these order we do not know what George Washington nor his secretary Tobias Lear thought of  an order of 1786 Chateau Lafite. Fortunately, the assessment of the 1785 Chateau Margaux is preserved.

George Washington’s first order of claret from Fenwick, Mason & Co. met with calamity.  Placed on August 16, 1789, George Washington requested 26 dozen bottles of claret and 26 dozen bottles of Champagne. [1]  As Bordeaux was not the best location to order Champagne, 12 dozen bottles of the sparkling wine were sent from Rheims and 12 dozen bottles of “vins de grave” would come from Bordeaux.[2]  That winter the wine departed for New York via the French packet Jean Jacques.  It was not until July 9, 1790, that George Washington was informed that his wine had not made it to New York, instead due to damage to the ship from the very cold weather, the ship put into Brest where the wine was unloaded.  The cases were split open and a quarter of the bottles were broken. [3]

Fenwick, Mason & Co. sought to have any remaining bottles in Brest sent on to George Washington.[4]  Sadly these bottles were not insured.  Until those wine could arrive, they sent a smaller order of the sames wines from Bordeaux.  It is in the invoice dated August 10, 1790, that we learn that the claret was the 1785 Chateau Margaux.

The smaller, replacement order of wine arrived by the end of June 1791.[5]  On July 7, 1791, Tobias Lear wrote Fenwick, Mason, & Co. noting the arrival of the wine in “good order”.[6]  He specifically wrote that the “claret of the first shipment” that being the 1785 Chateau Margaux, was “pronounced very good”.


[1] “From George Washington to Wakelin Welch & Son, 16 August 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 21, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-03-02-0275. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 3, 15 June 1789–5 September 1789, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989, pp. 478–479.]

[2] “To George Washington from Fenwick, Mason, & Company, 5 December 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 21, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0258. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4, 8 September 1789 – 15 January 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993, p. 364.]

[3] “To George Washington from Fenwick, Mason, & Company, 9 July 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 21, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-06-02-0021. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 6, 1 July 1790 – 30 November 1790, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 38–40.]

[4] Fenwick Mason & Company to George Washington, August 10, 1790, with Invoice.  George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4. General Correspondence. 1697-1799.  URL: https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mgw4&fileName=gwpage099.db&recNum=720&tempFile=./temp/~ammem_QE3I&filecode=mgw&next_filecode=mgw&prev_filecode=mgw&itemnum=19&ndocs=100

[5] “To George Washington from Tobias Lear, 23 June 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 21, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-08-02-0201. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 8, 22 March 1791 – 22 September 1791, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp. 294–299.]

[6] Tobias Lear to Mason Fenwick & Co, July 7, 1791. George Washington Papers, Series 2, Letterbooks 1754-1799: Letterbook 23, Aug. 26, 1790 – March 25, 1793. URL: https://www.loc.gov/item/mgw2.023/

 

“Sercial Sherman”: A look at the 1852 Sercial selected by General Sherman in 1871

January 12, 2017 Leave a comment

In December 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman completed his “March to the Sea” which involved widespread devastation not just of military targets but also industrial and civilian property.  Having reached Savannah, Georgia, his troops turned towards the Carolinas with the intention of reaching Virginia.  Thus at the start of 1865, residents of Charleston, South Carolina took action as General Sherman’s army advanced.

Residents of Charleston were careful to hide and disperse their treasured Madeira collections to avoid consumption by General Sherman’s troops.  Bottles were hidden between rafters, demijohns were buried in the ground and for the South Carolina Jockey Club, the Madeira was hidden in the South Carolina State Hospital for the mentally ill.  The Jockey Club’s Madeira remained untouched but for some families their entire collection was lost.  One family sent eight wagon loads of Madeira nearly 200 miles from Charleston to Cheraw, near the North Carolina border.[1]  The Madeira was captured by General Frank P. Blair before it could be hidden.

General Blair served a few bottles of the captured Madeira to General Sherman who found them “very good”.  General Blair shared the story of its capture and eventually sent a dozen bottles “of the finest Madeira” General Sherman had ever tasted.  The rest of the Madeira was divided equally amongst the army.

Surviving stocks of 19th century American bottled Madeira are exceedingly rare.  It is ironic then, given the widespread disruption and consumption of Madeira by General Sherman’s army that one of his own bottles was served at The Sensational Sercial Tasting held last year.

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Labeled “1852 Sercial Selected By General Sherman On his visit at Madeira, 1871” this bottle was part of a parcel of three bottles acquired by Roy Hersh, For the Love of Port.  The paper-wrapped bottles were purchased from a family on Long Island who had owned them for three decades.  Two of the bottles were labeled as Sercial and one Navy Reserve.  There is no known documentation for these bottles and outside General Sherman’s comments on General Blair’s captured Madeira, he himself wrote nothing else about specific bottles of Madeira.

It was at a dinner in August 1871, with Admiral James Alden and General William W. Belknap, that General Sherman made plans to visit Madeira.[2]  Admiral Alden had been promoted to rear admiral in command of the Mediterranean Squadron.  As General Sherman had never been to Europe he agreed to accompany Admiral Alden on his journey to Spain.  They were to first stop at Madeira.

Admiral Alden was to take the screw frigate Wabash as his flagship.  She was being overhauled at the time.  With repairs complete she left the Boston Navy Yard on November 17, 1871. Just a few weeks later she approached Funchal under steam on December 5, 1871.[3]

USS Wabash. c 1871-1873. Image from Naval History and Heritage Command.

USS Wabash. c 1871-1873. Image from Naval History and Heritage Command.

General Sherman wrote very little of wine during his life and little of the “Celebrated Madeira Wine” during his visit as he described it.  His only descriptions of wine relate to the “[b]light destroy the grapes” some 20 years earlier.  He described how “New Vineyards are beginning to reproduce the Same wine”.

He accompanied Admiral Alden on their very first visit ashore which was to a “Mr Walsh’s house”, the Admiral having known him in “former years”.  It is Mannie Berk, The Rare Wine Co., who first suggested that General Sherman perhaps visited Mr. Welsh of the Madeira shippers Welsh Brothers and that perhaps our bottle came from the Welsh’s.[4]

Prior to the Oidium, or blight that General Sherman wrote of, the Welsh Brothers were focused on “cheap light Madeira”.[5]  This succeeded in this business becoming the largest Madeira shipper by 1849.  By 1881, their focused changed to sending the “more costly growths” mostly in bottle to the United States.

That our bottle came from the Welsh’s is corroborated by an article published in Harper’s Magazine during 1919 by Major Charles Wellington Furlong.[6]  Major Furlong was an American explorer and writer who traveled around the world.  This particular article of his describes a hunting trip he took with Charles B. Cossart, Harry Hinton, and Mr. Welsh Jr on a deserted island off of Madeira.

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On the last night of the hunt, the party celebrated with a meal of curried rabbit and goat-meat stew accompanied by a bottle of Madeira brought by Mr. Welsh Jr.  It was none other than “a bottle of Sercial wine of a vintage of seventy years.”  This dates the wine to 1849 which essentially matches the 1852 vintage of our bottle.  Mr. Welsh Jr. explained that wine was called “Sercial Sherman” because at Christmas time “General Sherman sent for four bottles, and since then his daughter has followed her father’s custom.”

It seems unequivocal that our 1852 General Sherman Sercial came from the Welsh Brothers.  It is also possible that the Madeira Wine Association (MWA), in part formed by Hinton and Welsh, marketed wine under the name “Sercial Sherman”.  Since this bottle is not labeled “Sercial Sherman” it is possible it was shipped during General Sherman’s lifetime which means it arrived in the United States between 1871 and 1891.


[1] Sherman, William Tecumseh.  “Memoirs of General William T. Sherman”, 1876.

[2] Ibid.

[3] General William Tecumseh Sherman to Thomas E. Sherman.  December 5, 1871. CSHR 9/59. Sherman Letters. University of Notre Dame. URL: http://archives.nd.edu/findaids/ead/index/fulltext/cshr9_59.htm

[4] See Mannie Berk’s background information on the wine in the Sensational Sercial tasting booklet. April 30, 2016.

[5] Vizetelly, Henry. Facts About Port and Madeira. 1880.

[6] Furlong, Major Charles Wellington. “Hunting With the Lords of the Dezertas” Harper’s Magazine, Volume 138. 1919.

The Sensational Sercial Tasting 1875-1800

December 23, 2016 Leave a comment

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On April 30, 2016, I attended The Sensation 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).  It was only one year prior that I was fully immersed in the world of fine, old Madeira when I attended The Majesty of Malvasia tasting.

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A single glass of old Madeira can perfume a room for hours.  Some 400 glasses containing 20 different wines for 20 people is downright intoxicating.  However, tasting Sercial can be a bit difficult for the naturally high acidity level combined with lower residual sugar can produce a trying wine.  Some of the wines would have been better with food for the sheer quantity of piercing acidity.  Other wines were quite sweet, leaving one taster to jokingly comment that perhaps the “S” does not stand for Sercial.

My four favorite wines spanned the century and also support the notion that either a purported single vintage or a blend can produce outstanding wines.

1875 Blandy’s Grabham’s Sercial
1864 Henriques & Henriques Sercial
1808 Braheem Kassab (BAK) “SS”Sercial
NV Henriques & Henriques Reserva “H.H.” Sercial

All of these wines are historic but two of them have particular American connections. The 1810 Monteiro Old Sercial Reserve is mid 20th century bottling of a house whose wines were imported into America since at least the late 18th century.  There is also the elegantly bottled and labeled 1852 Sercial Selected by General Sherman on his visit at Madeira, 1871.  It is not the most exciting wine to drink but certainly one very important to taste.  There are but few surviving American bottled Madeira in existence.  As a result there are no living experts experienced with this type of Madeira.  I will follow up with a short post detailing a bit more history behind the Sherman Sercial.

Advertisement for Monteiro Madeira from 1796.

Advertisement for Monteiro Madeira from 1796.

It is also important to point out that at least one of our wines was fake.  The 1869 Blandy’s Sercial is not known to have been at auction.  Though the red lead capsule bore the Blandy’s name, it covered both a T-stopper and a contemporary paper seal.  There is also some question about the 1825 “S” Sercial.  It is purportedly a Braheem Kassab (BAK) Madeira but it lacks the embossed capsule.  I shall focus in on these bottles in later posts.

You will find my tasting notes below in the order tasted.  Though we sat down to all of the wines, we tasted through them in flights.  As usual, we silently tasted through the flight then openly discussed the wines.  For me, far more important than the tasting descriptors, are the unique insights provides by a handful of the attendees.  While the provenance of a wine in general speaks to the legitimacy of the bottle and storage conditions, with Madeira it also speaks to how the wine was raised.  Great old Madeira is not the product of one person, it is the result of multiple generations.  From the original blending of wine from multiple families to the different people or families who cared for the wine from cask to demijohn to bottle and perhaps back to demijohn before final bottling.  Unlike 19th-century example of ex-chateau Bordeaux, Madeira may also purposely spend portions of its life in different buildings, gently influencing its character.

While my tasting notes will clearly reflect my preferences, it is the bottle histories that are more important.  Mannie Berk compiles these histories in the tasting book we each receive.  You may find excerpts from these histories in Richard Mayson’s notes in his post Sensational Sercial.  Roy Hersh publishes his tasting notes from in The World of Fine Wine Magazine.  More of the histories will appear in his article. I will update this post once he has done so for this tasting.

Tasting organizers Mannie Berk and Roy Hersh.

Tasting organizers Mannie Berk and Roy Hersh.

Flight #1

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1875 D’Oliveira Sercial
Amongst the darkest of this flight but still brilliant. The pungent nose was finely articulate with underlying sweetness balanced by fresh, high-toned aromas. In the mouth is piercing acidity at the start which returns on the throat in the aftertaste. There is a fine, developing flavors with a certain earthy accent and dried herbs in the aftertaste. It is very acidic in the end. It is a little bit rough right now suggesting the need for further development. ****

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1875 Blandy’s Grabham’s Sercial
The aromas are lower lying with web tobacco, inviting one to take another sniff of the complex and long-lasting aromas. There is a sweeter start with fine cedar and wood intertwined. There is watering acidity which carries the butterscotch flavors through the sweeter, tobacco accented aftertaste. This is a fine, old Madeira with very good balance leaning towards some sweetness. ****(*)

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1870 Ricardo Vasoncelos Sercial “RV”
The nose is funky, sweat which is not pungent, and dark and sweet aromas. It responded with air becoming more properly pungent. There is a rounded, glycerin marked start with integrated acidity. The wine tastes older but sports a racy end just as the acidity shows through. With air the wine does improve leaving a sense of fruit at the start and a wood note. ***(*)/****

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1869 Blandy’s Sercial
This has the lightest color of the floor but is almost slightly cloudy. It smells like old wine mixed with lactic funkiness. In the mouth are the leanest and driest flavors encountered. The flavor lacks through the aftertaste when heat comes out. Not Rated.

Flight #2

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1865 Torre Bella Sercial
This is just lightly the darkest of the new flight. The nose offers up some must then a combination of dried and fresh floral aromas, perhaps lavender, and eventually sweet potpourri. The wine is salty and savory with rapier like acidity. The acidity almost hurts the mouth, overpowering the lavender flavor. Both spirity and hard to drink. Poor.

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1864 Torre Bella Camara de Lobos Sercial
There is a piercing nose of sweet fruit with a touch of wood. This wine is richer with a core of concentrated flavor. The piercing acidity moves through the dry, citric finish only to return on the back of the throat. The wine offers more acidity than fruit but shows substantially better balance than the 1865. In fact, it comes across as lively. ****

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1864 Henriques & Henriques Sercial
The pungent nose is complex with sweeter aromas that are gently sweaty and not distracted by a lactic hint. The wine is tangy with a fruity start. There fruity weight continues with dry floral notes and a mid level of acidity compared to the others. This emphasis the fruit before the very dry finish. It has a hint of wood. It reminds me of the Grabham and is clearly the best of the flight. ****(*)

Flight #3

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1862 D’Oliviera Sercial
This wine is pungent and fully aromatic, bringing forth articulate sweet fruit. This is a full-bore wine with a fruitier start and a fair amount of acidity before the wine rounds out. The sweetness seems separate from the wine leaving a sense of oddity. Despite the wood note the wine is simpler by the middle. ****

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1860 H. M. Borges Sercial
The high-toned nose is hard to describe with a menthol-like and floral set of aromas. Haunting in a way. There is a sweet start to this round wine then a tobacco and floral accented middle. Caramel flavors come out in the finish as well as a little tannic and grippy personality. The acidity hits the back of the throat leaving an aftertaste which is sweeter than expected. ****

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1860 Avery’s Sercial
The nose low-lying with dense aroma eventually becoming more pungent with air. There is a vigour start with savory flavors that become drier towards the finish before acidity marks the path down the throat. The start is great with some fat that makes for a great promise. But the wine shows less balance in the end. Better in flavor than in aromas. ***

Flight #4

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1855 Adegas do Tormeao “S”
The nose is a little lactic with some tea and sweet aromas eventually smelling like an old wine. The nose is consistent with the soft and simpler start and even the short finish. There is a little sweet black fruit with some texture on the sides of the mouth. Better in flavor. **

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1852 Sercial Selected by General Sherman on his visit at Madeira, 1871
The nose is higher-toned with leather and peat notes suggesting spirit. The peat follows through in the mouth where the wine is thicker than expected. It is gently fading and short in finish but managed a savory note and some balance. Curious. **

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NV Henriques & Henriques Reserva “H.H.” Sercial
This wine is clearly in good condition with attractive, pungent aromas. In the mouth this flavorful wine builds in power with wonderful integration. There is a citric grip in the middle with a very fine, racy mineral note. The acidity is only noticeable in the finish. This is ultimately exuberant with sweet concentrated and a slightly short finish. ****(*)/*****

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1810 H. M. Borges Sercial
The lightest of the four in this flight. The nose is freshly pungent, aromatic and strange. The nose is echoed in the mouth with tangy, rather salivating acidity, and a bright, alcoholic finish that continues into the hot aftertaste. This is the most powerful wine of the flight but is unfortunately becoming unknit in the end. Wood hint. ***(*)

Flight #5

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1827 Perestrello Sercial
A unique nose of sweet pizza crust. Again, the nose echoes in the mouth but in rounded, soft form. The softness and low acidity continues for a bit but the wine eventually tightens and becomes a little racy. ***

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1825 “S” Sercial
There is a subtle nose of menthol, tea, and funk. This is a ripe, rich fine wine with a complex blend of wet and dry florals before the stemmy, short finish. The flavors clearly taste older with unique brighter fruit leaving a bizarre impression that is still tasteful. ***

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1810 Monteiro Old Sercial Reserve
There is some sweetness followed by a lactic hint, butterscotch, and foxy aromas. The wine is a little chewy with noticeable acidity, a short finish, and a tobacco note in the aftertaste. **(*)

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1808 Braheem Kassab (BAK) “SS”Sercial
The nose is fresh but not rich with some smoke. The saline start bears sharp acidity. The wine is powerful with both mineral and citric flavors. It is a little short in the finish but a beauty to drink. ****(*)

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1805 Teixeira Sercial “Roque”
Perhaps the darkest wine of all this nice. The somewhat pungent nose mixes heavy aromas of butter and sweet cookies. The wine is saline and almost salty with powerful pungency. The acidity burns through this potent and piercing wine. There is some prune flavors too. ***

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1800 (believed Araujo) Sercial
The gentle yet good nose smells like old wine and leather. The wine starts with a little pungent vibrancy with lively, old flavors. The watering acidity carries through as the wine settles down to a foxy finish. The finish is a little short but the wine is balanced and enjoyable. ****

“very Scarce” Sercial in America at the turn of the 19th century.

December 21, 2016 Leave a comment

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.

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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.

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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.

“old wine of Lafitte”: George Washington’s order of 1786 Chateau Lafite

December 15, 2016 Leave a comment
Note the "L F G W" on the Invoice from Fenwick, Mason & Co to George Washington. March 28, 1791. LOC.

Note the “L F G W” on the Invoice from Fenwick, Mason & Co to George Washington. March 28, 1791. LOC.

In 1791, through the assistance of Thomas Jefferson, President George Washington placed a second order for claret from the firm of Fenwick, Mason & Co. in Bordeaux.[1]  The firm of had just been established three years earlier in Georgetown.[2]  Fenwick, Mason & Co. was a short-lived partnership between John Mason, the son of George Mason, along with John and James Fenwick.  That summer of 1788, John Mason traveled to Bordeaux bearing an introduction to Thomas Jefferson.

The order for the President’s wine included 14 cases for himself and 14 cases for Thomas Jefferson.  Though George Washington’s order also included Frontignac and Sauternes, it is the claret that is of interest for this post.

The firm of Fenwick, Mason, and & Co. wrote to Thomas Jefferson on February 10, 1791, that the Count de la Pallu, proprietor of the estate of Segur, which included Chateau Latour, had no wine that he could ship to President George Washington which would “do justice to his estate”.[3]  The firm offered to find a replacement which turned out to be “wines of Lafite, the Estate of Mr. Pichard (formerly Segur)”.[4] The cases of wine were received that summer in “good order” and placed in the cellar.[5]

Advertisement for 1786 Chateau Lafite and Chateau Latour. [8]

Advertisement for 1786 Chateau Lafite and Chateau Latour. [8]

There were some 5 cases of 48 bottles each of Chateau Lafite (then spelled Lafitte) from the vintage 1786.  This was considered “old wine”, not being of the current vintage, and was, perhaps, the best old vintage available.  In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the 1784 vintage was the best since 1779 when discussing Chateau Haut-Brion.[6]  This was most likely a generic vintage comment for the following year Thomas Jefferson ordered the 1784 vintage of Chateau Lafite but was told that none was left and was sent the 1786, though not yet ready to drink, instead.[7]

Sadly, we do not yet know what George Washington thought of the 1786 Chateau Lafite.  After the arrival of the cases, Tobias Lear wrote to George Washington in June 1791, that “how their contents are I know not. I intend, however, to have them examined to know whether they may be depended on or not.” [9]  The following month Tobias Lear followed up writing that “Of these wines none have yet been proved”.[10]  How the 1786 vintage stacks up remains a mystery!


[1] “To Thomas Jefferson from Fenwick, Mason & Co., 10 February 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 6, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-19-02-0041. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 19, 24 January–31 March 1791, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974, pp. 266–267.]

[2] Whatford, Mark. “John Mason and the French Revolution”. July 18, 2013  Gunston Hall Blog.  URL: http://gunstonhallblog.blogspot.com/2013/07/john-mason-and-french-revolution.html

[3] “To Thomas Jefferson from Fenwick, Mason & Co., 10 February 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 6, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-19-02-0041. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 19, 24 January–31 March 1791, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974, pp. 266–267.]

[4] “To Thomas Jefferson from Fenwick, Mason & Company, [29 March 1791],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 6, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-19-02-0179. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 19, 24 January–31 March 1791, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974, p. 630.]

[5]  See “To George Washington from Tobias Lear, 12 June 1791,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified December 6, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-08-02-0181. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 8, 22 March 1791 – 22 September 1791, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp. 261–264.] and “From George Washington to Tobias Lear, 19 June 1791,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified December 6, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-08-02-0193. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 8, 22 March 1791 – 22 September 1791, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp. 275–278.].

[6] “From Thomas Jefferson to Francis Eppes, 26 May 1787,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 6, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-11-02-0362. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 11, 1 January–6 August 1787, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955, pp. 378–379.]

[7] “To Thomas Jefferson from John Bondfield, 19 April 1788,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 6, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-13-02-0019. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 13, March–7 October 1788, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956, p. 96.]

[8] Date: Tuesday, August 12, 1794 Paper: Philadelphia Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) Volume: XI Issue: 1813 Page: 2

[9] “To George Washington from Tobias Lear, 23 June 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 6, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-08-02-0201. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 8, 22 March 1791 – 22 September 1791, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp. 294–299.]

[10] Tobias Lear to Mason Fenwick & Co, July 7, 1791. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 2 Letterbooks. URL: