19th Century Life: Madeira

One of the most popular wines during the early years of the United States was the wine called Madeira. Thomas Jefferson enjoyed it, and according to some reports, the wine was used to toast the Declaration of Independence. Madeira comes from the Portuguese island of the same name, which has a rich volcanic soil. The early United States had no vineyards, so all wines had to be imported, and Madeira has special qualities that allowed it to survive the long, precarious ocean crossing.

During the Age of Exploration, ships often stopped by Madeira to stock up before a long voyage, so the wine makers began to add spirits to the wine during the fermentation process to help preserve it. The other interesting feature about Madeira happened by accident. An unsold shipment of wine returned to the islands and the wine makers discovered that the heat and movement the wine had been subject to during its travels had actually changed its flavor. Manufacturers wanted to recreate this quality, so they began to heat the wine  and expose it to oxygen. The resulting wine’s ability to withstand the rigors of lengthy voyages made it perfect to ship to the American market.

There are many styles of Madeira, made from different grapes. Some are dry, and others are sweet. The most popular variety in Baltimore, Betsy’s hometown, was a variety called Rainwater. It was a pale, delicate variety usually made from Tinta Negra Mole grapes. There is an interesting story about how it got its name. According to legend, some casks were left out on the dock and became diluted when it rained. The unscrupulous dealers sold the wine anyway, and lo and behold, their American customers liked it.

Rainwater Madeira is difficult to find now as it has fallen out of fashion. I’d love to try it sometime, though, just to taste something that Betsy must have tasted.

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