Madeira: From Colonial tipple to modern-day aperitif

On the Fourth of July, we celebrate the 237th anniversary of the day the Founding Fathers declared America’s independence from Great Britain. Historians say they toasted their audacity with a heady wine called madeira.

It was a natural choice. Benjamin Franklin’s favorite. George Washington’s daily tipple at dinner.

It was powerful stuff, fermented from the sturdy, white malvasia grape, fortified with brandy up to 20 percent alcohol, nearly twice the level of regular wine, with hedonistic flavors from burnt sugar to roasted nuts to earth.

As crucial as madeira is to our history, it’s main fame today is in madeira sauce, a rich accompaniment to roast beef and veal scaloppini.

But it’s much more. For starters, it’s a versatile wine made on the island of Madeira, a 300-square-mile Atlantic archipelago, 350 miles off Morocco, and an autonomous region of Portugal. The eponymous wine has been made since the grape was planted there in the 15th century on orders of Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator.

Quickly entering the export trade, madeira was put on sailing vessels for the long trip to India, China and Japan by way of Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. For months it rolled back and forth in its barrels in hot holds, scorched by the 100-degree-plus temperatures of the equator.

What couldn’t be sold in the East was returned to Portugal as ballast and disposed of — until a thirsty sailor who had been ordered to dump it decided to take a sip. To his joy, the heat and motion of the long trip had rendered it tastier than when it was made. (He didn’t know it, but the seaborne process was similar to the land-based, sun-soaked methods the Spanish used — on purpose — for their famous sherry wines.)

In time, via a complicated royal marriage, the Portuguese won monopoly rights to supply wine to Britain’s colonies, so by 1776 madeira was one of the few wines easily available in America.

But times change. Today the historic wine is largely forgotten in America.

Hoping that times will change yet again, the Blandy family, in partnership with the Symington family of port-making fame, is producing madeira from a greater variety of grapes and more modern methods — heating the wine for years in giant lofts instead of shipping it across the equator.

Blandy’s makes four styles from four white grape varieties — sercial, which makes the driest, highest-acid wine; verdelho, which balances acid with more sweetness; bual, which makes a sweet dessert wine; and malmsey (the English name for malvasia), the sweetest of all.

Madeira’s various styles can be drunk as aperitifs, with food and with or in place of dessert. It is best sipped, very lightly chilled, from large, open-mouthed wine glasses to permit swirling to release its heady bouquet. It is ready to drink when purchased and needs no further aging.

Here’s a rundown on Blandy’s four styles:

Blandy’s 5-Year-Old Sercial Madeira: golden hue, crisp and dry, with flavors of dried fruit and nuts; $24. (Recommended with fish dishes and Indian cuisine.)

Blandy’s 5-Year-Old Verdelho Madeira: golden hue, lightly sweet, with aromas and flavors of dried fruit and cloves; $24. (Recommended as an aperitif or with rich poultry dishes.)

Blandy’s 5-Year-Old Bual Madeira: amber hue, medium-sweet, with aromas and flavors of vanilla, dried figs and caramel; $24. (Recommended with cake, chocolate and hard cheeses.)

Blandy’s 5-Year-Old Malmsey Madeira: dark amber with aromas and flavors of raisins and hazelnuts; $24. (Recommended with the richest desserts. I like to drink it after dinner with walnuts, dried fruit or hard cheeses.)

Fred Tasker writes about wine for the McClatchy News Service. Email him a

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