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Madeira for You

The exotic history of a wine that’s more than wine.

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While living in London, Ben Franklin was known as "The Water American." But while in Paris, his drink of choice was Madeira. Since the original 13 colonies couldn't produce decent wine grapes, the American colonists imported a lot of the stuff. Its high sugar content and acidity made it so refreshing in the oppressive heat of the Southern colonies that social clubs were organized around drinking it. The seizure of John Hancock's ship Liberty in 1768, after some bad noise over import duties on 25 "pipes" of Madeira, caused a riot and set the U.S. on the road to a colonial divorce.

But what is Madeira?

Like port, it is a type of fortified wine. It is named for the Madeira Islands, a Portuguese possession about 360 miles off the coast of Morocco. In the 15th century, when Portugal was a global super-power, the Madeira Islands were the last port of call for ships heading to the New World or the East Indies. To prevent spoilage of the wine on these long, not remotely climate-controlled voyages, grape spirits (read: brandy) was added as a preservative. So, it's wine, but it's got liquor added to it. Which isn't the end of it either. Enter estufagem.

As the ships made their way to India and the Caribbean, the barrels sloshing around in the hold were subject to the extreme heat of the routes. Both the sloshing and the heat are bad for wine, or more precisely, transformative. Bourbon fans will note that the process sounds familiar, and you wouldn't be wrong. What went into those barrels was not remotely what came out of them: A robust, smooth, nutty wine, leather brown in color, and positively unique.

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The wine producers of Madeira didn't even know this until a Dutch East India Company ship came back through with an unsold consignment of wine. They took to the stuff too. Unsold barrels were marked vinho da roda or "wines that have made the round trip," and soon fetched a premium. Obviously, sending a shipload of wine on a grand tour to Brazil or India is expensive, so the merchants figured out how to recreate the process at home. Basically, by leaving the barrels out in the sun and rolling them round.

Today the process has been refined. The wine is stored in large stainless steel vats, heated, via hot water in coils, to 115oF for at least three months in a process called estufagem. Then it must rest for another 90 days in a barrel. This is called estágio because, oddly, the Portuguese have different words for everything.

The result is interesting. Madeira lacks the heaviness of its cousin, port, which is like red wine only more so. And unlike red wine, it is not only good but also refreshing. There is hazelnut to it and a little caramel. The acidic edge teeters on being crisp, even. I prefer the drier style, but there are sweeter varieties that are close to dessert wines. While it famously stands up to the heat, you could do worse than add it to the bar for the holidays.

Despite its roots here in the South, your options are a little limited in Memphis, but Sandeman makes a very good bottle. I'm told to avoid the "rainwater" style unless it's for cooking or cocktails.

What to pair it with food-wise? Again, like port, not much — unless you are the sort who likes the odd stinky cheese for dessert. If you aren't that sort, try it anyway — it's a splendid way to wrap up a meal.

Or start a revolution. Madeira was used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence — which may explain John Hancock's enormous signature. Thomas Jefferson was a fan and sipped it as he drafted said Declaration. Hell, I sipped some while drafting this column.

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