Wednesday, February 24, 2016

From The Island Of Madeira

Recently my wife was in a writing project - well, she’s still in it - that caused her to ask me about Madeira wines. I told her all I knew, that Madeira was the most prestigious wine for 18th and 19th century Americans, including most of our early presidents, especially Thomas Jefferson. A little research was required.

I hope you are not thinking, "Oh, those poor colonists! No Napa Cabernet to drink? Just something from an island off the coast of Africa?" Those poor colonists were drinking some of the best wine you’ll ever taste.

Rare Wine Co sells a great line of Madeira wines. They worked with Vinhos Barbeito on the Historic Madeira Series to produce a line of Madeira wines, each named after the various seaports into which Madeira was shipped back in the day. The company says that Vinhos Barbeito has "one of the great libraries of 19th century Madeiras," so how can you go wrong?

New York Malmsey "celebrates the rich, luscious Malmseys that affluent New Yorkers prized from the colonial period until after civil war," says the label. On the label, by the way, is a neat drawing of Booth’s Theatre, built in 1868 by Edwin Booth, the era’s most celebrated actor in New York. It might make a nice gift for an aspiring thespian on your gift list.

Malmsey is made from Malvasia grapes, mainly. It's a sweet dessert wine, fortified, and started out in Greece. On the Portuguese island of Madeira, however, a wine was made for export to faraway places. To keep it from spoiling, it was fortified with neutral grape spirits. On the sea voyage, the wine was subjected to high temperatures and a lot of movement, which turned it into something else altogether, something a lot better than it started out as. The producers on Madeira didn't realize this until an unsold shipment was returned. The wheels started turning, and a new style of wine was born.

Of course, shipping the wine around the world to achieve the desired result was expensive, so they developed a way to simulate the oceanic aging process by raising the temperature where the barrels were stored and moving them around a lot. Voila. Homemade Madeira.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Madeira was the United States most prestigious wine, shipped to connoisseurs in major seaports from New Orleans to Boston. The Historic Madeira Series is the creation of The Rare Wine Co., America's leading merchant of rare, old Madeiras, working with Vinhos Barbeito, which possesses one of the great libraries of legendary 19th century Madeiras. Each wine in the series represents a style of Madeira popular in an early American city. New York Malmsey celebrates the rich, luscious Malmseys that affluent New Yorkers prized, from the colonial period until after the Civil War.

This New York Malmsey is made from 85% Malvasia grapes from the Arco de São Jorge Vineyard and 15% Tinta Negra from the Estreito de Câmara de Lobos Vineyard. According to the winemaker's technical sheet, the grapes were pressed in a pneumatic press and fermentation was stopped at the desired degree of sweetness by adding vinic alcohol. This wine was aged in French oak casks in the traditional "Canteiro" method, in which the barrels are stored on the roof to expose them to the sun. It hits 19% abv and retails for $50.

My first note on the Rare Wine Company New York Malmsey was, “Oh, the nose!” That is still what I think every time I have some. The amber color looks a lot like whiskey, and the nose is all raisins, burnt caramel and brown sugar. Those appear on the palate, too, but in a very dry form - not what the nose seems to promise. The mouth is full and the finish is very long.

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