On Thursday, the Fourth of July, we celebrated the 237th anniversary of the day the Founding Fathers declared America’s independence from Great Britain. Historians say they toasted their life-risking 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.
What is Madeira? As crucial as it is to our history, its main fame today is in Madeira sauce, a rich and heady 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 archipelago 350 miles into the Atlantic Ocean off Morocco and an autonomous region of Portugal.
It’s 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 wine was put on old 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 uncooled holds, scorched by the 100-degree-plus heat 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, he found that the heat and motion of the long trip had rendered it more delicious than when it was made. (He didn’t know it, but the seaborne process was quite 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 it was one of the few wines easily available in America.
But times change. Today Madeira as a beverage is largely forgotten in America.
Still, the Blandy family, in partnership with the Symington family famous for its port production in Portugal, is making 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.
And it’s not just for cooking. Blandy’s makes four styles of Madeira 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.
It’s not just for cooking. Madeira’s various styles can be used 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.
And cooking with Madeira has lost none of its luster. Picture an expensive beef tenderloin marinated in soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, onion, bay leaf and Madeira with a sauce simmered from butter, onions, mushrooms and more Madeira.
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. (Blandy’s recommends drinking it 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. (Blandy’s recommends it 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. (Blandy’s recommends it with cake, chocolate and hard cheeses.)
• Blandy’s 5-Year-Old Malmsey Madeira: dark amber with aromas and flavors of raisins and hazlenuts; $24. (Blandy’s recommends it with the richest desserts. I like to drink it after dinner with walnuts, dried fruit or hard cheeses.)