Benjamin Mitrofan-Norris on May 3, 2016 0 Comments There’s something special about Madeira wine. For most of us, it tastes of a sense of sophisticated celebration–its flavors are packed with memories of Christmas, of full, rich dinners with friends, all spicy-sweet, dates and dried fruits, sticky, unctuous toffee notes, roasted nuts and caramel. Ranging from super-sweet to dry, Madeira is one of the key fortified wines both historically and in the present day, and once tried, is rarely forgotten. A Turbulent Passage The small island of Madeira, located approximately three hundred miles north of the Canary Islands in the Atlantic ocean, has been producing and exporting its wonderful wines more or less since its discovery by the Portuguese in 1419. The island itself became of enormous naval importance, as well as being a vital stopping point on trade routes between Europe and Africa, and the success of Madeira wine has fluctuated wildly over the ages, mirroring the geopolitical situation of the island. This beautiful fortified wine’s status has rocketed during peacetime and periods of prosperity and free trade, and has fallen dramatically at various points across the past six centuries during international upheavals, imperial conflicts and territory wars. The unique character of Madeira wine is intrinsically wrapped up in its history, and as with Port and Sherry, its original production came about as something of an accident. During the late fifteenth century, European merchant ships would sail around the Cape of Good Hope, laden with treasures and riches from the vast expanse of Africa and the East. Furs, jewels, gold, silk and spices were in great demand in the royal courts of Spain, Portugal, France and England, and the seas were, for the first time in history, teeming with vast vessels intent on exploiting the riches of far-off lands, and establishing the roots of what would become the great empires of the age. It was during one of these long and perilous voyages that the first Madeira wines were inadvertently created, as one such ship, stocked full of wine made from the fine grapes grown on the island of Madeira, was tossed and thrown about on the waves. The movement of the ship had a powerful effect on the wine barrels and their contents; the wine was transformed by the activity, condensed, vaporized, aerated and aged, and heated slowly and steadily by the equatorial sunshine beating down upon the decks. Upon arrival at port, the sailors were instructed to dispose of the wine, which was surely spoiled by the rough journey, but as the story goes, the sailors (who were never ones to waste a drink) starting drinking that which they were told to throw away, and developed a taste for this ‘ruined’ wine. They discovered that the wine was far from destroyed, but was in fact delightful; full of new flavors and fascinating aspects that hadn’t been tasted before. The Fortification of Madeira It wasn’t long before this new wine style caught on across Europe. The landed gentry became fascinated by the drink, and by the romanticism of its way of production. Before long, barrels of wine from Madeira were being purposefully sent around the tropics on rough seas, with the intention of reproducing the same effect each time. The merchants found ways of massively increasing their profits–they could continue their trade journeys to the Orient, but fill up their cargo holds with barrels of wine, and selling the affected drinks to grateful European customers upon their return. As the centuries marched on, allegiances were forged across Europe. Portugal formed a powerful–if tempestuous–alliance with England, who, in the 18th century held the strongest and most wide ranging empire in the world. This pairing caused massive damage to the French wine market, so much so that Napoleon himself attempted to blockade the prosperous trade routes between England and Portugal in an attempt to get France back to the top of the global wine business. He didn’t realize it at the time, but Napoleon had accidentally set the stage for Madeira wine to become what we know it to be today. Thanks to his naval blocks, Madeira’s vintners began fortifying their wines with brandy spirits in an attempt to prolong their life, as the Portuguese and British trade ships had no choice but to circumnavigate the French forces, resulting in a much longer sea journey. It took some time, but the blending was eventually perfected to allow the natural flavors of the wine to come forth, and be complemented rather than dominated by the increased alcohol content. The crowned heads of Europe and the burgeoning middle classes fell madly in love with this new, improved Madeira, and trade boomed. Before the end of the century, English and Portuguese merchants had joined forces and dominated all wine production on the small island. They also found ways of storing and aging the wine, which didn’t require it to be taken on long journeys around the cape, thus establishing a highly lucrative industry. The Fall of Madeira Madeira wine wasn’t always in high demand, however. Despite strong success in the early American market (Thomas Jefferson himself wrote lengthy, praiseworthy treaties on the stuff), French wine was quickly given back its lofty status after the conclusions of the Napoleonic wars. The American Civil war saw a massive drop in demand for Madeira, and the vintners began to cut corners, bringing about a significant drop in quality. Furthermore, the opening of the Suez Canal made the formerly necessary journey around the Cape of Good Hope, and thus passage via Madeira, pointless and expensive. Ships now bound for the Orient and India no longer had to stop at the Portuguese island, and the trade route Madeira’s success had been founded on was cut. Today, Madeira is still primarily associated with its beautiful fortified wines, and there has been a resurgence of interest in its produce. The best Madeiras are still highly sought after by those seeking its unique characteristics, and antique Madeira wines from its romantic and swashbuckling history fetch astronomical prices at auction. To sip a fine Madeira is to taste a bit of history, to enjoy a complex set of flavors and aromas that springs from hundreds of years of imperial power, innovation and riches, and enjoy a drink that was once the toast of the world.