From the time of Da Gama to the age of the steamship, Madeira served as a supply and fuel stop for countless sea voyages. Madeira’s location along the trade routes to Africa and the Americas made it a strategic port for provisioning the new colonies, and the colonists in these new territories were a thirsty bunch. The export of wine quickly grew to 30,000 barrels annually.
In 1665 Charles II prohibited the shipping of European goods to the West Indies and America unless these goods were being shipped with British ships and from British ports. Madeira had been intentionally left out of this decree, because it meant more tax income for the king.
Now, the new American colonies became a favorite trading partner for this wine. General Washington was a great friend of this wine; it is said that he drank a pint of it daily. His inauguration as president of the United States and the appointment of the city of Washington as the capital were celebrated with Madeira. So, it’s no surprise that the Americans celebrated their Declaration of Independence with a glass of Madeira. The legendary frigate Constitution, the oldest ship in the world that is still afloat, was also baptized with Madeira wine. Together with its special sandwich live oak planking construction this Madeira wine treatment might have contributed to the invulnerability of "Old Ironsides".
As a remembrance of this event, the Madeira vintage of 1802 has been named Constitution as well. While the European market remained unstable, the US remained a solid importer of Madeira wines. Jefferson was an early advocate of the link between wine and longevity -- "Wine from habit has become an indispensable for my health," he maintained -- and was perhaps America's most devoted early collector. He adored Madeira and was no stranger to Sauternes. (A few of his bottles are still kicking around today, wildly expensive refugees from his legendary cellar).
Until the twentieth century Madeira played an important part in the social life of the upper class. It was especially favored in cities such as Baltimore, Boston, Charleston, Philadelphia, New York and Savannah where they celebrated with so-called ‘Madeira-parties’. At these events, you drank several vintages of Madeira to a light meal like terrapin-soup. In Silas Weir Mitchell’s famous book "A Madeira Party" the reader will find a very detailed and slightly ironic picture of such an event. Visitors of Savannah today can do a "Madeira Tour" at the Davenport House and there still is a "Madeira Club" in Savannah
Much to the delight of the colonists, the wine did not suffer from the long Ocean voyage. In fact, the heating and sloshing in the barrel improved the wine, and soon a trans-Atlantic voyage became part of the elaboration process for all Madeira wines. This practice continued well past the age of the sailing ship. In the early 20th century casks of Madeira were floated back and forth across the Ocean in the holds of steam ships that also docked in Funchal harbor in Madeira to load coal.
The popularity of Madeira wine has decreased over the years, and in modern times the island has turned to Tourism to fund its continued prosperity. In the last twenty years the Madeira wine producers have modernized their wineries and improved their vineyards, and today production of Madeira wine is once again on the increase.
Today’s Madeira comes in a range of styles, from young, light and dry, to the rich, honeyed vintages from over one hundred years ago. The younger wines are refreshing and lively. They pair well with aged cheeses and savory snacks. The richer, darker styles of Madeira are the perfect end to an autumn meal, and are best enjoyed alone.