The other Portuguese fortified wine was the #1 drink in newly independent America – and its former glory still echoes in New York’s liquor stores

A couple of weeks ago I went to New York on a business trip. Part of my trip objectives consisted on running some store visits, a typical research methodology that we usually do here at Wine Intelligence. It helps us better understand varying price points, the main players (brands, regions, countries of origin), wine styles, label and packaging design trends and different promotional activities.

As a curious Portuguese, whatever what my research objective is, I always have an extra look at the shelves to see what is on sale from my country. I usually find Port. So long as wine is on sale, Port will always be there. And Mateus rosé as well. Nevertheless, every now and then I will see a Vinho Verde, wines from the Douro and Alentejo, or even wines from smaller regions such as Dão, Bairrada or Tejo. More rarely, I find Moscatel from Setúbal and even wine from Colares, my hometown. What I am not used to finding (not even in Lisbon) is Madeira – the Portuguese fortified wine from the island of the same name.

That was not the case in many stores in Manhattan where this wine is available on sale and even famous. Intrigued by this, I decided to ask around. Madeira’s history goes back many centuries and has a special place in American history: apparently this was the wine opened to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Some historians believe that George Washington himself used to drink a bottle of Madeira every day.

The wine is famous for being so long-lived. Once aged, Madeira’s quality holds steady – it is practically indestructible. This is because, unlike Port or Sherry, it has already been exposed to great temperatures and purposely oxidized. This feature, along with the island’s location (it served as an ideal stopover between Europe and America for the fleets of merchant ships back in the 1600s and 1700s), made Madeira wine the number 1 wine in America in the 19th Century. Meanwhile, wine production processes evolved and new styles of wine began to be imported to the States, sidelining what once was the most famous wine in America to a niche category.

Madeira terrace - Have some Madeira, y’all

Nevertheless, Madeira wine seems to still have high residual awareness levels – which just goes to show that a long-term cultural connection, even if it is from 3 centuries ago, can still have resonance in the modern wine market.

Author: Luis Osorio