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The History of Madeira Wine in America

The 18th century is considered the golden age of Madeira Wine. After Brazil began to produce sugar cane at better prices and the sugar cane on Madeira Island became prone to illnesses due to soil exhaustion, most of the sugar cane plantations on the island were replanted with vines. In 1640 the Portuguese crown gave Lisbon based merchants the monopoly of the Brazilian market, thus strengthening the foreign traders on Madeira Island who found new outlets for Madeira Wine other than the Portuguese colony in South America.

The wine produced on the island fared better than wines like Bordeaux on the sea journeys and even improved in quality, so the British colonies overseas that did not produce their own wine, and who were avid wine drinkers, became great fans of the wines produced on the island. As the ships crossing the Atlantic grew larger to carry back more wares from the Americas, the shipping of Madeira Wine also solved the European traders’ problem of empty holds (wine was more profitable than the more lightweight English textiles) on the westward journeys to get fish, flour, tobacco, rice and sugar from the Caribbean and from America.

With the signing of the Methuen Treaty in 1703 which stipulated that Portuguese wines and English textiles were not so heavily taxed, Madeira became one of the tips of a triangular trade, where textiles came to Madeira from Britain, Madeira Wine crossed the Atlantic west towards the Americas and north towards Britain and flour made its way back to the island and to the British Isles.

According to the earliest surviving records an average of 70% of the wine leaving Madeira Island was bound for the British West Indies and British North America between 1727 and 1738. This percentage dropped dramatically to half during the Seven Year War between 1756 and 1763 due to the great increase in shipping prices and insurance because of the threat of capture or destruction on the high seas. After the war numbers recovered and records from the Naval Office Shipping Lists show that Madeira Wine constituted a 76,1% of the total of wine imports to British North America.

It was during the latter half of the 18th century that Madeira Parties began to be organised all over the east coast of North America in cities like Boston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Savanah and Charleston. And what was a Madeira Party? They were afternoon gatherings of nearly a dozen men who got together to share and discuss a handful of wines for a couple of hours or more.

A Madeira Party of a very different kind happened after the 1765 Stamp Act which greatly increased the taxation of incoming goods. Colonists are known for hating taxation, so it was customary for officers in customs to allow only part of the cargo to go through customs, thus permitting a good part to be landed without being taxed. However, in 1768 commissioners decided not to be so lenient when John Hancock’s sloop Liberty arrived in Boston laden with Madeira Wine. The revolt of the crowds ashore when they realised they would not get their cheap wine was the precursor of the more famous Boston Tea Party which happened five years later and led to the America Civil War.

Another clue as to the importance of Madeira Wine in American history and culture is that it was used to toast the inauguration of George Washington in 1789 and Thomas Jefferson toasted with it in 1792 when he decided to locate the US Capitol in Washington.

In 2009, Barack Obama honoured other historic presidents and toasted his inauguration as President of the United States of America with a glass of Madeira Wine.

Wine Tour Review

"We had a good day out, we visited wine growers and wine makers, we had lunch in a traditional village house and saw the real Madeira"
farmergeorge21 “Off the tourist trail”, 25th March - 5 star rating: Highly Recommended Tripadvisor review 5star rating Highly Recommended




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