Sunday, August 24, 2014

Madeira, the King of Wines, 1890

Excerpted from "Society as I Have Found It", by Ward McAllister, 1890. According to Wikipedia he was the "self-appointed arbiter of New York society from the 1860s to the early 1890s". Here is his passionate and very readable defense of Madeira wine.

Having had your champagne from the fish to the roast, your vin ordinaire through the dinner, your Burgundy or Johannisberg, or fine old Tokay (quite equal to any Johannisberg), with the cheese, your best claret with the roast, then after the ladies have had their fruit and have left the table, comes on the king of wines, your Madeira ; a national wine, a wine only well matured at the South, and a wine whose history is as old as is that of our country. I may here say, that Madeira imparts a vitality that no other wine can give. After drinking it, it acts as a soporific, but the next day you feel ten years younger and stronger for it.

I have known a man, whose dinners were so famous by reason of his being always able to give at them a faultless Madeira, disappear with his wine. When his wine gave out, he collapsed.
When asked, " Where is Mr. Jones?" the ready answer was always given, " He went out with his ' Rapid' Madeira."

Families prided themselves on their Madeira. It became an heirloom (as Tokay now is, in Austria). Like the elephant, it seemed to live over three score years and ten. The fine Madeiras were fine when they reached this country. Age improved them, and made them the poetry of wine. ' They became the color of amber and retained all their original flavor. But it is an error to suppose that age ever improved a poor Madeira. If it came here poor and sweet, it remained poor and sweet, and never lost Its sweetness, even at seventy or eighty years.

These wines took their names generally from the ships in which they came over. There is no more sensitive wine to climatic influences. A delicate Madeira, taken only a few blocks on a cold, raw day, Is not fit to drink; and again, you might as well give a man champagne out of a horse bucket, as to give him a Madeira in a thick sherry or claret glass, or a heavy cut glass. The American pipestem is the only glass in which Madeira should be given, and when thus given, is, as one of our distinguished men once said, " The only liquid he ever called wine."

In Savannah and Charleston, from 1800 up to our Civil War, afternoon wine parties were the custom. You were asked to come and taste Madeira, at 5 P.M., after your dinner. The hour of dining in these cities was then always 3 P.M. The mahogany table, which reflected your face, was set with finger bowls, with four pipe-stem glasses in each bowl, olives, parched ground nuts and almonds, and half a dozen bottles of Madeira. There you sat, tasted and commented on these wines for an hour or more.

The oldest and largest shippers of Madeira were the Newton Gordons, who sent the finest Madeiras to Charleston and Savannah. From 1791 to 1805, their firm was Newton Gordon, Murdock, & Scott. One hundred and ten years ago, they sent five hundred pipes of Madeira in one shipment to Savannah. These wines sent there were the finest Sercials, Buals, and Malmseys. All those wines were known as extra Madeiras. The highest priced wine, a Manigult Heyward wine, I knew forty years ago ; it was ninety years old—perfect, full flavored, and of good color and strength.

In Charleston and Savannah from 1780 to 1840, almost every gentleman ordered a pipe of wine from Madeira. I know of a man who has kept this up for half a century. There is a common prejudice against Malmsey, as being a lady's wine, and sweet ; when very old, no Madeira can beat it. I have now In my cellar an " All Saints" wine, named after the famous Savannah Quoit Club, imported in 1791 ; a perfect wine, of exquisite flavor. My wife's grandfather imported two pipes of Madeira every year, and my father-in-law continued to do this as long as he lived. When he died he had, as I am told, the largest private cellar of Madeira In the United States. All his wines were Newton Gordons.

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