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.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Early American Winemaking in the Colony of Virginia

Excerpted from "The Grapes of New York", 1908, by U. P. Hedrick. A nice concise overview of an early attempt to grow European grapes on American soil, with an interesting note on the locals preferring Maderia!

The English were the first to plant the Old World grape in the territory in which this species fails because of the attacks of native parasites. Lord Delaware seems to have been the original promoter of grape-growing in the New World. In 1616 he wrote to the London Company urging the culture of the grape as a possible source of revenue for the new colony. His letter seems to have been convincing, for it is on record that the Company in 1619 sent a number of French vine-dressers and a collection of the best varieties of the grapes of France to Virginia. The Colonial Assembly showed quite as much solicitude in encouraging the cultivation of the vine as did the Company in London. The year of the importation of vines and vine-dressers, 1619, the Assembly passed an act compelling every householder to plant ten cuttings and to protect them from injury and stated that the landowners were expected to acquire the art of dressing a vineyard, either through instruction or by observation. The Company, to increase the interest in vine-growing, showed marked favors to all who undertook it with zealousness; promises of servants, the most valuable gifts that could be made to the colonists, were frequent. Under the impulse thus given vineyards were planted containing as many as ten thousand vines.

In spite of a rich soil, congenial climate, and skilled vine-dressers, nothing of importance came from the venture, some of the historians of the time attributing the failure to the massacre of 1622; others to poor management of the vines; and still others to disagreements between the English and their French vine-dressers, who, it was claimed, concealed their knowledge because they worked as slaves. It is probable that the latter explanation was fanciful but the former must have been real for we are told that the farms and outlying settlements were abandoned after the great massacre. But the colony could hardly have recovered from the ravages of the Indians before efforts to force the colonists to grow grapes were again made; for in 1623 the Assembly passed a law that for every four men in the colony a garden should be laid off a part of which was to be planted to vines.

In 1639 the Assembly again tried to encourage vine-growing by legislative enactment, this time with an act giving a premium to successful grape-growers. Later, about 1660, a premium of ten thousand pounds of tobacco was offered in Virginia for each “two tunne of wine” from grapes raised in the colony. Shortly after, some wine was exported to England but whether made from wild plants or cultivated ones does not appear. In spite of the encouragement of legislative acts, grape-growing did not flourish in Virginia. The fact that tobacco was a paying crop and more easily grown than the grape may have had something to do with the failure to grow the latter. Or it may have been that the cheapness of Madeira, “a noble strong drink,” as one of the Colonial historians puts it, had a depressing influence on the industry. But still more likely, the foreign plants did not thrive.

Encouragement of the home production of wine did not cease in Virginia for at least one hundred and fifty years; for in 1769 an enactment of the Assembly was passed to encourage wine-making in favor of one Andrew Estave, a Frenchman. As a result of the act of this time, land was purchased, buildings erected, and slaves and workmen with a complete outfit for wine-making were furnished Estave. The act provided that if he made within six years ten hogsheads of merchantable wine—land, houses, slaves, the whole plant was to be given to him. It is stated that this unusual subsidy is made “as a reward for so useful an improvement.” Estave succeeded in making the wine but it was poor stuff and he had difficulty in getting the authorities to turn over the property which was to be his reward. This was finally done by an act of the Assembly, however, the failure to make good wine being attributed by all parties to the “unfitness of the land.”

An attempt was made to cultivate the European grape in Virginia early in the eighteenth century on an extensive scale. Soon after taking office as governor in 1710, Alexander Spotswood brought over a colony of Germans from the Rhine and settled them in Spottsylvania County on the Rapidan river. The site of their village on this river is now marked by a ford, Germania Ford, a name which is a record of the settlement. That they grew grapes and made wine is certain, for the Governor’s “red and white Rapidan, made by his Spottsylvania Germans” is several times mentioned in the published journals and letters of the time. But the venture did not make a deep nor lasting impress on the agriculture of the colony.