Ships crossing the Atlantic made their last port of call before sailing to America at Madeira, an island some 621 miles off the coast of Portugal.
Here, merchant ships took on additional provisions, including the fortified wine Madeira. Unfortified wines often spoiled on ocean voyages, but Madeira — fortified with brandy — survived and even improved with heat and being jostled about at sea.
It was also advantageous for shippers to take on goods out of British sight, making it easier to avoid British tariffs upon reaching America laden with tea and Madeira.
Before the Boston Tea Party, there was the Boston Madeira Party, in 1768. The British seized a merchant ship loaded with Madeira in a tariff dispute. The ship was called the Liberty, and was owned by John Hancock. A riot ensued, further fueling the cry for independence.
Thomas Jefferson, America’s first oenophile, drank Madeira, like the others of his day. By the time Jefferson was appointed minister to France, in 1784, he had acquired an interest in French wines. He was not alone. Benjamin Franklin and George Washington shared Jefferson’s appreciation of fine wine, if not his passion.
While in France, Jefferson immersed himself in the study of wines, especially those from Bordeaux. When recalled to America to become secretary of state, he became the de facto sommelier for Presidents Washington and Adams.
His correspondence from this period indicates he favored and ordered copious amounts of Chateau Margaux, Chateau Lafite-Rothchild, Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau d’Yquem — all classified today as First Growths.
They were expensive in Jefferson’s day. Today, these First Growths remain among the world’s most expensive wines, averaging $650 a bottle for the 2011 vintage.
Current vintages are still being sold “en primeur,” or as futures. These wines are still in barrel. They have been tasted, but not drunk. Buyers order these wines gambling that, somewhere down the road, they will become ready to drink and appreciate in price.
Jefferson did not have to deal with futures. He simply placed his orders directly with Chateau owners, and gambled that the wines would hold up to shipping and remain unadulterated in transit.
All too often, only top-classified wines in Bordeaux garner attention, but Bordeaux is one of the largest wine-producing areas in the world, with some 15,000 growers and an equal number of brands.
Eighty percent of Bordeaux wines are red blends made from cabernet, merlot, cabernet franc, petite verdot and occasionally malbec. Some whites are made, as well. Not all are pricey, and the lesser brands can be quite good.
Try these moderately priced wines for your Independence Day celebration:
Blandy’s Medium Dry Madeira. $19.50 at Tyson Fine Wines and Things in Golden Springs. Heavy for summer, but our founding fathers did toast Independence Day with a glass of Madeira. Wine Spectator describes this wine as “supple and lush, with pear, apricot and baked apple flavors with a rich and buttery finish.”
Mouton Cadet Blanc 2010 Baron Philippe de Rothschild. $10.99 at the Wine Cellar on Quintard. White Bordeaux that by law must be predominately sauvignon blanc and semillon. Though not a First Growth, this is made by the famous First Growth Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Cadet wines were once a fixture on grocery shelves. It is good to see their reappearance. I always found them to be decent quaffs.
La Réserve Royale du Chateau du Gazin. $19.50 at Tyson’s. A true Bordeaux. Moderately priced red, ready to drink. Vibrant dark fruit flavors. Well-balanced, approachable wine. Not a big wine, but well-made and versatile.
Mouton Cadet 2009 Claret. $9.99 at the Wine Cellar. From predominately merlot with lesser amounts of cabernet and cabernet franc. A good entry-level Bordeaux quaff.
Contact Pat Kettles at email@example.com