Have Some, M'Dear

Guest post by Jennifer Rosen

You can leave a bottle of Madeira on a hot car seat for weeks without ruining it, and for that you can thank King George the Third, the German navy, and Zarco the One-Eyed.

1419: the dawn of the Age of Exploration. Portuguese sea captain João Gonçalves Zarco, sailing around the north coast of Africa, spots what he describes as "vapors rising from the mouth of hell." Screwing up all his courage, he penetrates hell to discover a small, fog-bound island, part of an archipelago lying 475 miles offshore of Casablanca. The fog is important, not only because it will later feature in the opening shot of the remake of King Kong, but also because it makes the island invisible. That, plus the fact that it's the largest deep-water harbor in the world, and sits squarely in the path of anyone sailing from Europe to the West Indies, makes it a valuable gateway for Portugal. 

Zarco names the island "Madeira," which means wood. Next, he wipes out every last tree by starting a fire that will burn for seven years. 

He has inadvertently provided a great service to the wine industry. The volcanic soil, once too acidic for grape growing, is made alkaline by the ashes of burnt forests. Grapes are planted.

Cut to Boston, 1650: Colonists are protesting the Navigation Acts, which decree that nothing enters or leaves the Colonies without passing through, and paying taxes to, England. 

Just then, Charles II of England makes one of the great political marriages of all time, when his Portuguese fiancée arrives with a dowry consisting of Bombay, Tangier, Morocco, the use of ports in Africa, Asia and America, and lots of money. She also introduces twin civilizing influences: tea and the fork. In return, Charles exempts Madeira from his protectionist policy.

Madeira, therefore, is the only wine shipped directly to America, and so acquires totemic status: a swig of Madeira becomes the American patriot's way of spitting in the British eye. Both the signing of the Declaration of Independence and George Washington's inauguration are toasted in Madeira wine. 

However, despite the fact that in 1478, the Duke of Clarence, condemned to death in the Tower of London, chooses to accomplish this by drowning in a vat of Madeira, an anecdote that I have been trying to stuff into this story for hours, the fact of the matter is that the wine is thin, acidic, and basically tastes terrible. 

This changes in 1600, when a cargo ship goes off course and wanders around the tropics for a year because none of the crew can bring himself to ask for directions. To everyone's surprise, this vacation in the sun vastly improves the wine on board. 

For the next 300 years, Madeira is routinely sailed around the world to mellow, sometimes for 5 years or more. The inconvenience of this approach is brought home during World War I, when German U-boats find these slow wine tankers gratifying target practice. Especially when they manage to salvage the cargo before it sinks. In a quantum leap of technology - no doubt strongly resisted by Portuguese dockworkers unions - the wine industry trades baking aboard for baking ashore.

Today, the wine cooks for three to six months in giant tanks with heat-sensitive locks that alert the government if the temperature gets too high, and then the government comes and confiscates the wine. If that doesn't happen, the wine next ages in barrels for anywhere from three to hundreds of years before bottling. It's so indestructible that someone who just tasted the 1795 vintage reports that it "easily has 50 years of life ahead of it." Which is a lot more than the Duke of Clarence had, but when it comes to that, personally, I think I'd rather jump into a vat of Lubriderm and soften to death.

A Bargain, Really!