Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Madeira Party?

Stan and I completed the midwest leg of our book tour for DEATH OF THE MANTIS on Friday. We had a super time: visits to Chicago, Milwaukee, Ann Arbor, Urbana, Iowa City and, of course, St Louis. At the book signings people were fascinated by the genuine Bushman hunting kit Stan acquired forty years ago. We take it to almost all the events, and it wonderfully illustrates the cultural backstory of the book. We had an amazing time meeting old and new readers and old and new friends, and Bouchercon was simply spectacular. More of that next week in Stan’s MIE combined post on our impressions of the event. For now, suffice it to say that we’ll be in Cleveland (and Bristol for that matter) next year.

Celebration for the end of the midwest tour
After four more events in Minneapolis after we finished the road trip, we decided that it was time for a bit of a celebration.  So after our event in Wayzata, we had dinner with friends at a restaurant near the bookstore - and found 1922 Madeira by the glass on the dessert menu.  Speaking of backstories, there’s one here too.  Some friends have been trying to get an old bottle of Madeira for Stan for a birthday present for several years.  One obstacle after the other prevented this from happening.  A bottle like the one at the restaurant is available from a few specialist wine stores – if you have a spare $350!  So it was a fitting finale to the trip to celebrate with a glass at the end of the meal.  The waiter willingly loaned us the bottle for the picture, but he kept a firm eye on it during the proceedings!

Vineyards on beautiful Madeira
Madeira wine has an interesting history.  First of all it comes exclusively from the Portuguese island of the same name situated to the west of North Africa.  The island was supposedly discovered in 1419 by sailors exploring for Prince Henry the Navigator and settled shortly afterwards.  About fifteen years later it started being referred to by its current name: Ilha da Madeira (Island of Wood after its rich forests). And it was ideally situated as a stopover for ships en route to and from the New World and the East Indies.  In the sixteenth century there was a well-developed wine industry .  Ships would stop to pick up “pipes” of wine.  (A pipe is about 125 gallons.)  Much of it spoiled on the long hot voyages so the vintners started fortifying the wine (adding first cane spirit and later brandy) to stabilize it. 
The four major styles
But the heat of the journey still caused some strange developments in the wine and some pipes were rejected and sent back to Madeira.  To the initial surprise of the winemakers, the somewhat cooked and oxidized wine became very popular.  It has a distinctive rich taste and freshness assisted by the extra alcohol and mild pasteurization of the heating.  Pretty soon the vintners worked out a way of getting those effects without shipping the wine halfway around the world and back.  It’s called estufagem and essentially involves heating the wine to around 130 degrees Fahrenheit for considerable periods of time. It’s always at least ninety days, but for the best vintage wine it may be done naturally in sun-warmed rooms for twenty years!

We were amazed by the freshness and liveliness of the wine, nearly ninety years old.  The taste was a sort of cross between port and sherry with hints of caramel but not sweet.  The waiter was a bit concerned that the bottle had been “open for some time” as “there wasn’t much call for it”.  He shouldn't have worried: the wine must be open for at least a day before you drink it and can be fine after it’s been open for as long as a year.  Maybe we’ll have another glass after Cleveland in 2012.

Madeira wine has a long association with the US too.  Jefferson enjoyed it and it was used to toast the Declaration of Independence.  Washington and Franklin were also partial to it.  A major event on the way to the Declaration was the British seizure of John Hancock’s sloop the Liberty on May 9, 1768. Hancock's boat was seized after he had unloaded a cargo of 25 pipes (3,150 gallons) of Madeira and a dispute over import duties followed. The impounding of the ship led to seething riots in Boston.  I always wondered about all that fuss over some tea.  Now Madeira is another thing altogether.  Maybe the Tea Party should consider a name change?  Wine Party has a nice ring to it.

If you’re a Flanders and Swann fan, click on for their take on the wine of Ilha da Madeira.

Michael – Thursday. 


  1. I think a lot more would have shown up for a wine party, but then again who knows how things could have turned out. Everyone might have loosened up, started singing auld lang syne, holding hands and we'd still be spelling the place Boston Harbour.


  2. The Madeira Island is one of the best place for party and gathering and enjoyment. Thank you for sharing information about Madeira Island party.