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THE TIPPLING POINT | Madeira — The Wine That Requires a Trip Around the World

His passion for the new drink was so strong and blinding that Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “rather than an ordinary death,” he would prefer “being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira”. The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 with a glass of Madeira as toast.

Manu Remakant |

Updated:April 1, 2018, 11:00 AM IST
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THE TIPPLING POINT | Madeira — The Wine That Requires a Trip Around the World
A glass filled with vintage Madeira wine is seen in the storage area of a wine company in Funchal, the capital of the Portuguese island of Madeira. (Reuters)
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News18 Tippling PointMany centuries ago, Portuguese ships that docked in Indian shores had cargo not meant for us. They rode on the cellar crossing the Atlantic, cooked by the summer sun, pitched by the rolling waves only to return to the very island from where they started their journey. Why all the trouble then, you might wonder!

An island sat somewhere peacefully in the North Atlantic until a Portuguese explorer named Gonslaves Zarco was blown off course from his journey to the coast of West Africa in the 15th century. He reached a place named Porto Santo from where he saw dark clouds south-west on the horizon that he described as "vapours rising from the mouth of hell." He wanted to discover what was under those clouds. Zarco’s curiosity brought to light a beautiful garden island, which he named as ‘Madeira.’

Today, Madeira is more known as a drink the island produces.

The island lay in a strategic position — right on the path of many Atlantic routes from Europe to Africa, India, the Caribbean and North America — offering a perfect spot to relax in a long voyage. Portuguese colonists who inhabited the island tried to plant sugarcane and vines, but when demand for sugar fell with the discovery of the Caribbean islands, the planters concentrated on grapes.

Madeira wine lured sailors to the island in large numbers but they could not stock their ships with it as they found to their dismay that the drink would perish in a few days. The Portuguese producers soon found a way out. They started adding a small portion of grape wine distillate to the drink (fortifying) for making it sturdy.

The new drink stood the passage of time.

The fortified Madeira wines travelled by sea far and wide through the West, East Indies to reach places as far as Europe and the Americas. Here, they found ardent admirers like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

His passion for the new drink was so strong and blinding that Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “rather than an ordinary death,” he would prefer “being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira”. The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 with a glass of Madeira as toast.

British authorities got the heat of the new drink when they tried to impose a duty on it. A riot broke out. The Boston tea party was then only five years away.

Elsewhere in Europe, ladies began to perfume their handkerchiefs with Madeira. Many believed the drink had medicinal value. Soon the wine assumed the name ‘milk of the gold’ and officers in service began to demand 15 bottles of Madeira a month for their meritorious services.

What a journey for a ghostly island that spewed vapours to catch the attention of a wayward Portuguese explorer a few centuries ago!

Despite all the hullabaloo, some barrels of fortified wine returned to Madeira unclaimed, after all the journey through the ocean. That was no occasion for worry. The Portuguese were stunned to discover that the returned Maderia had undergone a sea change in taste — the ocean did some magic on their drink.

The long sea journey, the intense summer sun, the slow oxidation and the rocking waves had all conspired to cook the barrels in the ships, caramelizing the sugars inside, providing the drink with complex aromas of burned caramel, dried fruits and roasted nuts. The new wine was more round and mature. That was how round-trip-wine took birth.

Henceforth, some producers began to ship back and forth barrels of wine across the Atlantic, labelled them as Vinha da Roda and sold them for a premium price. A few ships carrying precious stocks of Madeira had travelled to places as far as India, a country they discovered only a couple of centuries ago.

The journey, though, slowly cut into their profits. So, the Portuguese began to look for ingenious ways to simulate the voyage. They created the rocking motion and the summer heat of the Atlantic artificially so that the barrels in which the drink was kept were cheated to believe that they were crossing the ocean even as they sat on the lofts of warehouses. Producers built storehouses under glass roofs of their wineries so that sunlight might pour in aplenty. For the rolling waves, they rocked the barrels back and forth with steam-powered machines. The journey began for Madeira.

The next time you hold the wine, warm the glass up with your hands and gently rock the drink. And slowly sip Madeira’s Atlantic dreams.

Madeira is a fortified wine available in a range of styles — from dry to sweet. It is even used in cooking.

(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog — A Cup of Kavitha — introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal)
| Edited by: Aditya Nair
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