Madeira: “America’s First” and “Most Patriotic” Wine for July 4th

Toasting July the 4th  with Madeira and Tom

July the 4th with Madeira and Jefferson

written by Michael Oudyn

July the 4th is just around the corner. So what should we patriotic Americans be drinking to celebrate our birthday?

Well, Madeira, the fabulous fortified wine from off the coast of Africa, gets my vote. Called “America’s first wine” and “America’s great patriotic wine” Madeira was immensely popular during colonial times and keeps popping up at key points in our early formative years.

One reason for its popularity was a tax loophole. British law forbade the colonists from importing goods directly from Europe; they had to pass through England and pay taxes and shipping costs. But Madeira was conveniently located off the coast of Africa and therefore exempt. And we all love a tax break; this much hasn’t changed.

Another virtue of Madeira was that it was fortified, which meant it could survive the inevitable long sea voyages of all imported wines. Like Port, extra alcohol is added which functions as a preservative. This was basically why Madeira dominated the wine cellars of Thomas Jefferson, America’s first wine connoisseur, wine geek; his equally beloved Bordeaux often went bad at sea and tasted like vinegar.

Tradition famously has it that the Founding Fathers toasted the signing of the Declaration of Independence with Madeira wine which was logical given that its author was Madeira proselytizer Mr. Jefferson himself.

Madeira also played a key role in a little celebrated but quite picturesque pre-Revolution event. In 1768, fortified-wine importer, alleged smuggler,

Madeira "importer" puts his John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence

Madeira “importer” puts his John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence

and future Declaration of Independence signer John Hancock was accused of unloading a cargo of contraband Madeira at Boston harbor after tying up the customs officer. The Brits seized Hancock’s ship and cargo In the name of law and order. An angry mob retook the barrels in the name of liberty. Unlike the more celebrated “Boston Tea Party,” the cargo was drunk instead of chucked into the sea and the so-called “Boston Madeira Party” or “Liberty Riot” roared on into the wee hours until none other than Sam Adams put an end to the festivities.

And now I hear that Betsy Ross sipped Madeira for inspiration while sewing the first Stars and Stripes.

In 1803,  then president Thomas Jefferson pulled off the Louisiana Purchase.  It was officially celebrated in New Orleans. The three participating countries proposed a toast each with its signature wine: France with Champagne, Spain with Malaga, and the United States with Madeira, our de facto official national wine.

So, on the 4th of July, in the name of Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, and Betsy Ross let’s all raise a glass of “America’s great patriotic wine.”

So, in the memory of the Declaration of Independence, the Liberty Riots, and patriotic tax evasion let’s down a bit of “America’s first wine.”

And in the words of the old song, “Have some Madeira, m’dear, you really have nothing to fear.” We aren’t talking cheap cooking wine or

Betsy Ross: Madeira-inspired seamstress

sickeningly sweet dessert wine here. It is one of the world’s great wines: really good stuff.  And it doesn’t break the bank since fortified wines are out of fashion. My advice: splurge, get a reserve. What brand? Whatever you can find. You won’t regret it: you can drink great wine at a reasonable price;  it is so historically correct; and no amount of July heat can damage this stuff.



One of the greats

Madeira, one of the greats

2 Responses to “Madeira: “America’s First” and “Most Patriotic” Wine for July 4th”

  1. Tom Oller Says:

    Oyez, oyez! It wasn’t only Jeffersonians who loved Madeira. Ardent Federalist John Marshall, the great Supreme Court Chief Justice, was an ardent fan of Madeira.

    • michael oudyn Says:

      So it was’t a partisan thing. And I was just informed that bon vivant Benjamin Franklin once quipped that he would prefer to be buried in a large cask of Madeira with some his friends when the time came.

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