Rare Wine Co. Madeira: Tasting Baltimore's Past

Rare Wine Co. Madeira: Tasting Baltimore's Past

No secret: colonial Americans loved to drink. Ale and porter in the cities, corn whisky on the frontier — these time-tested quaffs never went fully out of style. But there’s a different story behind Madeira, America’s favorite wine in the 18th and 19th century.

These wines, made from grapes grown on an eponymous island 600 miles off the coast of Portugal, arrived by the shipload in the major ports of young America — thirsty towns like Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Baltimore. Connoisseurs would buy Madeira by the cask, and set the wine aside to age. Age it did. Madeira is a fortified wine, with neutral spirits added in the midst of fermentation to halt the process. The casks are then intentionally exposed to high temperatures and oxygen. All these steps, combined with the high acidity in the grapes, make Madeira an exceptionally sturdy wine.

It took crisis to quell our urban forefathers’ fervor for the drink: successive plagues of Oïdium and Phylloxera hit the island’s vines in the second half of the nineteenth century and delivered a crushing blow to production.

Bringing Classics Back

Thus, credit to the Rare Wine Company, which has not only been working to raise the profile of vintage Madeira in the U.S., but also to demonstrate our own unique history with the wine.

Back in Madeira’s heyday, each port developed its own unique preference for Madeira, which can be made from any of four different grape varieties. In the northern city of Boston, fanciers liked a sweeter wine, made from the Bual grape; while to the south, in Charleston, local tastes settled on a drier style, made from the Sercial grape.

Meanwhile, Baltimore’s connoisseurs fixated on a style called Rainwater, marked by its pale color and delicate flavor. And Rainwater’s appeal in Charm City remained strong through the length of the nineteenth century, even as Madeira as a whole was going into decline. In 1902, Douglas H. Thomas, the city’s top dog for the wine, called Rainwater “the highest standard.” When a New York auction in 1900 offered a total of zero Rainwaters, one merchant speculated that “Baltimore connoisseurs thought so highly of them that they bought them all up and none reached New York.”

Now the Rare Wine Company has introduced the Baltimore Rainwater Special Reserve to its Historic Series, joining cities like Boston, Charleston, Savannah, and New York. Be among the first in this century to have a taste of nineteenth century Baltimore at Bad Decisions or Wit & Wisdom at the Four Seasons, or pick up a bottle for home at Urban Cellars.


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