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Madeira, America’s Revolutionary Wine

How a duty free wine helped light the spark of Independence Day

Jennifer Simonson By July 4, 2021
A wooden crate containing bottles of Madeira against a stylized representation of red, white and blue
Madeira played a starring role in the American Revolution.

On May 9, 1768, an argument between American colonists and British customs officials over a shipment of wine sparked what turned out to be the beginning of the American Revolution.

Until just a few years before, smuggling through Boston Harbor had been common. All a smuggler had to do was approach British officials, ask them what the correct bribe would be, and pay it. But Boston’s port was one of the busiest and most lucrative in the British Empire, and officials were cracking down on the practice. In 1767, the government created the Townshend Acts, to levy new taxes and prosecute smugglers.

And they had the wealthy Boston merchant, John Hancock, in their sights.

Hancock was locally very popular, not least because when the earlier Stamp Act had been repealed, he’d celebrated by putting two casks of Madeira wine outside his front door, that anybody could help themself to.

In 1768, he was raided. Hancock’s ship, the Liberty, was carrying 3,150 gallons of his favorite Madeira wine, and the British informed him that he had to pay tax on it. When he refused, “authorities seize Hancock’s boat and its content, and Boston riots,” wrote Steven Grasse in his book “Colonial Spirits: A Toast to Our Drunken History.”

A mob of 3,000 angry colonists destroyed British ships and assaulted customs officials in retaliation, resulting in one of the worst riots in Boston’s history. Customs officials were forced to flee the city, and British troops were ordered to Boston to subdue the insurrection. The Liberty Affair, as it was called, led to the Boston Massacre, which sparked the beginning of the American Revolution.

And that is how Madeira will go down in history as the wine that pushed the rising tide of revolutionary fervor over the tipping point for the American colonists.

What is Madeira?

Madeira is a fortified wine made on Portugal’s island of Madeira, 300 miles off the coast of Morocco. From the early 1600s, the island was a popular port for ships traveling to the New World, and sailors loaded casks filled with wine blended from local grapes, such as Verdelho, Sercial, Bual, and Malvasia. Sugar cane brandy topped off the cask to help the wine withstand the long journey. The constant movement of the ocean waves tossing  the ship, as well as the heat the Madeira suffered from being stored in the hulls of the ship, produced a smoother, more refined wine.

Madeira became the wine of choice for the early Americans because it could withstand the long journey across the Atlantic without losing flavor and, more importantly, because it was not taxed.

England developed a special relationship with Portugal following the marriage of King Charles II to Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza. As a result, Madeira was exempt from taxation. This made the fortified wine much more affordable than bottles of Champagne or Bordeaux, with their hefty taxes. It also reinforced the rallying cry, “no taxation without representation.” It was so popular in the colonies, that by the late 1700s, Americans were consuming roughly one-fourth of all the Madeira production.

“Madeira became the wine of choice for the early Americans because it could withstand the long journey across the Atlantic without losing flavor and, more importantly, because it was not taxed.”

According to Atlas Obscura, the producers of Madeira even made special blends, depending on who was buying the wine; New Yorkers liked the sweeter red versions, Virginians the white ones.

“Because of special tax and legal treatment, Madeira was established in the early 1700s as the wine of the North American colonies, and by 1776, we identified ourselves as Madeira drinkers. It was our wine,” wrote Mannie Berk, founder of Rare Wine Co, on his website.

As for the Liberty, it never carried Madeira again. Although charges against John Hancock were dropped, the boat was confiscated by the Royal Navy. In 1769, it was boarded by a mob, scuttled, and then burned — one of the first acts of rebellion against the British.

But Madeira went from being a popular colonial wine to the preferred wine of the American revolutionaries. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and John Jay were all Madeira enthusiasts. Betsy Ross sipped it while sewing the American flag.

And on July 4, 1776, Madeira filled the glasses that toasted the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. One of those glasses, of course, was in the hand of John Hancock.

3 Madeiras to try:

bottle of Sandeman Fine Rich Madeira

Sandeman Fine Rich Madeira ($16)

This dark amber wine has rich aromas of dried fruit. It has a light complexity, making it a perfect match for rich dishes or desserts with strong flavors. It is the perfect example of what a good-quality, young Madeira should taste like.

bottle of Blandy's 10 Year Madeira Rich Malmsey

Blandy's 10 Year Madeira Rich Malmsey ($32)

A racy acidity balances out this intensely sweet Madeira. This nutty, caramel, and honey-flavored wine pairs well with nutty desserts, such as a chocolate hazelnut mousse cake, pecan pie, or almond cake.

bottle of D'Oliveira Verdelho Madeira 1986

D'Oliveira Verdelho Madeira 1986 ($195)

This dessert wine has a complex nose of intense smoke, fruits, and nuts. D’Oliveira has an unparalleled library of Madeiras known for powerful aromatics, strong structure, and clean acidity.