Madeira, a delicious wine with a fascinating history, holds a special place in the traditions of Savannah, and was a centerpiece of high society.
Named after the island where it is made—southwest of Portugal and 400 miles west of Morocco—Madeira’s unique taste comes from fortification (adding additional ingredients) and repeated heating of the wine. This process was an amazing discovery given the primitive shipping conditions of the 17th century.
The island of Madeira was an important provisioning stop during the long journeys to the Americas and East Indies and, to avoid spoilage, most wines were fortified with brandy. To reach the ports of the New World, the wines passed through the tropics, exposing them to extreme temperatures. This “baking and cooling” gave an otherwise light and acidic wine softness, and flavors of roasted nuts, stewed fruit and caramel.
Americans grew fond of the wines from Madeira and became one of its biggest customers. By the early 18th century, it was the only wine consumed by British Americans. There are many different styles of Madeira, ranging from dry to sweet. Surprisingly, the drier style of Madeira was preferred in the South, while the sweeter type was preferred in the North.
Members of Savannah’s high society loved and coveted this wine. In the early 19th century, Savannah was a major importer of Madeira. It was so popular, wealthy gentlemen collected entire cellars of the wine; hence the inception of the Savannah Madeira Party—the perfect occasion to show off one’s impressive collection.
William Habersham, an influential Savannah businessman who hosted many parties, made a name for himself as the “most precise palate of his time.” He was said to be able to blindly name a wine’s year, grape variety and even vineyard! The story, “A Madeira Party,” by Silas Weir Mitchell, published in 1895, describes these parties in detail. Madeira Parties were an integral part of Savannah’s unique and storied society—until war and nature intervened.
The Civil War created blockades that cut off Madeira supplies and wreaked havoc on Southern wealth. Around the same time, a major blight killed most of Europe’s best grape vines. Thus, Madeira’s prominence in America slipped away.
However, the valor of Southern gentlemen eventually reasserted itself. In 1959, a group of businessmen formed the Savannah Madeira Club to revive the Madeira Party tradition. Until the 1990s, their meetings took place at a member’s home and included dinner, several Madeira wines and the discussion of the latest newspaper stories or lectures presented by one of the members. In 1976, they celebrated the Bicentennial with a special Madeira Party, complete with historic clothing and re-enactment reminiscent of details described in Mitchell’s book.
Savannah’s Davenport House Museum continues the rich tradition of Madeira wine parties with an annual educational tour of the house, accompanied by a Madeira wine tasting.
Written by Georgene Mortimer of Island Winery on Cardinal Road, where complimentary tastings, wine by the glass and cheese platters are available Monday-Saturday from 12:30-5:30 p.m. and Sunday from noon-4 p.m. For more information, call (843) 842-3141 or go to islandwinery.com.