The Madeira White Wine Culture and Savannah

Jay Self

Today, couple of individuals know much, if anything, about Madeira wine or its history. Throughout the majority of the 18th and 19th centuries, nevertheless, the red wine from the played an essential part in American society. Madeira controlled red wine imports into Anglo America in between 1640 and 1815. This popular and potent drink played an essential function in the political, social and financial advancement of our country, including, Savannah Georgia.

A Toast to Self-reliance

The Liberty Incident of 1768 was a critical occasion in our nation’s movement towards independence. John Hancock’s sloop the Liberty, and its freight of Madeira white wine, was taken by the British in Boston Harbor. The crowd ashore, hearing that they would have no inexpensive Madeira, became violent, assaulted the customs office, smashing the inspector general’s windows, and making a public bonfire of his personal pleasure boat.

Madeira was used to toast important occasions consisting of the signing of the Declaration and the inauguration of George Washington. In his last orders prior to the American Revolution, George Washington sent out flour from Mount Vernon straight to Madeira and received white wine from the islands in exchange. General Washington, who kept an ample supply at all times, strongly thought that “the benefits arising from the moderate usage of.. liqueur, have actually been experienced in All Armies, and are not challenged.”

Savannah Connections

Savannah, founded in 1733, was more or less bankrupt for its first 18 years. That changed in the 1750’s with the development of a plantation economy. Historian Dr. Paul Pressly, a professional on colonial Georgia, member of the Madeira Club of Savannah and author of “On the Rim of the Caribbean: Colonial Georgia and the British Atlantic World,” explains that during the next 25 years, Georgia’s economy blew up and it entered the British– Atlantic world through rice, deer skin, lumber and indigo. Pre-revolutionary Georgia was concentrated on Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, Barbados and St. Kitts, not inland to the west. To comprehend Savannah, and Georgia, Pressly explains, you need to aim to the east, to these islands, to Madeira, to Africa, to the rice markets in Germany.

I asked Dr. Pressly if the Madeira culture contributed in linking Savannah to the bigger Atlantic economy in a way that might not have taken place otherwise? His answer: “Absolutely.” The Elite households had emerged in Savannah, but they were not so extremely elite, they had just made it. They did not have the network of interlocking connections as existed in the Carolinas. Madeira connected upper-class Savannah with the elites of the eastern coast, mainly with Boston, Philadelphia, New York City and Norfolk. It was the entrance into the eastern coast mindset that, in numerous ways, separated Savannah from the rest of Georgia.

As families such as the Habershams and Houstons emerged, they started buying pipes (Portuguese for cask) of Madeira white wine and participating in what was the largest and most prominent marketing effort of its time. Cossart Gordon (among the earliest current companies) was entering into Savannah in the 1760’s, and is still entering Savannah, though not rather as freely, Pressly said with a smile.

The York Madeira Vine

The creators of Georgia had Madeira on their mind from the start. In 1732, the trustees of the colony paid William Houston, who was dropping in Madeira on his way to Jamaica, to “inform himself of the manner of cultivating the vineyards and making of the white wine there, and to carry with him to Jamaica, cuttings of their best sorts of vines and seeds which are desiring in our American colonies.” On November 9th, 1732, Houston, writing from Madeira to Mr. Oglethorpe in London, informed him that he had sent 2 tubs of cuttings to Mr. St Julian and Charles Town for the use in the colony of Georgia. The york madeira vine was established from these cuttings, thought the vines did not do well in Georgia and no white wine to speak of was produced. Narrative history exists of a man on Sapelo Island producing one pipe to which he included 10 to 15 gallons of Brandy.


Madeira is a small volcanic island in the Atlantic. It is 559 miles from Lisbon, 1457 miles from London and 2716 from New York. It is a small island, a mere 34 miles long and 14 miles wide with a circumference of 90 miles. It covers 286 square miles, less than half of the size of Chatham County.

This tiny island might have been an unimportant part of the Portuguese empire, except that, since of its place along significant Atlantic wind and water currents, it turned into one of the principle provisioning nodes in the vast transoceanic trading web that had actually been spun throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The soil and environment of this otherwise irrelevant island combined to make unique grapes that were processed into the variety of red wines understand just as Madeira. These white wines had a considerable influence on worldwide trade and culture.

Madeira White Wine, Culture and Trade

The Development of the Red wine

In addition to the procedures typical to all red wine, today’s Madeira is combined, strengthened, upset, heated and aged. The original Madeira was a cheap simple red wine.

In the mid 18th century, producers started to fortify the white wine by adding brandy at three stages during fermentation and in some cases however by the shipper. This produced an extremely powerful drink averaging 22% alcohol, roughly the same as port, well above all other red wines. The first recommendation to island growers and exporters adding brandy appears in 1753 and it had been adopted by the majority of producers by 1762. By the 1760s, it had actually ended up being sophisticated and exports were distributed in 6 different grades: Malvaia, London Particular, London Market, New York, Virginia and Common.

Agitation was a vernacular development that diminished the often irregular taste of the brandy and other aftertastes. The benefits of agitation are peculiar to Madeira and were realized through shipping or, as one manufacturer composed “the wearing out of unwanted flavors by relentless turmoil at sea.” Not all trips were alike. Some vessels experienced greater agitation than others, resulting in different quality. In an effort to supply consistency, the islanders would rock the casks by hand to induce the effect of stormy seas. By the turn of the 19th century, manufacturers started using steam-powered machines to do this job.

Heat was another peculiar good friend of Madeira. The majority of red wines are adversely impacted by heat, however not Madeira. The heat boosted he white wine a lot that distributers in fact preferred and requested pipes that had been stored on the port side of the ship because that side would have gotten more direct sunshine throughout the voyage west.

The advanced war cut off access to Madeira imports. While white wines sat and aged in Madeira, the cellars of revolutionary America were diminished. The exporters profited from this scenario by segmenting the marketplace and stratifying their clients by wealth and taste. By the turn of the 19th century, producers and distributers had transformed Madeira into an intricate highly processed, pricey, and status-laden beverage. Its modern type had actually been developed.

Marketing and Trade

Dr. Pressly explains that Madeira was ‘everyman’s red wine’ in the beginning of the 18th century, however by the beginning of the 19th century, it has ended up being an elite white wine, extremely unique, and this change was all due to the fact that of marketing. Marketing affected by professional along the chain, and Savannah became part of that chain.

As the Madeira culture emerged, companies modified their formulas to match the choices of drinkers in specific regions. In the Southern U.S. and West Indies, were there was little worry of Madeira ruining in the cold, a love of wines of a darker color and sweeter taste were able to grow. To please hot environment clients who wished to prevent the envigorating impacts of including alcohol, suppliers put less brandy in the white wine they shipped, and sent out a quarter cask of brandy so that the client might strengthen to taste.

Northern customers requested for a paler, drier red wine with greater brandy material. Virginians preferred their Madeira pale and greatly strengthened. Philadelphians asked for golden red wines with less brandy a sweeter taste. New Yorkers wanted amber with less brandy and more sugar. Eventually each market received its own beverage.

Much of the Madeira was spent for in reverse trade. Oak staves for building casks were much in need on the island and these were therefore shipped to Madeira from Savannah. William Price would offer “Finest London Particular Madeira White wine” and take rice, tobacco, beaver fur and deerskins in trade.

Wine distributers added to the production of a refined white wine drinking culture, but it was mainly the work of consumers who shared their experiences and discourses with others in their networks. By the latter part of the 18th century, a Madeira white wine culture had actually emerged in the Atlantic. It was multinational and inter-imperial, one of the first commodities to acquire these attributes.

Madeira Red Wine Culture

The ‘rules of the madeira game’ were an apparatus of social status, signs of wealth and refinement, nearly universal throughout the Atlantic world. Customers elaborated the routines in the ways they showed, served, and consumed white wine, developing complicated dramas of selecting the red wine, matching it to the food, opening the bottle, enabling it to breathe, decanting it (consisting of the choice of decanter and technique of poring) and serving it, not to point out purchasing, keeping and taking care of the drink. Carrying these out properly showed their access to resources and their social acumen, identified the improved from the course, unsophisticated and nouveaux riche. Physically and metaphorically, Americans started incorporating alcohol in performances in which they acted out their economic, social and political identities. From this, a Madeira white wine culture emerged.

This pageantry was played out to its maximum at Madeira parties that normally began at 5pm and lasted two or 3 hours. They were typically made up of 8 guys at a table. 5 or 6 different types of Madeira were distributed clockwise in decanters on silver coasters. While the wine was tasted and gone over, biscuits and nuts were consumed.

Glass Use

Drinking, by its nature, is a fleeting experience that is given permanence by glass wares. Madeira culture included essential non-verbal interaction through the proper uses of bottles, decanters and cellars. Possessing and releasing glass stuff was a manner of projecting one’s improvement and likewise announced a customer’s loyalty to a specific taste community. Though these variations dealt with various tastes and budget plans, they supplied Atlantic connoisseurs a typical product language.

Decanters were the wine-drinking things Americans most typically placed on their tables. Silver and ceramic decanters were utilized by the middle classes and rural individuals. They were typically etched with the name of the beverage to be served within such as Boudreaux, Port, Champaign or Madeira. Displaying numerous decanters was a sign of wealth and elegance. Those who could not manage many decanters may utilize labels called decanter tags. These were made of gold, silver, ivory or mother of pearl.


A distinctly American contribution to storage was the warm attic cellar, first created in the southern colonies. The heat was utilized to keep Madeira from souring. Before the end of the 18th century, the attic cellar was being utilized in between Savannah and Richmond.

The Madeira Club of Savannah

One group of modern Madeira lovers are the members of the Madeira Club of Savannah. Dr. Pressly explained how the group will fulfill at a member’s house while another member checks out a paper on any subject he thinks will be of interest to the rest. They will take pleasure in a 6 or 7 course meal, with a different kind of Madeira with each course. Although the club owns no Madeira, separately, its members possess the finest collections on the planet.

Dr. Pressly talked about the first-rate collection of Mills B. Lane. He kept his wine in the basement of the Citizens and Southern Bank, now Bank of America on Johnson Square. He had brokers in New york city and San Francisco who kept him provided with world-class things. He was fanatical.

The club celebrated its bicentennial in April of 1953. The occasion was kept in the Owens Thomas and the following Madeiras were served:

Camade Lobos Solera 1792 from Haywood S. Hansel Jnr,

Terrentes 1870 from Mr. Thomas Gignillat,

Rutherford’s Bual Solera 1814 and

Blandy’s Malmsey Solera 1863 from Mills B. Lane

Decline and Rebirth

Trade to the United States was halted during the innovative war and again during the Civil War, but resumed when these conflicts ended. Prohibition stopped imports once again in the 1920’s. This, and a series of crop failures due to phylaxira seriously lessened supply and need. This offered an opening for the emerging American white wine market to acquire prominence. By the 1930’s most of the original vines had passed away and Madeira was decreased to a cheap cooking red wine.

Fortunately, some vine grafts from the initial Madeira vines had actually survived in France, and these have actually been thoroughly reestablished to the island. It has taken years, but the restoration of the native vines has actually enabled a resurgence in quality Madeira Wine.

Savannah’s World Class Lover

William Neyle Habersham (1817– 1899) was considered among the excellent white wine connoisseurs of his time, and his understanding of Madeira was unequaled. His family had been popular in Savannah from the earliest colonial days. His household’s shipping company would ship Georgia pine and rice to Europe, and return with Madeira wine. Habersham developed an almost invaluable collection from stocks inherited from several generations of the family. According to Ward McAllister, he had among the best pallets of perpetuity. In his book Society as I have actually Discovered It (New York 1890), McAllister recalls Habersham, being evaluated with a mix of two Madeiras, having the ability to discern each to the detail of which ship on which it has gotten here. Habersham would treat his wines with a secret process that made them the favorites of lovers all along the coast. The secret ingredient is now thought to have actually been bentinite clay, which we know now can taking in acidity and tannin from the wine, prior to it was bottled. His wines were abundant, though lighter in taste and color. After the civil war, in which Habersham lost 2 children in the battle of Atlanta, the shipping service was lost. He put his understanding to use and made money by selling unusual Madeira’s to a distinguished clientele, consisted of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Associated Websites

The Owens Thomas Home was the site of the Madeira Club of Savannah’s bicentennial event. It likewise has a cellar with Madeira paraphernalia and a classic cask. See to learn more.

The Isaiah Davenport Home uses a trip series entitled “Drinkable Gold”: Savannah’s Madeira Tradition in February. See for more information.

The basement of the old C and S Bank structure on Johnson Square, now Bank of America, housed one of the best contemporary Madeira collections through the early 1970’s.

Wormsloe was the website of the famous tasting contest with Habersham described by McAllister. It was likewise the house of George DeRenne. The site is now a State Historic Site. See for additional information.

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