Madeira makes a comeback at Charleston Wine + Food Festival 

Get a taste of history

There are lots of great events on the lineup for the upcoming Charleston Wine + Food Festival, but for wine lovers who are interested in getting a literal taste of Charleston history, the Magic of Madeira event on Fri., March 4 is not to be missed.

Madeira was once the signature wine of Charleston, prized by planters and connoisseurs and an inseparable part of the Lowcountry culture of dining and hospitality. It was the favorite drink of the Founding Fathers, too, playing a prominent role in the taxation controversies that led to revolution. It was also they toasted with after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Because it is fortified with brandy and produced through a unique heating process that effectively bakes the wine, Madeira is not only highly shelf-stable but improves with age over the course of decades, even after hundreds of years in the bottle. Here in Charleston, prominent antebellum families had wine attics instead of wine cellars, where they would age their large, carefully-selected stores to create their own own individual versions of the wines.

The golden age of Madeira ended in the mid-19th century, when wine production on the island of Madeira was virtually wiped out, first by a mildew outbreak and then the phylloxera epidemic. The island gradually rebuilt its wine industry, but throughout the 20th century its products languished, suffering under a reputation as cheap cooking wine. A few decades ago, Madeira's wine-making families undertook steps to reinvigorate their ancient industry, and now a remarkable wine that was almost lost to history is making a dramatic comeback.

Two of the most prominent people driving that comeback will be in Charleston to lead the Magic of Madeira tasting session, which is sponsored by the Culinary Institute of Charleston. Mannie Berk, the president of the Rare Wine Company, is considered one of the world's foremost authorities on both contemporary Madeira wine as well as its history, and his firm is the country's leading retailer of vintage Madeiras.

He'll be joined by Ricardo Freitas, the managing director and winemaker for Vinhos Barbeito, a family-run winery that has moved to the forefront of the modern Madeira market. Freitas was just named the best fortified winemaker in Portugal — no small feat in a field dominated by makers of port.

Berk and Freitas have teamed up to produce the Rare Wine Company's Historic Series Madeiras, which not only recognize the wine's rich history but also aim to introduce wine lovers to the complex style of vintage Madeiras. Each wine in the series is blended from vintage Madeiras to match the particular style that would have been enjoyed in a particular Colonial American city, including Boston, New York, New Orleans, Savannah, and, yes, Charleston.

Following the historical preferences of the Southern palate, the Charleston Sercial is much drier than the style preferred in northern cities like Boston and New York, and in that sense it might also surprise those who think of Madeira as a sweet after-dinner drink. "It used to be that Madeira was not just a dessert or after-dinner wine," Berks says. "It was drunk throughout an entire meal." In fact, chefs are starting to rediscover the dry Madeira as great pairing for everything from goat cheese and seafood to beef and wild boar.

Attendees of the Magic of Madeira will taste a range of Madeiras, both dry and sweet and of various ages, and experience for themselves the complexity of this history wine. That includes, Berks hints, a Madeira that is almost a century old.

And Ricardo Frietas will undertake an exercise that has never been performed before: demonstrating how he blends Madeiras of various vintages to create the wines in the Historic Series. Attendees will be able to taste each of the components individually, then experience how they come together to create the unique flavor of the Charleston Sercial, our city's namesake wine.

Even the location of the event is historic: the Gallery Room at McCrady's Restaurant, where Edward McCrady once served Madeira in the Long Room of his tavern.

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