by Fred McMillin
for March 27, 1997

The President's Pick

Prologue: "In Shakespeare's 'King Henry the Fourth' Falstaff is accused of having sold his soul for a cup of Madeira and a cold capon's leg".. by H. Warner Allen in "The Wines of Portugal." President George Washington knew a thing or two about "a cup of Madeira," also, as we shall see.

The Rest of the Story: When Portugal's 0. Zarco, "the Cross-Eyed," discovered the heavily-forested volcanic island in 1419, he named it the Isle of Madeira, which means wood in Portuguese. He burned a clearing; the fire lasted seven years! Vines were planted, including the Malvasia, alias Malmsey, from Crete. Their explosive growth caused Venitian visitor Alvise da Mosto in 1455 to pronounce them the "most productive and beautiful in the world."

The wine may have charmed another visitor who arrived in 1479; his name was Christopher Columbus. In any case, a century after Columbus left Madeira the island's wine had come to be appreciated in England, and later in the American colonies. President Washington had such faith in it he even recommended that the Marquis de Chastellux's ague be cured with "three or four cups of Madeira." His wine adviser, Thomas Jefferson, also admired "silky Madeira," including the dessert-style Malmsey. In fact, Madeira had such stature that it, not Champagne, was used to toast both the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the inauguration of President Washington. So, on his Feb. 22 birthday, what could be more fitting than raising a toast of Malmsey to our first president.

Blandy's Rich Malmsey Madeira, 5 years in oak, $19
Contact—Caddie Grenier, (415) 331-7656

Postscript: In Madeira, I had it with sharp white cheese cubes.

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College and is Northern California Editor for American Wine on the Web. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.

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