A Slightly Sweet Thanksgiving: Madeira and Lambrusco Wine

According to Richard Mayson in his book on the subject:

Madeira wine is currently experiencing a renaissance. It is a wine that behaves like almost no other. Heat and air, the sworn enemies of most wines and winemakers, conspire to turn Madeira into one of the most enthralling of the world’s wines as well as the most resilient. Madeira wines from the nineteenth and even the eighteenth centuries still retain an ethereal, youthful gloss. Once the cork is removed, the wine comes to no harm, even if the bottle is left open and on ullage for months on end. If ever there was a wine to take to a desert island, this is it.

Madeira Wine Book

Or, if ever there was a wine for someone without a wine cellar, this is it! A bottle of Madeira was probably poured at some of the earliest Thanksgiving celebrations. Madeira is produced on a beautiful volcanic island of the same name which is 360 miles west of Morocco and 700 miles south of Portugal, which governs it. The history of Madeira’s wine is nearly as old as that of the island. The island was first settled by Europeans (led by the Portuguese explorer Zarco) in 1419. By 1455 a visitor from Venice wrote that Madeira’s vineyards were the world’s most beautiful. Within a century, the wine from these vineyards was well established in markets throughout Europe and by the 1600’s it had become the most popular wine in Britain’s North American colonies.

Madeira is produced from grapes grown on terraces cut into the island’s steep mountainsides. Like Port, Madeira is a “fortified” wine to which brandy has been added. But unlike other fortified wines, Madeira is also heated for several months, either in special vats or in the attic lofts of the Madeira lodges.

For two centuries, Madeira was the wine of choice for most affluent Americans. Francis Scott Keyes is said to have penned the Star Spangled Banner, sipping from a glass of Madeira. George Washington’s inauguration was toasted with Madeira, as was the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Wealthy families from Boston to Savannah established extensive collections of Madeiras. Madeira became high fashion, and “Madeira parties” (a forerunner of today’s wine tasting) became major social events.

There are four major types of Madeira, named according to the grape variety used. Ranging from the sweetest to the driest style they are: Malvasia (also known as Malmsey or Malvazia), Bual (or Boal), Verdelho, and Sercial.

Verdelho is the main ingredient of a medium dry light wine called “Rainwater” which is very popular in the United States. The cheaper wines are made from Tinta Negra Mole. The legend around the name started when the contents of a shipment to Savannah, Georgia, were diluted by a heavy rain that hit the casks left standing on a beach. The recipient of the shipment liked the lighter taste and ordered more.

There are many stories around Malmsey which was exported as early as the 15th century. In 1478 the Duke of Clarence preferred death by drowning himself in a cask of Malmsey to the death by sword. In Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” Poins accuses the Prince of Wales to have sold his soul for a glass of Malmsey and a chicken leg. One of John Falstaff’s drinking friends is named after his Malmsey-reddened nose. Even Napoleon, stopping over on the island on his way into exile on St. Helena in 1815, took some Malmsey to brighten his days. Malmsey remains unquestionably the most famous Madeira wine. Even now, many would agree that a good Malmsey crowns a perfect meal like no other wine. The combination with coffee, cookies or nuts is classic, as is the combination of a good bitter chocolate. But also on its own, Malmsey itself is an excellent dessert.

Lambrusco wine has also seen its share of Thanksgivings especially in the 70’s and 80’s when it was the biggest selling import wine in the United States and over 3 million cases were exported from Italy each year. The Lambrusco grape has a long winemaking history with archaeological evidence indicating that the Etruscans cultivated the vine. In Roman times, the Lambrusco was highly valued for its productivity and high yields with Cato the Elder stating that produce of two thirds of an acre could make enough wine to fill 300 amphoras.

The most highly rated of its wines are the frothy, frizzante (slightly sparkling) red wines that are designed to be drunk young from one of the five Lambrusco denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) regions: Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce, Lambrusco Reggiano, and Lambrusco Mantovano. Lambruscos are usually made as either Red or Rosado (Rosé). They can either be secco (dry), amabile (semi-sweet) or dolce (sweet). A white version of Lambrusco called Bianco is also made in small quantities. This is made by separating the skins from the grapes before vinification.

Although traditional Lambrusco is an almost entirely cork-stopped, dry (secco) red wine, the Lambrusco Reggiano DOC is also used to make amabile (slightly sweet) and dolce (sweet) versions of Lambrusco through use of up to 15 percent of the Ancellotta grape. The first dry, cork-finished, limited production DOC Lambrusco was introduced in the United States in 1995. The wine is noted for high acidity and berry flavors. Many of the wines now exported to the United State include a blend of Lambrusco from the different DOC and is sold under the Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) designation Emilia.

The amabile styles make for a wonderful aperitif. The secco style can be merged with almost any type of food. It really is versatile. The dolce style makes a nice dessert by itself or perhaps served with a cookie or biscotti.