Madeira was the wine of choice in the fledgling days of the 13 American colonies, and it is closely entwined with the history and lore of our little upstart nation. The signers of the Declaration of Independence toasted with glasses of the tawny wine, and it is mentioned countless times in literature as a favorite libation of characters ranging from the ones created by Austen to those of Hemingway.
The Portuguese island of Madeira lies in the Atlantic, closer to Africa than Europe. The rainy, humid terroir of the island shouldn’t be hospitable to the vine, but the bastardo grape thrived. The distinctive rich, silky vanilla notes are created in the production process that was discovered in the 15th century quite accidentally. The island’s location and easily accessible port made it a crucial stop on the journey to the New World. Ships would stock barrels of sweet wine that was fortified with brandy to make the eight-week journey. While the barrels rocked back and forth in the heat of the hulls along the equator, the wine was slowly cooked, and the taste was changed completely and for the better. From that, Madeira wine was born.
The original bastardo grape has long since vanished, thanks to crop ailments in the late 19th century, followed shortly by American Prohibition and World War II. Very few casks remain from before the torrid end of Madeira’s early winemaking days.
Just in time to pair with your holiday dessert course, Christie’s will tender several of these bottles of recherché Dermot Bolger Bastardo 1889, from the Torre Bella estate, which traces its origins to the first settlers of the island. You can see these bottles, among many others of impeccable provenance, at Christie’s Finest & Rarest Wines and Spirits viewing from December 6 to 11, ahead of the auction on December 13.