“The taste of this country was artificially created by our long restraint under the English government to the strong wines of Portugal and Spain.” — Thomas Jefferson, 1817
Jefferson, along with other founding fathers of our Republic, had a special affinity to wine, and to one in particular: Madeira.
Cultivated on the Portuguese island of the wine’s namesake, Madeira became a popular wine in the early days of the United States because of the convenient location of the island on a trade route to the young colonies and the ongoing conflict between young America, France, Portugal and Great Britain.
Savannah’s Davenport House Museum continues the rich tradition of Madeira wine parties with an annual educational tour of the house, accompanied by a tasting of the wine.
“People up and down the eastern seaboard during the late 18th, early 19th century had Madeira parties after their evening meal,” said Jamie Credle, director of the Davenport House. “It was a toasting beverage of our forebears. It’s not something that people are very familiar with today. It’s all tied up with the romance of the sea.”
It was reported that Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams all toasted to the Declaration of Independence with a glass of Madeira.
During the Age of Exploration, the wine itself went through a dramatic transition. As ships bound for the New World would stop on the island to replenish water stocks, they began taking pipes, caskets of the wine, with them. The wine was not originally conceived to keep under the long arduous journey across the Atlantic.
By accident, it was discovered that the heat and sloshing of the journey transformed the wine’s taste. Vintners found by adding distilled alcohol, similarly to how port wine was preserved, they could create a wine that would last much longer. It could be said then, Madeira is America’s first original wine.
As one of the oldest port cities in America, Madeira and Savannah have a long, mutually beneficial relationship.
“Potable Gold: Savannah’s Madeira Tradition” is a 90-minute tour that immerses visitors in the rich tradition of the post-dinner event by touring the rooms of the house where tastings would happen and sharing the history of the time and place of the wine’s popularity. The tour, which will be offered Friday and Saturday evenings in February, also includes spaces normally not open to the public, Credle’s favorite aspect.
“I like being up in the attic,” Credle said. “Usually, early in the month it’s still dark. To see that area by candlelight and look out over the neighborhood, through the window. And being with people you don’t know and sharing something that’s so much fun. There’s not a lot of time that strangers gather and learn something together.”
The Davenport House itself is one of our city’s true historic landmarks. It was the first building the Historic Savannah Foundation saved from demolition. The house was built by Isaiah Davenport in 1820, and stayed in the family for more than 100 years before falling into disrepair. It became the home of the Historic Savannah Foundation in 1955.
“It’s an education program with the component of a wine tasting,” Credle said of the upcoming Madeira program. “We go through the history. We do an orientation about what and where Madeira is. You see rooms where hospitality took place in the museum, lit by candlelight. We simulate a Madeira party in one room and go to the attic and see another room that would have been used. It’s kind of fun to be up there by candlelight.”
The Davenport House prefers smaller groups of seven to 14, so booking your tour early is highly recommended. Each year’s tour is custom-prepared with a focus on certain parts of history. For instance, last year the election was discussed. Not the 2016 election, mind you, but the highly contested 1824 election.
“It’s a chance for us to talk about something that is sort of intrinsically connected both with the hospitality that Savannah is known for and also agriculture history, and decorative arts because of the glasses they used,” Credle said.
IF YOU GO
What: “Potable Gold: Savannah’s Madeira Tradition”
When: 5:30 p.m. Feb. 3, 4, 10, 11, 18, 24, 25 (7:30 p.m. tours will be added Feb. 10, 11 and 18 if earlier sessions sell out)
Where: Davenport House Museum, 324 E. State St.
Cost: $20; 21 and older; reservations recommended