J.P. Morgan’s Favored Madeira Wines Make Comeback: Elin McCoy

Emanuel Berk
Emanuel Berk, owner of the Rare Wine Company. Berk has become one of the top sources for collectible fortified wine in the world. Photographer: Elin McCoy/Bloomberg

John Pierpont Morgan liked to sip old vintages of Madeira with his fellow industrialists while cruising New York harbor on his steam yacht Corsair.

I’m savoring them in the Manhattan mansion where his son lived, now part of the Morgan Library and Museum complex. The cedary, layered 1780 Borges Bual Madeira ($2,450) on my tongue could have been drunk by Thomas Jefferson. The wine is surprisingly delicious, its caramel and candied fruit flavors and lively acidity intact after more than two centuries.

Which is why vintage Madeiras have begun to attract more collectors in the past three years. For several hundred to several thousand dollars, you can sip pieces of history that still taste good and aren’t in enough demand to inspire fakes.

Not yet.

Emanuel Berk, owner of the Rare Wine Co., one of the world’s top sources of old Madeira, is giving a few journalists and sommeliers a crash course in this fortified wine’s past. Photos of the bushy-mustached Morgan and his drinking buddies flash on a screen as we sample the seven seductive antiques that are lined up on a carved marble mantle.

Berk, looking professorial in round horn-rimmed glasses and blue suit, reminds us that regardless of a recent hundred-year unfashionable slump, Madeira was THE prestige wine for wealthy Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Portuguese Island

The wine comes from steep mountain vineyards on the eponymous volcanic island governed by Portugal, but closer to Morocco. Luckily, last month’s floods, the worst since 1803, didn’t damage wineries and vineyards, Berk says.

Madeira is fortified, like port, which means it’s dosed with brandy during fermentation. Most Madeiras are blended, but vintage bottlings are named for grape variety and style. Malmsey (also called Malvasia) is the sweetest and richest; bual next; then verdelho. Sercial, the driest, has such piercing acidity in its youth that it’s nicknamed esgana cao, “dog strangler.” Terrantez and bastardo vines are now nearly extinct, but their names appear on legendary bottles.

Producers quickly discovered that the heat the wine endured in the ship’s hold during long voyages to America and Europe dramatically improved the wine. Now routine heating in vats or casks is de rigueur for at least several months -- a unique process called estufagem. Vintage Madeiras must spend at least 20 years in the cask.

In fact, the wine seems almost indestructible. Bottles sunk with a ship off the Georgia coast in 1840 tasted just fine after their rescue 140 years later. An overheated apartment, a death sentence to most fine wines, won’t affect them.

Old Bottles

Berk has been obsessed with Madeira since 1988, when he spotted old bottlings going cheap in a London wine shop. He tracked down the source, borrowed a couple of hundred thousand dollars to buy 400 cases, and the Rare Wine Co. was in business.

Two years ago he lucked out at a Christie’s sale in London, where the last of the Leacocks, a family with a 250-year history in making Madeira, was selling off his bottled inheritance.

The 1825 Leacock Seco in our tasting lineup has a nose of hazelnuts and layers of tangy candied fruit ($450). Powerful, sweet 1922 D’Oliveira Bual ($350) tastes like essence of fruitcake, while toffee-nosed 1912 D’Oliveira Verdelho ($350) reminds me of an ethereal Kenya coffee.

Collector Marco De Freitas, a 48-year-old software engineer at Connecticut’s Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., remembers paying $800 about 12 years ago for a legendary 1795 Barbeito Terrantez that now sells for $4,000.

“Great old Madeira envelops the senses with complexity, with sweetness and a shot of acidity,” he says. “They’re wines I can drink with my son when I’m 80.”

Still Drinkable

Unlike other wines, they remain drinkable for months, even years, after opening.

Bargains can still be had. In April 2008 a three-bottle lot of 1846 Borges Terrantez sold at Zachys for $4,641 or $1,547 a bottle. One of those same bottles brought $896 at an October 2009 sale at Chicago’s Hart Davis Hart, in which 57 lots of old Madeira went on the block.

To woo wine lovers, Berk started developing a series of affordable ($45 to $60) Madeiras named for various American seaports. I liked the intense, citrusy, almost jazzy Charleston Sercial and, released this month, the New Orleans Special Reserve, with its suggestion of candied lemon peel. Savannah Verdelho, also out this month, has a mouth-filling personality, with a luscious texture and a salt-sea aroma.

But to understand what drives Berk and De Freitas to collect, you need to sip a rare old vintage. Like the very delicate 1821 Robert Benson Rainwater, whose dry, tangy flavors linger on my palate for minutes.

“How much is this one?” I ask Berk. He smiles.

“That one’s not for sale,” he says.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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