The Curious Tale of George Washington’s Madeira

The Curious Tale of George Washington’s Madeira

Originally published in The Heart of Hillsborough, October 2017


Recently, I came across an article that caught my eye. During preservation of an 18th century New Jersey home, workers discovered bottles of Madeira wine dating back to George Washington’s presidency. I had never tried Madeira, but as a history buff living in a town known for its role in the American Revolution, when the article noted Washington and several of our nation’s forefathers were big fans, my interest was piqued. 

Later that evening, over dinner at Hillsborough’s El Pueblo Viejo, I noticed a photo of a home that years later would become this restaurant. The manager relayed its history as the former Gatewood House and mentioned that Washington stayed a night in this home during his presidency! I wondered: why did Washington visit? Did he enjoy Madeira that evening? I decided to seek answers and taste this historic wine. 

Madeira was born from a mistake. During export from the Portuguese island bearing its name, the wine would spoil due to heat in the ship’s hold. This obviously changed the wine, but if fortified with brandy, a tasty alternative resulted. Winemakers replicated this and, by the mid-1700s, Madeira became popular with American colonists embracing the wine — among other reasons — because they did not have to pay British tax on it.[1] When the Declaration of Independence was signed, Madeira was the wine with which delegates toasted![2] 

Washington, on his Southern states tour, spent June 3, 1791 as guest of owner Dudley Gatewood. An intriguing article provided at the Orange County Historical Museum gave a potential reason: “Washington would have enjoyed the chance to swap war stories with another veteran and a real hero of the Revolutionary War.”[3] Indeed, the president wrote about how much he appreciated his stay, even getting a late start the next morning![4] Further sleuthing revealed Washington not only allegedly drank a pint per day[5], but records show the wine was served at some of the tour’s dinners[6]. Confident the president likely enjoyed Madeira that evening, I was now eager to try it.

I selected Sandeman Fine Rich Madeira as the 200-year old winery produces it in a similar manner as in Washington’s era, and hosted a tasting at El Pueblo Viejo. Pouring the cola brown wine, I was surprised by the bouquet of burnt caramel and maple syrup. Intensely inviting, I prepared for a bold experience. Tasting, the full-bodied wine felt quite dominant, as though I took a larger sip than I actually had. Yet, it suddenly mellowed, releasing semi-sweet, well-balanced flavors of caramel and maple with an unexpected citrus note of tart marmalade. The alcohol was apparent, but did not overwhelm the flavors, instead providing a warm, savory finish. 

Sandeman Fine Rich Madeira (priced at $19.99 and available at Hillsborough Wine Company) is not an “everyday” wine. It will best complement a special meal as an aperitif, post-dinner drink or paired with heavier desserts — adding a memorable sense of history to the table!  

Cheers, Hillsborough!

Citations and Credits:

[1] Sorrow, Emily. “The Wine of the South: Reviving And Imbibing Madeira,” The Local Palate: Food Culture of the South, December 2, 2016., accessed July 27, 2017. Source/research attributed to BARTHOLOMEW BROADBENT, Broadbent Selections Inc., Richmond, VA wine importer.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Coleman, Gee. “Washington Has A Hillsborough Connection,” The News of Orange, April 4, 2013. This article is a reprinted piece originally published by Scott Washington.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sorrow, Emily.

[6] “Full text of "Washington's southern tour, 1791," The University of Illinois Library. Original research by ARCHIBALD HENDERSON, “Washington’s Southern Tour, 1791,” HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY: Boston and New York, 1923., accessed July 27, 2017.


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