I have always imagined the wine choice for the celebratory toast of the signing the Declaration of Independence to be a robust, complex Napa Valley Cabernet sauvignon. Of course, this was not the case, considering Napa Valley’s first commercial vineyards weren’t established until the mid-1800s.

What was the celebratory drink? A fortified Portuguese wine, Madeira, filled the cups of those attending America’s first celebration of independence in 1776.

Madeira was a popular choice for many early American celebrations: the signing of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s first inauguration, the signings of the Louisiana Purchase and the Constitution. But it was also an everyday drinking wine.

The island of Madeira, from which the wine gets its name, was a popular port of call for European ships headed to Asia, Africa and the Americas. While the ships were being loaded with trading goods, the wines soon became part of the cargo. While Americans loved their whiskey, Madeira was a staple. Historians estimate 25%-70% of Madeira’s production during the Colonial era was being exported to the American Colonies and British West Indies.

Madeira was a practical choice for many reasons, one being its ability to travel well. Fortifying the wine with spirits increased the alcohol content to 19%-21%, allowing the wines to survive long journeys at sea. As you can imagine, a cargo hold of an 18th-century ship crossing the Atlantic in the heat of summer would would literally “cook” a normal table wine.

However, because of its fortification, Madeira was not damaged by the heat. In fact, the journey actually improved the wine. Legend says that sailors realized the rolling and pitching of the ship during the journey “stirred” the wine in the large wooden vessels. The longer the journey, the more complex and pungent the wine became.

Today, the wine is aged using either the Estufagem (in heated stainless tanks) or Canteiro (in barrels placed in warm attics or warehouses) process.

Madeira remained a popular wine in the United States until Prohibition in the early 20th century.

This July 4th you will most likely be celebrating with an American wine but if you want to toast as our Founding Fathers did, Madeira should be your wine.

THE VALUE

  • NV Sandeman Madeira Fine Rich, Portugal (about $22 retail)

THE SPLURGE

  • 2000 Henriques & Henriques Madeira, Portugal (about $77 retail)