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Madeira Wine’s journeys across the Oceans

Madeira Wine history is an exciting and complex affair especially if we keep in mind that it is as old as the history of the colonisation of Madeira Island itself, a five century old history. Being an island in the middle of the Atlantic which was discovered in the beginning of the Age of Discoveries, meant that this little spot on the map became a vital part of the trade routes that fuelled the empires of the day in the 15th century and for centuries after, as Madeira was also perfectly placed on the prevailing Atlantic winds and currents.

The fertility of its soil, the abundance of water and its strategic location, all influenced the fact that the port of Funchal became an obligatory stop on the sea voyages of the great Portuguese explorers. As early as 1460 there are records of Madeira Wine and Madeira rum being shipped from the island. Sea captains stopped on the island to replenish their holds with food, water, and of course, wine. When they got to their destinations along the African coast, all the way to India, or across the Atlantic in the West Indies, Brazil and Americas, the surplus they had with them became instrumental in their trade with the colonies. Merchants who established themselves in the New World fast tapped into the business potential of Madeira Wine, as there was no home-grown competition in the Caribbean and North America and the settlers certainly wanted wine.

British, American and Portuguese traders began to spread Madeira wine around the world throughout their domains in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Europe. Growers on remote vineyards on this tiny Portuguese territory became connected to the English nobility who drank it in their castles and to American entrepreneurs trading up the Mississippi River constituting a veritable triangular trade.

The trade map changed little over the years albeit political events like the reign of the Spanish Philips in Portugal between 1580 and 1640, when, due to political insecurity the island was most fragile to the attack of pirates, or the Methuen treaty in 1703, which established advantages for Portuguese wine traders and for English textile merchants, the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, when secure trade routes were re-established in the Atlantic or even the return of English natives to Britain after the America Civil War which meant that Madeira Wine’s popularity and saleability improved even more in the British Isles.

It is a wonder how the produce of a small island’s produce like Madeira Wine could have as large an impact as it did. However, Madeira Wine was central to the development of an Atlantic inter-imperial community which according to David Hancock in Oceans of Wine: “By the turn of the 19th century, Madeira the luxury drink was served when the parson came to visit in backcountry Ohio, during dinner on Jamaican and Curaçao plantations, in Army messes and hospitals throughout India, to patrons of London clubs and taverns, and at country houses and ceilidhs in Scotland.”

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