The Madeira Wine Culture and Savannah


Jay Self


Today, few people know much, if anything, about Madeira wine or its history.  During most of the 18th and 19th centuries, however, the wine from the played an integral part in American society.  Madeira dominated wine imports into Anglo America between 1640 and 1815.  This popular and potent drink played an important role in the political, social and economic development of our country, including, Savannah Georgia.

A Toast to Independence   

The Liberty Incident of 1768 was a pivotal event in our nation’s movement toward independence. John Hancock’s sloop the Liberty, and its cargo of Madeira wine, was seized by the British in Boston Harbor.  The crowd ashore, hearing that they would have no cheap Madeira, became violent, assaulted the customs office, smashing the inspector general’s windows, and making a public bonfire of his personal pleasure boat.

Madeira was used to toast important events including the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the inauguration of George Washington.  In his last orders prior to the American Revolution, George Washington sent flour from Mount Vernon directly to Madeira and received wine from the islands in exchange.  General Washington, who kept an ample supply at all times, firmly believed that “the benefits arising from the moderate use of .  .  . liqueur, have been experienced in All Armies, and are not disputed.”

Savannah Connections

Savannah, founded in 1733, was more or less bankrupt for its first 18 years.  That changed in the 1750’s with the development of a plantation economy.  Historian Dr. Paul Pressly, an expert on colonial Georgia, member of the Madeira Club of Savannah and author of “On the Rim of the Caribbean: Colonial Georgia and the British Atlantic World,” explains that during the next 25 years, Georgia’s economy exploded and it stepped into the British – Atlantic world through rice, deer skin, lumber and indigo.  Pre-revolutionary Georgia was focused on Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, Barbados and St. Kitts, not inland to the west.  To understand Savannah, and Georgia, Pressly explains, you have to look to the east, to these islands, to Madeira, to Africa, to the rice markets in Germany.

I asked Dr. Pressly if the Madeira culture played a role in connecting Savannah to the larger Atlantic economy in a way that might not have happened otherwise?  His answer: “Absolutely.”   The Elite families had emerged in Savannah, but they were not so terribly elite, they had just made it.  They did not have the network of interlocking connections as existed in the Carolinas.  Madeira tied upper-class Savannah with the elites of the eastern seaboard, mainly with Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Norfolk.  It was the gateway into the eastern seaboard mentality that, in many ways, separated Savannah from the rest of Georgia.

As families such as the Habershams and Houstons emerged, they started ordering pipes (Portuguese for cask) of Madeira wine and participating in what was the largest and most influential marketing effort of its time.  Cossart Gordon (one of the oldest existing firms) was coming into Savannah in the 1760’s, and is still coming into Savannah, though not quite as freely, Pressly said with a grin.

The York Madeira Vine

The founders of Georgia had Madeira on their mind from the beginning.  In 1732, the trustees of the colony paid William Houston, who was stopping in Madeira on his way to Jamaica, to “inform himself of the manner of cultivating the vineyards and making of the wine there, and to carry with him to Jamaica, cuttings of their best sorts of vines and seeds which are wanting in our American colonies.”  On November 9th, 1732, Houston, writing from Madeira to Mr. Oglethorpe in London, told him that he had sent 2 tubs of cuttings to Mr. St Julian and Charles Town for the use in the colony of Georgia.  The york madeira vine was developed from these cuttings, thought the vines did not do well in Georgia and no wine to speak of was produced.  Oral history exists of a man on Sapelo Island producing one pipe to which he added 10 to 15 gallons of Brandy.


Madeira is a small volcanic island in the Atlantic.  It is 559 miles from Lisbon, 1457 miles from London and 2716 from New York.  It is a small island, a mere 34 miles long and 14 miles wide with a circumference of 90 miles.   It covers 286 square miles, less than half of the size of Chatham County.

This tiny island might have been an insignificant part of the Portuguese empire, except that, because of its location along major Atlantic wind and water currents, it became one of the principle provisioning nodes in the vast transoceanic trading web that had been spun during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  The soil and climate of this otherwise insignificant island combined to make unique grapes that were processed into the variety of wines know simply as Madeira.  These wines had a significant impact on international trade and culture.

Madeira Wine, Culture and Trade

The Evolution of the Wine

In addition to the processes common to all wine, today’s Madeira is blended, fortified, agitated, heated and aged.  The original Madeira was a cheap simple wine.

In the mid 18th century, producers began to fortify the wine by adding brandy at three stages during fermentation and sometimes then again by the shipper.   This made for an exceptionally potent drink averaging 22% alcohol, roughly the same as port, well above all other wines. The first reference to island growers and exporters adding brandy appears in 1753 and it had been adopted by the majority of producers by 1762.  By the 1760s, it had become elaborate and exports were distributed in 6 different grades:  Malvaia, London Particular, London Market, New York, Virginia and Common.

Agitation was a vernacular innovation that wore off the sometimes erratic taste of the brandy and other aftertastes.  The benefits of agitation are peculiar to Madeira and were realized through shipping or, as one producer wrote “the wearing out of undesirable flavors by incessant commotion at sea.”  Not all voyages were alike.  Some vessels experienced greater agitation than others, resulting in varied quality.  In an effort to provide consistency, the islanders would rock the casks manually to induce the effect of stormy seas.  By the turn of the 19th century, producers began using steam-powered machines to do this task.

Heat was another peculiar friend of Madeira.  Most wines are negatively impacted by heat, but not Madeira.  The heat enhanced he wine so much that distributers actually preferred and requested pipes that had been stored on the port side of the ship because that side would have gotten more direct sunlight during the voyage west.

The revolutionary war cut off access to Madeira imports.  While wines sat and aged in Madeira, the cellars of revolutionary America were depleted.  The exporters capitalized on this situation by segmenting the market and stratifying their customers by wealth and taste.  By the turn of the 19th century, producers and distributers had transformed Madeira into a complex highly processed, expensive, and status-laden beverage.  Its modern form had been invented.

Marketing and Trade

Dr. Pressly explains that Madeira was ‘everyman’s wine’ in the beginning of the 18th century, but by the beginning of the 19th century, it has become an elite wine, very exclusive, and this change was all because of marketing.   Marketing influenced by specialist along the chain, and Savannah was part of that chain.

As the Madeira culture emerged, firms altered their formulas to suit the preferences of drinkers in particular regions.  In the Southern U.S. and West Indies, were there was little worry of Madeira spoiling in the cold, a love of wines of a darker hue and sweeter taste were able to flourish.  To satisfy hot climate customers who wanted to avoid the intoxicating effects of adding alcohol, distributors put less brandy in the wine they shipped, and sent a quarter cask of brandy so that the customer could strengthen to taste.

Northern consumers asked for a paler, drier wine with higher brandy content.  Virginians preferred their Madeira pale and heavily fortified.  Philadelphians requested golden wines with less brandy a sweeter taste.  New Yorkers wanted amber with less brandy and more sugar.  Eventually each market received its own drink.

Much of the Madeira was paid for in reverse trade.  Oak staves for building casks were much in demand on the island and these were therefore shipped to Madeira from Savannah.  William Price would sell “Best London Particular Madeira Wine” and take rice, tobacco, beaver fur and deerskins in trade.

Wine distributers contributed to the creation of a refined wine drinking culture, but it was mainly the work of consumers who shared their experiences and discourses with others in their networks.  By the latter part of the 18th century, a Madeira wine culture had emerged in the Atlantic.  It was multinational and inter-imperial, one of the first commodities to acquire these characteristics.

Madeira Wine Culture

The ‘rules of the madeira game’ were an apparatus of social status, signs of wealth and refinement, nearly universal throughout the Atlantic world.  Consumers elaborated the rituals in the ways they displayed, served, and drank wine, creating complex dramas of choosing the wine, matching it to the food, opening the bottle, allowing it to breathe, decanting it (including the choice of decanter and method of poring) and serving it, not to mention buying, storing and caring for the beverage.  Carrying these out properly showed their access to resources and their social acumen, distinguished the refined from the course, unsophisticated and nouveaux riche.  Physically and metaphorically, Americans began incorporating alcohol in performances in which they acted out their economic, social and political identities.  From this, a Madeira wine culture emerged.

This pageantry was played out to its fullest at Madeira parties that usually began at 5pm and lasted two or three hours.  They were normally composed of 8 men at a table.  Five or six different types of Madeira were circulated clockwise in decanters on silver coasters.  While the wine was tasted and discussed, biscuits and nuts were eaten.

Glass Wear

Drinking, by its nature, is a fleeting experience that is given permanence by glassware.  Madeira culture included important non-verbal communication through the proper uses of bottles, decanters and cellars.  Possessing and deploying glass paraphernalia was a manner of projecting one’s refinement and also announced a consumer’s allegiance to a particular taste community.  Though these variations catered to different tastes and budgets, they provided Atlantic connoisseurs a common material language.

Decanters were the wine-drinking object Americans most commonly placed on their tables.  Silver and ceramic decanters were used by the middle classes and rural people.  They were often engraved with the name of the beverage to be served within such as Boudreaux, Port, Champaign or Madeira.  Displaying multiple decanters was a sign of wealth and sophistication.  Those who could not afford numerous decanters might use labels called decanter tags.  These were made of gold, silver, ivory or mother of pearl.


A distinctly American contribution to storage was the warm attic cellar, first forged in the southern colonies.  The warmth was used to keep Madeira from souring.  Before the end of the 18th century, the attic cellar was being used between Savannah and Richmond.

The Madeira Club of Savannah

One group of contemporary Madeira connoisseurs are the members of the Madeira Club of Savannah.  Dr. Pressly explained how the group will meet at a member’s house while another member reads a paper on any subject he thinks will be of interest to the rest.  They will enjoy a 6 or 7 course meal, with a different type of Madeira with each course. Although the club owns no Madeira, individually, its members possess the finest collections in the world.

Dr. Pressly commented on the world-class collection of Mills B. Lane.  He kept his wine in the basement of the Citizens and Southern Bank, now Bank of America on Johnson Square.  He had brokers in New York and San Francisco who kept him supplied with world-class stuff.  He was fanatical.

The club celebrated its bicentennial in in April of 1953.  The event was held in the Owens Thomas and the following Madeiras were served:

Camade Lobos Solera 1792 from Haywood S. Hansel Jnr,

Terrentes 1870 from Mr. Thomas Gignillat,

Rutherford’s Bual Solera 1814 and

Blandy’s Malmsey Solera 1863 from Mills B. Lane

Decline and Rebirth

Trade to the United States was halted during the revolutionary war and again during the Civil War, but resumed when these conflicts ended.  Prohibition halted imports again in the 1920’s.  This, and a series of crop failures due to phylaxira severely diminished supply and demand.  This gave an opening for the emerging American wine market to gain prominence.  By the 1930’s most of the original vines had died and Madeira was reduced to a cheap cooking wine.

Fortunately, some vine grafts from the original Madeira vines had survived in France, and these have been carefully reintroduced to the island.  It has taken decades, but the restoration of the native vines has enabled a resurgence in quality Madeira Wine.

Savannah’s World Class Connoisseur

William Neyle Habersham (1817 – 1899) was considered one of the great wine connoisseurs of his time, and his knowledge of Madeira was unparalleled.  His family had been prominent in Savannah from the earliest colonial days.  His family’s shipping business would ship Georgia pine and rice to Europe, and return with Madeira wine.  Habersham built up an almost priceless collection from stocks inherited from several generations of the family.  According to Ward McAllister, he had one of the greatest pallets of all time.  In his book Society as I have Found It (New York 1890), McAllister recalls Habersham, being tested with a mixture of two Madeiras, being able to discern each to the detail of which ship on which it has arrived.  Habersham would treat his wines with a secret process that made them the favorites of connoisseurs all along the coast.  The secret ingredient is now suspected to have been bentinite clay, which we know now is capable of absorbing acidity and tannin from the wine, before it was bottled.  His wines were rich, though lighter in taste and color.  After the civil war, in which Habersham lost two sons in the battle of Atlanta, the shipping business was lost.  He put his knowledge to use and earned a living by selling rare Madeira’s to a distinguished clientele, included Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Related Sites

The Owens Thomas House was the site of the Madeira Club of Savannah’s bicentennial celebration.  It also has a cellar with Madeira paraphernalia and a vintage cask.  Visit for more information.

The Isaiah Davenport House offers a tour series entitled “Potable Gold”: Savannah’s Madeira Tradition in February.  Visit for more information.

The basement of the old C and S Bank building on Johnson Square, now Bank of America, housed one of the greatest modern Madeira collections through the early 1970’s.

Wormsloe was the site of the famous tasting contest with Habersham described by McAllister.  It was also the home of George DeRenne.  The site is now a State Historic Site.  Visit for more information.

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