Michael Scaffidi would like to offer you a sip through history. Dine at Plume, the luxury restaurant in the Jefferson Hotel downtown, and he is likely to approach at the end of your meal, pushing a small cart clinking with bottles stenciled with obscure names and old vintages.
The cart is Scaffidi’s time machine. The hotel’s wine director and sommelier may offer you a glass of wine made the year you were born, or one that’s a century old. He may even offer you a wine that Thomas Jefferson himself might have tasted.
The wine is Madeira, from the Portuguese island of the same name that lies about 500 miles off the coast of Morocco. Madeira played an important part in early American history. The island was on the trade route from Europe to the New World and was a stopover for ships seeking provisions. “Pipes” (large casks) of the island’s wine served as ballast for the trans-Atlantic voyage. Madeira was a favorite tipple of many colonists.
It was raised to toast the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Betsy Ross sipped it as she sewed the flag. George Washington drank some every night with dinner. And Jefferson: Well, “he drank everything,” Scaffidi says, but Madeira was an available favorite when Haut Brion or Romanee-Conti were not to be had.
That historical significance led Scaffidi to build his collection of the wine, in tribute to the hotel’s namesake. He now boasts about 40 Madeiras, of vintages ranging back to 1780.
History doesn’t come cheap. Scaffidi offers a flight of three vintages totaling more than 50 years of age for $35. A 150-year combination costs $95, and the 400-year flight tops out at $400. A two-ounce pour of the 1780 will set you back $295. But the experience needn’t be so expensive: A 10-year-old Madeira can be had for $15 a glass, and a 40-year-old for about $20.
To build his collection, Scaffidi consulted the country’s two leading importers of Madeira: Mannie Berk of the Rare Wine Co., in Sonoma, Calif., and Bartholomew Broadbent of Richmond,-based Broadbent Selections. Most important, he told them, “I need to have some Madeira from the 1700s, when Thomas Jefferson was alive.” Scaffidi is now on his eighth bottle of that 1780, an H.M. Borges Family Reserve that was bottled in 1989.
“This wine was made and put in cask, and then generations lived and died before the family decided it was ready to bottle,” Scaffidi says. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime wine.”
Another prize in his collection is the D’Oliveiras Verdelho from 1912, a wine he intends to feature this year for its centennial: That was the year the Japanese presented cherry trees to Washington, the Titanic made its ill-fated voyage and Woodrow Wilson was elected president.
A large part of Madeira’s charm is its indestructibility. Once opened, the wine lasts indefinitely even without refrigeration. (Scaffidi stores his Madeiras behind the hotel bar, in a place usually reserved for showcase whiskeys.) That’s because it has been cooked, which is contrary to any guide on how to treat wine. Legend has it that a trade ship returned from North America to Madeira without unloading its cargo of wine, and when the forgotten cask was tasted, people realized it had improved from the heat of the voyage twice across the Atlantic. Today that voyage is simulated by heating newly fermented wine to 115 degrees for at least three months. The cooking, plus fortification with grape spirits to about 20 percent alcohol, gives the wine its characteristic nutty taste and its longevity.
Madeira’s flavor profile lies between those of sherry and port; it features the acidity of the former and the body and sweetness of the latter. Older Madeiras tend to gain nuttiness and earthiness, and although they still taste sweet, the wine becomes drier during its time spent in cask.
Maybe that’s the flavor of history.