The liquid danced gold as a shaft of light electrified the glass. Delicate aromas of nutmeg, caramel and vanilla hinted at a shy pour, but on the tongue, it exploded with bright lemon, cinnamon and cocoa flavors, topped off with a sea-salt finish.
But the reverent whispers erupting down the table weren’t merely a response to a great tasting. This Sercial Madeira was 176 years old, and it exuded a life that connected all of us to a long-gone era in one delicious instant.
Bottled in 1846 and recorked in 1871, the fortified wine was one of a large collection of 18th- and 19th-century Madeiras unearthed during renovations of New Jersey’s Liberty Hall Museum. The collection had lain in wait in a walled-up cellar that was virtually untouched since the 1940s.
Its rediscovery in 2017 resulted in a Christie’s auction that fetched record numbers, with this five gallon demijohn of Madeira selling for $39,200.
Was it possible that I was drinking a wine from the same cellar enjoyed by America’s founding fathers?
I and the handful of other fortunate tasters collected by Christie’s marveled that the wine had navigated the perils of time without any modern technology to preserve it through the years. In the dark and cool bowels of an old house, this and other bottles in the cache of liquid relics had somehow aged gracefully and remained beautifully intact.
Its improbability added to the thrill. To taste a very aged wine is to experience history in a much more visceral way than reading a book or looking at a painting.
As I savored the Madeira, my mind raced with thoughts of 1846: Dickens had just begun publishing installments of Dombey and Son. The Mexican-American War broke out in April. William T. G. Morton first demonstrated ether anesthesia at the Massachusetts General Hospital in the Ether Dome. Buffalo Bill was born.
Built in 1772 as a home for William Livingston, who would become the first elected governor of New Jersey, Liberty Hall had hosted countless big-name politicians, including Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and Ulysses S Grant.
Was it possible that I was drinking a wine from the same cellar enjoyed by America’s founding fathers? No one played it cool at the tasting. We were all giddy at the prospect of such scenarios.
Back in the present, in the glass, the wine continued to surprise. It didn’t settle into the subdued slump often fated to very old wines. Its verve and vibrancy seemed unwilling to yield to time or exposure.
This simple but rare portal to the 19th century recalled an era before the frenetic buzz of the modern age, to a time when things moved a bit slower and the lively flavors of a Madeira might be the evening’s primary entertainment.
Disconnecting for a few hours to immerse myself in these finds, I stopped and savored the moment, a lesson from the past that still stands the test of time.
Published: April 25, 2019