Every Fourth of July, I like to celebrate with the most historic wine in America. The founding fathers drank it during the signing of the Declaration of Independence. George Washington was toasted with it at his inauguration. Francis Scott Key even sipped it while writing the "Star Spangled Banner." The wine is Madeira, and it's luscious. Imagine Tahitian vanilla, brown sugar, toffee, nuts roasted in butter, and caramel all swirled together in a glass.
During Colonial times Madeira was enjoyed as an aperitif as well as with and after dinner. Today, Madeira is usually savored with dessert. In fact, a glass of Madeira and a chocolate chip cookie or brownie is a simple, elegant pairing.
Madeira should be served at room temperature. A two-ounce pour (about half the portion of a regular glass of wine) is standard.
All Madeira comes from the Portuguese island of Madeira (located adjacent to the coast of Africa). The wine is offered in several quality levels. In ascending order, they are three-year-old and "rainwater," five-year-old, 10-year-old, 15-year-old, and vintage. When buying Madeira, you'll choose from four styles:
• Sercial is the driest style, tangy and elegant with brisk quality.
• Verdelho is lightly sweet and more full-bodied than sercial.
• Bual is medium-sweet with concentrated, rich flavors.
• Malmsey is a sweet wine of astonishing richness and complexity. In fact, my favorite Madeira is a 10- or 15-year-old Blandy's Malmsey Madeira.
Madeira is a great cooking wine, lending toffee complexity to sauces, soups, and other dishes. For cooking, use a three-year-old or rainwater wine.