A return to more familiar territory today after a brief (though interminable for those that read it) sortie in to the first millennial, middle eastern realm of Khosrow II’s Sassanid Empire; back to that most reliable of standbys, bottle and decanter labels!


Now, such things are usually little more than a thinly-veiled excuse for me to rattle off a litany of obscurely-named drinks, but a change of tack for once and a look at one drink in particular which was deemed worthy of having its moniker inscribed on such a label – Madeira.


I’m sure the vast majority of you will know that this is a wine from the islands of the same name, which sit in the Atlantic Ocean some 350 miles or so to the west of Casablanca and Marrakesh, in North Africa. It’s this geographical location which directly gave rise to said beverage, though its development was a two-stage process. Initially, during the late medieval period of European exploration and expansion, the islands were a regular port of call for ships heading towards the New World, or those set for the long haul around the Cape of Good Hope en-route to India and the eastern dominions. It’s often said that the archipelago was actually the first newly discovered and properly settled territory to herald the start of the so-called Age of Exploration. In order to create some sort of viable economy for the new colony, the early Portuguese inhabitants began to cultivate sugar cane, and so successfully did they pursue their new livelihood that trade routes from the Mediterranean and continental Europe were quickly established to exploit the newly viable resource.


Human nature then played its somewhat predictable hand – as where there is freely-available sugar, so there is alcohol. The climate was also eminently suitable for grapes, and the islands soon became renowned as a source of wine – initially, of an entirely standard single fermentation variety, that also bore the eponymous name. As the volume of ships calling at the harbours of Funchal and Porto Santo increased, so wine production gathered momentum to cater for the burgeoning demand. Ships of the Dutch East India company provided regular custom, as did those from Genoa and Antwerp, with the latter being the primary customers for sugar cane.


However, as horizons broadened and the ships laden with these simple Madeirense wines travelled to more distant shores, stories began to filter back to the islands of batches which had spoiled, having been stored in substandard casks, otherwise becoming tainted or simply by going ‘out-of-date’. As was common with other wines of the day which were required to demonstrate better longevity. Madeira’s produce began to be fortified by the addition of an alcoholic distillate made from the sugar cane. This not only served to solve the immediate problem but laid the foundation of the distinctive wines with which the islands were to become inextricably linked. Now that the product remained fit enough to drink for the duration of extended voyages, the wine producers were then confronted with returning mariners who still had unopened barrels in their holds. Now, these storage facilities, during circumnavigations through the tropics and other temperate climes, became stiflingly hot – and this increase in temperature further modified the wine, enhancing its flavour and making it far more palatable in addition to being long-lasting. It became a sought-after commodity in its own right and was re-sold as ‘Vinho da Roda’ – wine which has done the round trip. 


The trick now was to replicate this magical and transformative heat-treatment without having to send the wine on time-consuming, expensive and potentially damaging trips halfway round the world and back, so the ‘viticultores’ of the islands developed an expedient alternative. Essentially, for the very finest of Madeira wines, this remains unchanged to the present day in that casks of wine are, quite simply, stored in rooms which are unprotected from the scorching sun. It can still take months – years even – for the desired effect to be achieved, but there is no need to pay for expensive stowage and passage, and everything is far better protected from the vagaries of ocean-going travel – storms, piracy, flounderings prompted by sirens or premature consumption by scurrilous matelots. And the enhancement by this ‘estufagem’ process as it is known can still be achieved more quickly on dry land than by way of a six-year circumnavigation of the globe.


So, Madeira’s reputation as a long-lasting, flavoursome and pleasingly strong wine was established, even before it began to appear with regularity at the tables of Georgian England’s discerning gentlefolk. Being so highly regarded, it became further imbued with the reputation of being favoured amongst the most august and percipient of connoisseurs and, of course, that meant that it was considered wholly proper to advertise your ownership of a decanter full of finest Madeira by hanging a finely-chased sterling silver label around its neck to ensure that it would not be mistaken for an inferior product. 


If the label – as is the case with our example – had been produced by London’s foremost lady silversmith, then so much the better; a decanter of Madeira, designated as such by the work of Hester Bateman would have been doubly vaunted and the owner of such a pairing, no doubt, utterly insufferable…