Daring Pairing #4 (July 4th Edition): Fig Newtons/Madeira
Why we think it will work:
Lauren: In terms of pairing, the standard dogma is that your dessert wine should be sweeter than your dessert but Fig Newtons are not really a dessert. I would describe them as only mildly sweet with hints of baking spices and even a touch of tartness. They aren’t aggressively flavored or overbearingly rich, which is why I can pop them like valiu—uh—potato chips. Even Malmsey Madeira (the sweetest variety) is not sweet on the level of many Ports or even some Moscatos. In fact, Malmsey Madeira often retains a good amount of acidity which makes it sometimes walk the line of “dessert wine” for me. It can be versatile.
Branden: What she said. Also, the two share complementary flavors ALL DAY: dried fruit, baking spices, dried fruit, DRIED FRUIT. If anything, I’m worried they will be be too similar (like the twins in The Shining).
Our Conclusion: 4/5
We have decided that Blandy’s 5yr Malmsey Madeira is a Fig Newton in liquid form. On the nose you find caramel, toffee, honey, and raisin. On the palette: dried figs, dates, almond, and toasted marshmallows. So, ya know, a Fig Newton.
It was a solid pairing. The flavors all complimented each other nicely and nothing was off-putting. The intensity of the wine paralleled the intensity of the Newtons, the body weight wasn’t too rich for the bread-like cookie, and the food never detracted from the palate of the Madeira (or vice versa). We think that the acidity of the Madeira went well with the slight tartness of the dried fruit and prevented any potential sugar overload. It was very easy to munch a fig, take a swig, munch a fig, take a swig, ad infinitum.
So why not 5/5? Just as Branden suspected: Too similar. They didn’t really benefit one another in any meaningful way (re: Carly Rae Jepson & Owl City). Sure, they were good (this is where that last metaphor starts to break down), and unoffensive (still breaking), but they were already pretty good on their own (RIP metaphor). We reserve 5/5s for when the clouds part and the angels sing, I don’t know, Journey? Honestly, milk is gonna be hard to beat here.
That being said, we will be enjoying this pairing again (we usually have both Newtons and Madeira in the house these days b/c we're old af). Maybe we’ll bring a little milk to the party next time and make some Madeira cocktails. Café con leche spiked with Madeira? With Newtons? We’ll update.
"But what does this have to do with Independence Day?
Why not bomb pops and beer?*"
Okay, yes, (domestic) beer is the obvious choice here but lezbehonest—beer gets all the holidays. We aint hatin’ though. There’s not a commie in the world that will be able to pry the cold, sweaty cans of Bud out of our hands today (U-S-A! U-S-A!). However, if you run out of beer and are raiding your (parents’) booze collection, thinking about America, scratching your head and saying “what else can I drink today that will represent our nation’s history and character,” our recommendation might come as a surprise (well, probably not at this point). But anyway, it’s:
Close. Keep reading.
Similar to Sherry and Port, Madeira is a fortified wine (wine with the addition of neutral spirit). All three are often subject to very old and very labor-intensive production methods and all three are bottled in a variety of styles, signifying different ages and level of sweetness. Here’s the big difference to keep in mind:
Sherry is from Spain
Port is from Portugal
Madeira is from, well, Madeira
More specifically, the Madeira Islands, which lie off the coast of Portugal. Madeira’s origination can be traced back hundreds of years, probably as early as the 1400s. Madeira began as just a regular ol’ wine. What happened next is Darwinism: booze edition. While being transported via ship for trade, the wine had the bad habit of spoiling. It then became customary to add a neutral spirit to preserve the beverage, which also increased the alcohol content.
Additionally, merchants began to notice that casks of Madeira that went on long voyages arrived tasting different…better even. The constant heating and cooling of the ship as it traversed the oceans sped up the aging process and added complexity. These very special wines began to be labeled “vinho da roda” (wine that made a round trip) and demand higher prices. Voila. Madeira as we know it was born.
Of course this method of aging is impractical and costly, so producers back on the mainland began innovating ways to replicate the heating process. Today, the wine undergoes “madeirisation” either by the Estufagem or Canteiro processes. The majority of Madeira producers use an Estufagem, a stainless steel tank that contains an outer chamber for hot water to circulate through. A few producers are opposed to this method of direct heat contact and instead store their wine in rooms heated via steam pipes. The best Madeiras undergo the Canteiro process, where they are stored in large attics against south facing windows to utilize the sun’s heat. This process can take more than 20 year.
If you thought that was complicated, just hold on to your butts. When we start talking about the types of Madeira…style and vintage vs. non-vintage blends and solera blending and blah blah blah, it can make your head spin. If you are super interested in learning more, then ya know, read a book or something (seriously though, reach out if you have any questions or would like some good resources).
Likely, the most you will even need to know are the four main varietal styles:
Sercial: the driest varietal, high acidity, citrus notes, with aging becomes more complex
Verdelho: medium dry, high acidity, smoky, honeyed, fuller in body than Sercial.
Bual: (Boal): medium sweet, rich style of wine, acidity dominates the finish, highly aromatic (Bual tends to be the darkest)
Malmsey: sweetest and softest style, but still retains acidity
"Lauren! Focus. What does this have to do with July 4th!?"
There exists some debate concerning what constitutes the “true” American spirit. Some have made the case for rum, and of course there are those (the American gov’t, for instance) that wouldn't dream of bestowing the title upon anything other than Bourbon. Both have long and valid arguments, and our take on that debate will not be discussed here. In the Pageant of Booze™ Madeira might not take first place as the “Most American Spirit”, but she wins an honorable mention as encapsulating the true “Spirit of America” (see what I did there?)…
Madeira arrived on America’s shores with the arrival of the pilgrims. It peaked in popularity with the colonists.
George Washington: big fan. Reportedly he drank anywhere from a pint to a bottle of Madeira daily. Sure, the stuff is good, but why, of all of the available alcohol choices of the time, did it become so popular? Taxes.
Goods heading to the Americas from Europe were by law to be carried on British ships and subsequently heavily taxed. Madeira, although technically part of Portugal, is geographically closer to Africa and was therefore exempt from British taxation. As we all know, American colonists: not big fans of British taxes. In order to send a big middle finger across the pond, Americans adopted Madeira as their beverage of choice.
Madeira was a tax loophole. Madeira was rebellion. Madeira stood for independence and revolution. Madeira was American patriotism. Maybe I’m exaggerating. I wasn’t there. Nonetheless, Madeira was used to celebrate many pivotal moments in American history, including…
…wait for it...
...The signing of the Declaration of Independence.
So today, as we all take the requisite 1.6 minutes to think about what this holiday actually means, do it over a glass of Madeira. And maybe throw in a Fig Newton. Because America.
*Not a bad idea and maybe next year.
-----> Special thanks to Dr. David Shields who turned us on to Malmsey Madeira during a post-Thanksgiving-meal anime session in his basement. Despite Madeira’s historical popularity in America—especially along the southeastern coastline—it is practically forgotten today. Dr. Shields, being the reviver of all food and drink lost and forgotten, imparted some Madeira wisdom upon us. We hope this libation receives the comeback it deserves.