Madeira is a fortified wine produced in the island of Madeira. Brandy is added during fermentation to kill the yeast and prevent it from converting all the sugar into alcohol. The result is a sweet wine that can endure the changes in temperature that used to occur during shipping.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson kept their cellars well stocked with Madeira. So did John Adams, who said that a few glasses of Madeira made anyone feel capable of being president. Perhaps for this reason, both the signing of the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were celebrated with Madeira.
There are several different types of Madeira, depending on the varietals used in their production. The most popular varietal, Malvasia or Malmsey, produces a sweet, smooth wine. Sercial makes an excellent dry aperitif. Verdelho makes an elegant semi-dry wine. Bual produces a dark amber semi-sweet wine.
They’re all irresistible, which is why, in Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Falstaff is accused of selling his soul to the devil for a glass of Madeira.