Alex Liddell, the St Andrews philosophy professor who set me on course to start my own business in antique engravings, later wrote the definitive book on Madeira. Called "Madeira – the mid-Atlantic Wine," it says everything there is to say about this amazing fortified wine. He describes in the preface how at Oxford he bought 2 bottles of 1789 Cama de Lobos, a pre-French Revolution wine. He wrote:
"I shall never forget the ravishment of that first taste. Its powerful and explosive attack, rich complexity of flavour, rapier-like dry finish, and long, intense aftertaste were quite beyond anything I had hitherto experienced. I was hooked for life – and rapidly invested in three more bottles, one of which still remains in my cellar."
I read this on a transatlantic flight to Florida, and it took almost the whole flight to read it because it is a very dense and fact-filled book. What he does not say in the preface is that I was there when he opened the second bottle. It was in his room at Southgait Hall at St Andrews, where he was warden. He had opened the bottle and decanted it, and invited me in to sample a glass. It was a small glass, given the rarity of the wine, but for me like him, it began a lifelong affinity with the wine.
The bottle had no label, just white paint reading its name and year. We drank glasses from the decanter. It was magic. To gain an impression, think of a vintage port with a sharp, almost tart edge to it. Part of the magic was that those grapes were trodden by a peasant who lived before the French Revolution, and there I was, drinking the wine those grapes produced.
I have since bought and drank the 'Waterloo' 1815. And I bought the last four bottles in the UK of the 1824 Madeira, made while Thomas Jefferson was still alive. I took one of those bottles over to Washington DC, allowed it to settle, decanted it, and enjoyed it with friends from a balcony in Alexandria, Virginia, looking out at the illuminated Capitol across the Potomac into the small hours of the morning.