It’s not accurate to say Madeira is finally having a moment in DC—that first happened more than two centuries ago. The Founding Fathers drank it to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and Thomas Jefferson’s failed attempts to grow these grapes launched Virginia’s wine industry.
Its searing acidity, rich nut and fruit notes, and dry to unctuously sweet styles give oenophiles all the feels. But what makes Madeira so special? “It is subject to the three things most winemakers avoid at all costs: light, heat and oxygen,” says Erik Segelbaum, the director of wine for Starr Restaurants, who heads up the wine program for the new St. Anselm (1205 Fifth St. NE, 202.864.2199) in Union Market. Call it kismet or a happy accident, but when the island’s wines were first fortified and shipped in the 15th century, something magical happened. “After months of sea baking in the hot sun, oxidizing in the barrels and being light struck, the wine changed.” That process may have evolved, but the end result is equally delicious.
Segelbaum’s favorite on the list is the violet- and black currant-tinged D’Oliveiras 1875 Moscatel ($99 per fluid ounce). Most fun is coaxing guests into slurping Henriques & Henriques 1964 Sercial ($29 per fluid ounce) from a garlic-, butter- and herb-filled empty oyster shell for a “perfectly harmonious sip.”
A standout expression for sommelier Felicia Colbert at A Rake’s Progress in The Line DC (1770 Euclid St. NW, 202.588.0525) is the D’Oliveiras 1977 Terrantez Fresqueria ($85 per glass), made from almost-extinct grapes. But all styles cozy up to apple pie with bay ice cream. “A bottle of Madeira has never disappointed.”
Once uncorked, the wine lasts forever. So while guests at Plume at The Jefferson, Washington, DC (1200 16th St. NW, 202.448.2300) may wax poetically about the personal significance of more recent vintages, Wine Director David Metz is also able to offer precious pours of ultrarare finds like the H.M. Borges Sercial Palther 1720 ($1,720 per two fluid ounces). “How often could you taste something from [so long] ago, then come back to it in a few months and it’s just as you remember?”