Gov. Warfield's 1810 Brandy-fortified Madeira Is Back At Hampton House--and Tastes Great

June 16, 1991|By Michael Dresser

In 1929, the 10th year of Prohibition, an armored car dispatched by J. Pierpont Morgan Jr. pulled up in front of Baltimore County's Hampton Mansion and carried one of the nation's most renowned wine collections back to the private cellars of the fabulously wealthy and enormously thirsty New York financier.

The sale's proceeds brought electricity to the historic Ridgelfamily estate, but a splash of Maryland's heritage was lost. Many of the bottles dated back to the early decades of the republic, when Charles Carnan Ridgely (1760-1829), a man of princely appetites who would serve three terms as governor of Maryland, did a lively business with the wine importers of Baltimore.

But last month a small part of that liquid history returned to Maryland after 62 years. Thanks to a Washington lawyer with a taste for wine and a love of early American homes, two hand-blown glass bottles of Governor Ridgely's private stock of Madeira will become a permanent part of the museum collection at the 200-year-old mansion, now the Hampton National Historical Site.

The makeshift labels on early 19th century wines are notoriouslimprecise, but one of the wines apparently dates back to 1810, a year when James Madison was president, Abraham Lincoln was a baby and Napoleon had not yet met his Waterloo. The other says 1815, the year Governor Ridgely was first elected.

The wine rested in the Ridgely cellars for more than a centurbefore John Ridgely, the governor's great-grandson, sold the collection to Morgan, according to Lynne Dakin Hastings, curator of Hampton. After Morgan's death in 1943, the Ridgely bottles passed from his estate to the Brussels Restaurant in New York.

After the Brussels closed its doors in the early 1980s, its last owner, Alfred Giambelli, sold some of the wine to Italo Ablondi, now an international trade lawyer in Washington.

Mr. Ablondi, who lives in a circa-1770 home in Alexandria, Va., said he broached the idea of donating the Ridgely wine after a JTC wine tasting at St. Paul's Chapel in Baltimore early this year. "I thought it was kind of fitting that it go back to Maryland where it came from," said Mr. Ablondi, who acknowledged that the wine's auction value might reach into the low four figures.

When he told the staff at St. Paul's his wine had once belonged to Governor Ridgely, he was referred to Hampton, which is now operated by the National Park Service. The gift was made May 17.

For Ms. Hastings the unexpected donation was a glorious windfall -- and an immediate problem. The cork on the bottle marked 1810 was leaking. History was evaporating before her eyes.

Anxious to conserve the wine, Ms. Hastings called up Rob Deford, owner of Boordy Vineyards in Baltimore County, for help in recorking the leaking bottle.

That's why Ms. Hastings, Mr. Deford and two other Maryland winemakers gathered in the laboratory at Boordy last Wednesday for the delicate process of recorking the bottle. Also present was a certain reporter known for his interest in wine who had been asked by Ms. Hastings to taste the wine during the brief period it was uncorked and to record his notes for the mansion's archives.

There was good reason to believe it would be a wine worth tasting. Brandy-fortified Madeira, the favorite tipple of the Maryland gentry from Colonial times through the late 19th century, is the world's most durable wine.

Where most wines are produced with the gentle treatment of a finishing school, Madeiras of the early 19th century were treated like galley slaves.

Before they were bottled, Governor Ridgely's wines were likely stowed in barrels in the hold of a ship bound for India and taken on a round trip through the tropical heat and the constant pitch and roll of the high seas. Most wines would be spoiled by such treatment -- Madeira just gets better. (Alas, modern Madeira is heated in ovens rather than cargo holds.)

With a surgeon's touch, Mr. Deford ever so gently eased a corkscrew into the deteriorating cork, which had been in place since the wine's first recorking in 1910, and extracted it. He brought it to his nose.

"Oooh, God, it smells great!" he reported.

A tiny portion of wine -- less than an ounce -- was poured into a glass and passed so each person could savor the aromas of honeysuckle and admire the brilliant, pale orange-gold color.

Finally came the moment of truth. The reporter lifted the glass to his lips. The others waited for the verdict.

The smile told the story.

What does a 181-year-old Rainwater Madeira taste like? It's an ethereal pleasure, beauty that has faded but not disappeared, with caramelized orange and clove flavors that whisper rather than shout. Whatever sweetness was once there has vanished, leaving a clean, piercing acidity but no hints of vinegar.

The last dregs having been passed around, the bottle was returned to the lab table and topped off with inert argon gas to preserve it. Fearing the recorking machine would crack the ancient glass, Mr. Deford pushed in a new Boordy Vineyards cork with shoulder muscle and a rubber mallet, presumably sealing it for another 50 to 100 years.

Ms. Hastings said the two bottles will be taken out for speciaoccasions and displayed in the mansion's dining room, which is being redecorated in the style of 1815. The wine will remain in the bottles, she said, not to be tasted again until the next %J recorking.

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