What’s that line about luxury items holding their value over long periods of time?
Fortified wines from Madeira, slowly baked in sub-tropical heat for long aging, could be found in about any gentleman’s house in the American colonies and during the early years of the Republic—shipped to New York or Philadelphia in wooden barrels and then sealed in bottles and five-gallon demijohns for safe keeping.
Now a cache of about 20 bottles and four demijohns rediscovered in a small New Jersey museum last year will go under the gavel at Christie’s in New York on December 7, whetting the bidding appetites of Madeira lovers worldwide. Christie’s previewed some of the bottles in New York this week.
Since 1811, John Kean Sr.’s family owned a 1770’s mansion located in Union, N.J., but, after his parents’ death, Kean decided to turn his former home into the Liberty Hall Museum on the Kean University campus. Coming from a family of politicians, Kean says there were “always bottles stored around the house” for entertaining.
Last year, he was looking for more museum space, so he decided to throw out a bunch of full and empty demijohns stored in the attic, figuring that the wine had gone bad over the centuries. He also opened what he thought was an unused closet and found a room with more bottles. Fortunately, he asked for professional help before letting his staff turn the emptied demijohns into lamp bases.
Among the wines previewed this week were a drier Madeira sercial from 1846 and a lightly sweeter verdelho from the same period. Both still had haunting dried fruit flavors and great balancing acidity. Some of the older, smaller bottles dated back to the late 1790’s. Officials from the Madeira Wine Company and the Portuguese Cork Association were on hand to validate the wines and to give the old bottles fresh corks.
Auction bonus: Four of the demijohns turned out to be 19th Century Bourbons, and they will also be auctioned. Kean and the museum are keeping some of the wine for a new Liberty Hall exhibit appropriately titled, “History in a Bottle.”