Wine is a somewhat multifarious thing. It’s certainly a pleasant drink, but is also – and most importantly – a cultural object. One’s experience of drinking it relates partly to our taste, and then partly to the very histories in which its varieties are defined. Some wines are by all means impersonal; an outcome of chain systems of production. Your loyal Echo Falls may be one to reference.
However, other wines resonate human culture, testifying to the memory of men and of places. Encountering an outstanding wine is not too dissimilar to encountering a living, breathing being or storyteller. The very experience of them requires our awareness of their social and cultural meanings.
During a trip to Portugal, I had the chance to learn about the story of Madeira wine. This notoriously sweet liqueur bears the name of the minute island where it is produced. Its fascinating story came to me from the words of a friend, the photographer Igor Chamada, on a dimly lit night in September.
While having some glasses of Madeira wine in a Lisbon café, he told me how “not everyone is aware of the history of this wine: they gulp it down, but don’t know that its taste is that of blood and memory.”
With this powerful sentiment, Chamada had my attention. He continued: “Madeira wine was incidentally discovered three centuries ago, when the liquid content of some barrels was ‘cooked’ by the sun during the ship trips. Nowadays, it is produced by only four Portuguese families, all of English origins, who maintain the tradition alive through the employment of slow-cooking machines called estufeiras.”
“In earlier times, estufeiras were not available. Instead, the ripening wine was transported in bags by the borracheiros – the men who were appointed to walk around the island for many days across the arduous mountain paths. They could carry up to 50 kilos of wine each, sometimes traveling barefoot. An implacable climate cooked the liquid, as well as their skins. Most of them never left Madeira, although they felt they had gone through innumerable places – no wonder if most of them fell and died. Being at the bottom of the social chain, their bodies were left lying in the sands and dusts of the land.”
“The manpower cost was almost zero,” said Chamada. “They subsisted on water and very little bread.” This inhuman, (read: profitable), system of production was perfected for the good of foreign countries. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the greatest consumers of Madeira wine belonged to British, American and Russian higher classes. “We shouldn’t forget,” he continued, “that Madeira’s political situation has always been precarious: from 1807 to 1814 the Brits occupied the island and the Archipelago, and they’ve continued so many times over the last two centuries– though unofficially.”
Nowadays nothing remains of the borracheiros. Their nameless identities are kept alive only by the work songs they used to sing during their endless journeys. “We conserve those songs,” Chamada says, “we preserve them as precious parts of our history.”
While sipping the remainder of my wine, I wondered if the memory of the borracheiros might have survived in the narrative of their creation. Our experience of this wine should involve, not only the perception of its sweet, dense texture, but also the awareness of its history.
“You know”, Chamada concluded, “Tom Jefferson* was a lover of this wine. The Founding Fathers’ cups were filled with it on July 4th. To what extent has the Independence of the USA not been toasted to the taste of blood from Porto da Cruz?”
* An American Founding Father who was principal author of the Declaration of Independence