It’s said that a fine wine only gets better with time. But the recent discovery of wine bottled at the time George Washington was still president really puts that theory to the test.
Preservationists at the Liberty Hall Museum in Union, New Jersey recently unearthed one of the oldest collections of colonial-era Madeira and the largest collection of wine from that period in the United States. It had been hidden behind a Prohibition-era wall in a wine cellar.
The museum, located on the campus of Kean University, a state college of New Jersey, found the bottles as part of a six-month restoration project. Among the collection were three crates with 12 bottles of wine in each and 42 demijohns—vases used to hold and transport alcohol— including a Madeira that dates back to 1796, after the American Revolution. Founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin were also reportedly fans of the premium wine.
The wine cellar was reviewed as part of a larger renovation process within the museum, a historic house built before the Revolution that housed the first elected governor of New Jersey and, starting in 1811, the wealthy Kean family.
Renovations are done annually to keep the historic site in good shape, according to Bill Schroh, director of museum operations at Liberty Hall Museum. But the renovation of the wine cellar produced more than he expected.
“I was completely surprised. I would expect a bottle or two when you look through the wine cellar, but not the amount we found,” Schroh said of the hidden collection. “Not only do we have 1820s bottles and the 1796 bottle, but we have several—four or five other—vintage years of Madeira in the collection.”
While the 1796 Madeira stands out as historic, 18th-century Madeira isn’t a total rarity, said Mannie Berk, founder and president of The Rare Wine Co., a premier wine merchant in California who inspected the museum’s cache. He estimates that 100 to 150 bottles of 18th-century Madeira, a generally sweet, fortified wine, are still known to be in existence today.
What sets this wine apart is its origin story from wealthy wine importer Robert Lenox, who brought it into the country through Philadelphia, said Berk. “I’m sure it was imported as part of his business of importing wine from the [Portuguese] island of Madeira [off the coast of Morocco], but it’s a wine that he selected for himself.”
Unlike other wines that are identified primarily by the name of the producer, Madeiras more often take on the identity of their owners, said Berk. Eighteenth-century Madeira, usually shipped in barrels across the ocean, rarely had labels identifying the specific vintner, so the wine more often became known by either its owner or the ship that carried it. The Madeira found in Liberty Hall Museum was most likely sold at auction after Lenox’s death in 1839 to someone in the Kean family.
Liberty Hall Museum, formerly known as Liberty Hall, originally served as the home of New Jersey’s first elected governor, William Livingston, a signer of the U.S. Constitution. After the estate shifted to the wealthy Kean family in 1811, it expanded from 14 rooms to 50.
The newfound collection is another indication of the Kean’s wealth, as Madeira was seen as a wine of the elites in the 18th century. According to Berk, the masses drank rum, while Madeira was consumed and collected by those with money.
“It had the unique quality of being almost immortal,” said Berk, meaning that whereas most wine would have turned to vinegar over the centuries, Madeira—while it may have declined slightly in quality—is still drinkable two centuries later. One reason has to do with the volcanic soil on the island. Another is that importers deliberately sailed the ships with the barrels through the tropics to condition the wine. “Subjecting it to heat that way was part of the process that gave the wine such great longevity,” said Berk.
Typically, other Madeiras from the 18th century are worth anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 per bottle, he added, but the rarity of these based on their origin most likely puts them in the higher price range.
Liberty Hall Museum has no intention of cashing in on the pricey bottles now. The newfound libations will be put on display for the public in the museum’s wine cellar.