Hancock D. (2003) Madeira wine: the rise of a trans-imperial market economy

Hancock, David J. (2003) “L’émergence d’une économie de réseau (1640-1815). Le vin de Madère”, Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 58/3, 649-672.

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English version available here (pdf).

The Atlantic during the early modern period became a coherent “functional unit” integrating three continents; as such it is an essential concept for historians (p.649). In the 18th century in particular the economic linkage intensified (p.650). The rise of the Madeira wine is part of this decentralized and self-organized growth of an integrated Atlantic space.

Madeira was well located, it allowed the American and English captains to board their merchandise on their way to the Caribbean. And wine made for perfect ballast for the ships coming back empty (p.651). Furthermore, the British government was keen to weaken French exports which included a lot of wine. Since 1651, Madeira wine could be imported in Britain free of tax (p.652).

Unlike the tobacco or sugar trade Madeira wine trade was highly decentralized (similar in that to fur for instance; p.653). The trade was self-organized, entirely build up by the a market where producers, retailers, consumers and transporters interacted.

“We can even say that the wine itself self-organized to become the product we know today” (p.655).  In a century it went from being a cheap and simple wine to a luxury and highly elaborated one. The number of grapes varieties used went from 4 to 23. These innovations were usually caused by angry letters sent to the producers by the consumers or the transporters.

Consumers started adding themselves spirit (cognac in particular) to Madeira wine to preserve it in the first half of the 17th century, gradually the practice went up the production line and by 1750 the producers were doing it themselves. However some stubbornly refused to do so considering it a waste (p.657).

The expectations varied widely in particular relative to taste and colour. In the English Caribbean they liked their Madeira wine with little alcohol and a very dark tone; the producers even sent some rape along their wine for the retailers to darken the wine if need be. In South Carolina on the other hand they liked their wine strong in alcohol but with a light colour. The Philadelphians went for golden and extra sugary wine (the producers were shocked but sent their wine altered anyhow!). The quantity of cognac to add for such or such market was a constant trial and error process with the producers receiving feedback from all over the Atlantic and altering their wine accordingly (p.658).

In the American colonies, the trade took off as the patrician families imported yearly a few pipes and used the wine as present to foster their social network (p.659).  The exporting companies sent their agents to the Americas for a few years and as the market consolidated around 1750 started employing permanent agents in London, New York and Philadelphia (p.660).

In lesser cities, American retailers sold the wine they had bought in the major port towns. Gradually, as consumption spread petty chapmen started buying the wine to resale it over the countryside (p.661). As the population grew, rural taverns also became major clients (p.662).

The patrician families got involved in the Madeira wine trade because the island was on the way of their ships coming back from Europe with salt or fruits, thus initially it was sold alongside these products in generalist groceries. However, as demand grew a number of specialized retailers started to appear around 1750 (p.663). Consumption and with it the number of specialized shops boomed after the American Revolution (p.664).

However the Independence also opened the US market to French and Spanish wines formerly kept at bay by custom tariffs. From 82% of the imported wines in 1714-23, Madeira wines fell to 36% in 1776 and to 8% in 1805-6 (here in volumes). But this loss of market share was more than compensated by the fantastic increase of American demand over the period (NY imported 320 per year in the early 18th century, 500 50 years later and 570 just before the Independence; p.666) and the opening of new markets in particular in Europe and India (p.665).

Spanish wines (xeres and sancùlar) were sold in greater quantities but were also significantly cheaper, so the value of Madeira wine imported is far greater than the quantities previously mentioned seem to indicate.

Over the 18th century, Madeira wine acquired a luxury status. While it had initially been sold along the very democratic rum, its price started an impressive hike after 1720 (p.668). Not only did supply stagnated, but the American society and singularly the high society was becoming an alcoholised one. Imitating the sophisticated European nobility, the American gentry started to appreciate and even expect wines and spirits (p.669).

Unlike the image often presented, the American colonists did not simply obey or ape the English fatherland. They developed their own tastes and their own consumption habits, distinct from those of Old England (p.671).

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