Madeira Wine Labels
So why a chapter about Madeira wine labels?
Well, it has been a long time project of my to-do list. But be aware: we are not talking about paper labels or slip labels on bottles. This chapter is about wine labels made of a solid material like silver, china or mother of pearl, designed to label a decanter or a bottle filled with Madeira wine. The serving and displaying of this wine is part of the complete wine picture. And since Madeira wine decanters were very often labeled with such wine labels, I felt that this website dedicated to every aspect of Madeira wine would not be complete without a chapter on wine labels.
How little did I know when I started out on this subject. In the beginning I thought there was not much to write about wine labels in general and even less about Madeira wine labels. I had no idea how wrong I was. In the beginning of 2006 I had a conversation about this topic with George Gillham, Hon. Secretary of the Wine Label Circle of Great-Britain. I made a small hint at the subject of wine labels and I was answered back with the modern bible of wine label collecting, "Wine labels", edited by John Salter and published by the Antique Collectors Club in 2004. I had to learn that the subject of wine labels was very well able to fill hundreds of pages and so on this website I will only try to give the most basic information about this aspect of Madeira wine.
Everyone who wants to get into detail about wine labels and especially the collecting of wine labels is strongly advised to contact the Wine Label Circle at www.winelabelcircle.org. I have made extensive use of the above mentioned book "Wine labels" by John Salter, which is the modern reference book. Some of the following words are quoted directly from this book, but to keep legibility I decided against extensive use of quotation marks. Also I used an old copy of "The book of the wine label" by Norman Penzer which has been published by Home & Van Thal, London, in 1947. Finally I found much information about silver in general in "Silver" written by Joel Langford and published by Quintet Publishing, London, in 1991. I am very much indebted to George Gillham, Hon. Secretary of the Wine Label Circle and the Wine Label Circle in general. Many of the words are from George Gillham and this whole chapter of the website would not have come to life without his generous help.
Wine labels started in the United Kingdom just after 1730. The reason why this happened at this specific time is not known. There seems to be no change in drinking habits, glass production, wine making or any other part of the wine business. For some reason within a few years it became a fashion to mark the anonymous bottles and decanters with a wine label or bottle ticket. For various reasons the United Kingdom was the prime producer and market for wine labels. The aristocratic and upper class was well established, the drinking habits for rather heavy wines that needed to be decanted, the high quality of silver manufacturing and last but not least the naval connection to overseas served the growing need for wine labels. These labels were made from all kinds of materials and they were made in every period, especially from 1735 to 1860 (when it became legal to sell wine in single bottles in the UK) but also thereafter, thus demonstrating the enduring popularity of wines like Madeira in the UK.
The United Kingdom had (and still has) very strict standards of silver manufacturing that were rigorously enforced. This has led to a continuing high quality not only in design but also in the production of silver in the U.K. Also and in contrast to other guilds, the "Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths and Silversmiths" accepted women and refugees like the Huguenots into their ranks. This led to a continuing high quality of craftsmanship. Since the 13th century Sterling silver was the standard silver mixture, developed by German goldsmiths and consisting of 925 parts of silver and 75 parts of copper. From 1697 to 1720 the Britannia silver standard was declared by law. This standard had 95,8 percent silver which made it rather soft but easier to process than Sterling silver. Both standard are usually hallmarked. This so called "Hallmarking" has its origin in the London hall of the "Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths and Silversmiths". Many English towns had an authority which examined the silver-ware and marked it with a combination of hallmarks that gave the silver standard, the year of examination, the city and other information. However this is not the place to explain the complete code of hallmarking. Most silver wine labels will be made from Sterling silver and will therefore bear the Sterling hallmark which is the lion passant guardant. Only very few silver wine labels are made from silver of the Britannia standard. This rather soft silver did not take hallmarking very well. The mark for this silver is the Britannia figure. Many but not all silver labels will also feature a makers mark of the producer. Labels from other silver materials like Old Sheffield Plate or electroplate are not hallmarked.
Silver escutcheon Madeira label made by George Unite, the leading producer of silver wine labels in Birmingham since he first entered marks in 1832.
Hallmarks on the reverse side of the above Madeira label, showing the lion passant guardant for Sterling silver, the marks for Birmingham 1844 and the makers mark GU for George Unite.
Old Sheffield Plate (OSP)
OSP or fused plate was invented by Thomas Boulsover in 1742 or 1743 but it took years until others, especially Josiah Hancock took the method to perfection. The basic principle of OSP is a copper base plate, enveloped in silver. There is OSP with just the front being silver. These are nicknamed copperbacks, due to the visible copper on the backside. OSP also comes fully enveloped with silver and can sometimes be hard to distinguish from solid silver or electroplate. Sometimes with deep engravings you can see the shine of the reddish copper in the cut of the engraving. Labels made of OSP were mainly produced in the die-stamping process.
Old Sheffield Plate Madeira label of the early 19th century, the inscription made by using the stamping method for the main parts of the letters and then engraving the missing parts of the letters.
Copper base shining through at the engraved parts of the letters R and A.
Electroplated silver was patented by George Richards Elkington and Henry Elkington in 1840 and soon took the place of OSP. In the beginning electroplate was quite expensive, because prices for the nickel alloy used as a base were high and the process of galvanizing was not fully perfected. But in the next ten to twenty years that followed, the method was further developed and dropping prices for nickel contributed to the commercial success as well. Because of the then low production costs electroplate became very popular and broadened the market for silver goods considerably.
Electroplate Madeira label of the late 19th century.
Other materials for Madeira wine labels include metals like pewter, gold, brass, tin and nickel. Other non-metal materials used were enamels, china, pottery and mother of pearl. Even exotic materials like leather and coconut have been used to make Madeira wine labels.
Madeira wine labels come in wide variety of shapes. The basic shapes are escutcheons, rectangles, scrolls, crescents and ovals. Other more exotic shapes include barrels, grapes, leafs, bugles, stars, single letters (usually M), anchors, crowns and armorials.
INSCRIPTIONS ON MADEIRA WINE LABELS
Madeira and spelling varieties
The majority of wine labels feature the name "Madeira". Of course there are different spellings in the countries that used to import Madeira wine. Quite logical the number of wine labels known from each country corresponds with the importance that Madeira wine had in the different European and oversea countries. Since the United States and Great-Britain were the most important markets for Madeira wine, most of the wine labels feature the English spelling of Madeira. But it is amazing how many different English spellings, even plain misspellings exist. In the wine label library in the book "Wine labels" there are labels with "MADAIRA", "MADEIRA", "MADEIRY", "MADERA", "MEADERA", "MEDEARY", "MEDEIRA", and misspellings like "MADERIA", "MADIERA" and "MEDERIA". After all silver-smiths seem to be only human too, or -more likely- the customer did not know better. In the other European countries some rare labels existed with "MADERAWIJN", "MADERE", "MADÈRE", "MÁDERE", "MADERE VIEUX", "MEDIRA", "VIN DE MADERE SEC", "
Wine labels with a grape's name on it seem to be rarer. Not only was Madeira wine just known as a fortified and rather heavy drink to many of its consumers, who did not care much about a grape variety. Also the habit of using a grape's name started late in the history of Madeira wine. Quite often the wines were named after all sorts of things but the grape variety (please see "About bottle names" in the chapter "About old bottles"). According to the wine label library in the book "Wine labels" the following grape varieties are spelled on wine labels: "BOAL", "BOÁL", "BUAL", "CERCIAL", "CERCIAL MA", "CERCIAL MADEIRA", "MADEIRA SERCIAL"; "MAL. MADEIRA", "MALMSEY", "MALMSEY", MALMSEY DRY", "MALMSEY MADEIRA", "MALMSEY RICH", "MALMSLEY", "MALMSLY", "MALMSY", "MALMSY MADEIRA", "MALMSY RICH", "MALSMEY" (another misspelling), "MALVASIA", "MALVAGIA DE MADERE", "MALVASIA DI MADERA", "MALVEZIE", "MALVOISE MADEIRA", MALVOISEE", "MALVOISIE", "MALVOISIE de MADERE", "SERCHALL", "SERCHIALL", "SERCIAL", SERCIAL MADEIRA", "TERRANTEZ", "VERDEILHA", "VERDELHO" and "VIN DE MALVOISIE DE MADERE". Interestingly enough Malmsey (or Malvasia/Malvazia) gets the most labels, Bastardo gets none. Again this only reflects differences in importance of the different grape varieties as well as in the volume of production. Malmsey has always been the prime example for a Madeira wine, whereas a label for Bastardo has -according to George Gillham- never been reported of.
In some rare cases labels even bear the date of specified vintage, like in "1815 EI MALMSEY" (EI probably being short for East India, meaning that the wine had made the journey to east India and back) , "1818 EI SERCIAL", "1822 MADEIRA", "MADEIRA 1818 FROM THE ISLAND", "MADEIRA 1820", "MADEIRA 1860 FROM THE ISLAND", "MADEIRA 1862 FROM THE ISLAND", "MADEIRA PRESIDENT USA COSSART GORDON BINNED 1896" (A rare label with a producer's name) and "MALMSEY RAYNE BINNED 1895".
Many labels feature some additional information for the owner of the wine, some of which must remain a riddle for everyone but the owner. Also a lot of these names describe forged Madeiras from other places than the island of Madeira. The wine label library in "Wine labels" lists the following labels: "BRONTE MADEIRA", "BRONTI MADIERA" (Bronte or Bronti was a name for the Marsala wine from the Woodhouse firm. So this could be forged Madeira from Sicily.), "CAPE MADEIRA" (Probably forged Madeira from South Africa.), "EAST INDIA MADEIRA", "EI MADEIRA" (EI probably short for East India.), "484 MADEIRA", "GARACHICO" (The only Madeira label known to me, where the name of a village or vineyard is given. Garachico lies at the south cost, close to Estreito de Camara de Lobos. Some of the best grapes are grown here.), "GLORIA MUNDI" (The name of a well-known dry Madeira made by Leacock's.), "INA MADEIRA" (A misspelling of India?), "INDIA MADEIRA", "INDIAN MADEIRA", "MALUS: MADEIRA", "MEDERE, PAGLIARINO", "New: Madaira", "NO 1 MADEIRA", "NO 2 MADEIRA", "No.3 Madeira 159", "RED MADEIRA", "SPANISH MADEIRA" (Does this mean forged Spanish Madeira, or did the owner of the label confuse Portugal with Spain after one glass of Madeira to many?), and "W. I. MADEIRA" (This might be short for West Indies, meaning that the wine made a journey there and back).