Thomas Jefferson, an iconic figure in American History, a Founding Father of the country and a man of style and taste; his influence has endured throughout history thanks to his writings. The primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson also served in Congress, was the 2nd Vice President and the 3rd President of the United States. But one of his more notable undertakings included being a connoisseur of wine and winemaking.
Jefferson excelled at being a dynamic personality and was well known for his inventions and his thoughts on horticulture, philosophy, art, food and wine; during his travels, he was exposed to new concepts, styles, foods and wines, which he brought back to the United States cementing his place as America's first distinguished viticulturist due to his repeated efforts in the early 1800’s to establish vineyards at Monticello. Although his vines suffered from black rot and phylloxera, he still continued to import and drink wines, both to drink himself and for entertaining at the White House and at Monticello.
Thanks to the preservation of his wine orders and letters to importers, we know that he notoriously enjoyed wines from France and Italy, but also was a fan of Spanish wines and domestic wines from the United States. Although a lot has changed since Jefferson's era, we can still look back on his notes, giving us more to appreciate regarding the evolution of wine making techniques, modern transportation and the components of outstanding wines that are enjoyable for us now, as they were for Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's meticulous record-keeping left behind a list of his favored wine picks; here's what the esteemed connoisseur enjoyed and his tasting notes:
Jefferson's Pale Sherry Pick
Sherry is a classic fortified wine from Jerez, Spain, known for complex delicate flavors and heady aromas. Jefferson became quite fond of pale sherry and enjoyed drinking it daily. The grapes used to make sherry include; Pedro Ximenez, Moscatel and Palomino, they are harvested in early September and fermented for 3 to 4 months before being fortified and aged. In 1808, he wrote down some of his wine tasting notes in favor of pale sherry.
Jefferson's Pale Sherry Wine Tasting Notes:
"I now drink nothing else, and am apprehensive that if I should fail in the means of getting it, it will be a privation, which I shall feel sensibly once a day."
Jefferson & Nebbiolo
This perfumed, complex wine from Northern Italy was described by Jefferson as "superlatively fine." Made from a finicky cold-weather-loving grape, Nebbilio has floral flavors combined with intense earthy flavors of mushroom and truffle, soft fruit flavors and lively acidity. The high acidity and tannins in Nebbilio make it a collectors favorite as the wines can develop intriguing flavors of spice, rose, licorice and tar, and can age for decades.
Jefferson's Nebbiolo Wine Tasting Notes:
After tasting it, Jefferson described it as, "sweet as the silky Madeira, as astringent on the palate as Bordeaux, and as brisk as Champagne. It is a pleasing wine."
This sweet white wine from Bourdeaux, France has honeyed flavors of stone fruit, pear and vanilla. Jefferson considered this wine one of the top three wines from France and preferred to let the wine breath at length before drinking.
Jefferson's Sauterenes Wine Tasting Notes:
"This is the best white wine of France (except Champagne and Hermitage). A great advantage of the Sauternes is that it becomes higher flavored the day after the bottle has been opened, than it is at first.
Made under the regulations of the Comite Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC), Champagne is made primarily from chardonnay grapes. While we think of Champagne as a sparkling wine, that hasn’t always been the case, when Jefferson discovered Champagne, he was fond of still champagne and wrote about the champagne making methods as follows,
Jefferson's Champagne Wine Making Notes:
"To make still wines, they bottle in September. This is only done when they know from some circumstance that the wine will not be sparkling. So if the spring bottling fails to make a sparkling wine, they decant it into other bottles in the fall, and it then makes the very best still wine…They let it stand in the bottles in this case forty-eight hours, with only a napkin spread over their mouths, but no cork. The best sparkling wine, decanted in this manner, makes the best still wine, and which will keep much longer than that originally made still by being bottled in September."
The Italian Montepulciano grape grown in Abruzzo, is an especially juicy grape known for its mild sweet tannins and low acidity. Today the wine is made under the control of the DOC (Denominazione di Origine), and it can be blended with Sangiovese, however, the classic characteristics of Motepulciano were just as delicious when Jefferson wrote about it in his notes.
Thomas Jefferson's Montepulciano Notes:
"I confine myself to the physical want of some good Montepulciano . . . , this being a very favorite wine, and habit having rendered the light and high flavored wines a necessary of life with me."
While Jefferson had trouble establishing a vineyard at Monticello, his neighbors to the south in North Carolina were able to produce America’s, "first specimen of an exquisite wine." The Scuppernong grape is indigenous to the Southeast United States and grows best in warm, temperate climates. It has a thick leathery skin and is high in reservetol and polyphenol compounds, the wine is very flavorful and sweet. Jefferson was very fond of Scuppernong and wrote that the wine had, "something of the port character but higher flavored, more delicate, less rough."