A restoration project at a New Jersey museum unearthed cases of wine nearly as old as the United States.
The Liberty Hall Museum in Union says it discovered almost three full cases of Madeira wine, a fortified wine, dating to 1796 while restoring its wine cellar. The museum also found 42 demijohns — large glass jugs sometimes used for holding spirits — dating to the 1820s.
The museum said the monetary value of the wine cannot be made public.
The museum says some of the Portuguese wine was ordered to celebrate the presidency of John Adams, the second president, who took office in 1797.
The Liberty Hall Museum is a grand old home that was inhabited by two prominent New Jersey families for generations before it was converted into a museum.
“It has 50 rooms and lots of stuff in it,” Bill Schroh, the director of operations at Liberty Hall Museum, tells All Things Considered. One of those rooms was the wine cellar, which had never been properly inventoried. So last year, the museum started sorting through the stockpile — which involved first knocking down a wall that was probably built during Prohibition.
Then the museum staff found cases that were nailed shut. “We figured out they’d been nailed shut for about a hundred years,” Schroh says.
And inside that, bottle after bottle of Madeira wine. There were very clear labels — saying things like “imported by the late Robert Lenox, Esq., via Philadelphia, in 1796.”
The original 13 colonies imported about 95 percent of the wine produced on the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira, according to historical accounts. Bill Schroh, Liberty Hall’s director of operations, said Madeira was the best wine to ship during the 18th century because it almost never spoils — even centuries later if stored properly.
Liberty Hall President John Kean said he sampled the wine. The oldest Madeira hasn’t been opened yet, Schroh says. But Kean, a descendant of the Kean family, got to taste a younger sample — a mere 147 years old. He compared it to a sweet sherry.
The museum, originally constructed in 1760, was built as a country home for New York lawyer William Livingston. He served in the First and Second Continental Congresses, become New Jersey’s first elected governor and was a signatory to the Constitution. The Kean family took ownership of the estate in 1811 and has owned it since.
Most wine would have long turned to vinegar after so much time in storage. But Madeira is a fortified wine that’s exceptionally long-lasting — one reason it was so popular in the 18th century.
“From the research we’ve done,” Schroh says, “as long as the cork is not wet and the wax seal … is not broken, there’s a good chance that it might still be decent-tasting Madeira.”
“A lot of our bottles are still perfectly wax-sealed and corked,” he said.