Urbane legend: How two Danish sailors saved the Madeiran wine industry

The credibility of the story might depend on whether you believe a vineyard could prosper in Holmen

“100 odd years! I hope Spanish Flu’s cleared up” (photo: Flickr/Alexander Baxevanis)
September 25th, 2021 5:00 am| by Frank Sonderborg
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Madeira is a Portuguese island stuck way out in the wild Atlantic. 

Beyond its namesake tipple, it’s not famous for much else beyond its New Year firework extravaganza celebrations in Funchal and the very scary Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport, which is ranked as the ninth most dangerous airport in the world.

Madeira’s modern economy is mostly based on tourism, banana production, flowers and, of course, its wine. Whether it’s drunk as soon as it can be, or left to mature in barrels for 100 years, it’s a very important part of the Madeiran economy. 

Madeira lies at 32°45 north and 17° west, which made it a perfect location for ships to resupply before rounding the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa on their way to India or China. Equally it could have been ships crossing the Atlantic to North America, South America or the Danish West Indies.

Up until World War 1, the Danes had a Navy frigate permanently stationed in the Caribbean, but that all changed when it sold its West Indies colonies of St John, St Croix and St Thomas to the United States in 1917 for the princely sum of $25 million.

The frigates would do a resupply stop-off at Madeira and load up with fresh water, stores and barrels of Madeira wine, before upping anchor and departing on the long haul back to Copenhagen. The trip had to be completed before certain straits became impassable due to ice.

Sailing home stealthily 
Our story, which is a Danish Navy legend, goes way back. It concerns two Danish Navy cadets and their liberation of some property belonging to a local Funchal wine grower.

Jens and Jesper hurried down the early morning sleepy streets of Funchal in a desperate dash to get back to their Danish frigate … before the cries of alarm started up. 

It was the 1800s and the Danish Navy frigate had just finished its tour of duty in the Danish West Indies. It was heading home. 

The priceless treasure they had just stolen was held in a sand-filled bucket and needed to be smuggled aboard. There it would be carefully nurtured in a warm sail locker on the long voyage back to Denmark. 

While in port, the two sailors had decided to embark on a dangerous venture: to steal some of the precious blue grape vines. 

Their end plan involved replanting the cuttings in Holmen, the Danish naval yard in Copenhagen, and cultivating their very own Danish Madeira wine … in the harsh Scandinavian climate. 

Grapes of wrath
The Madeirans, like their French wine-growing counterparts, guarded their vines like the source of liquid gold they were. And they would not have taken kindly to two foreign sailors making it away with the island’s crown jewels. 

Having suffered the near obliteration of their vine culture by a fungus in 1849, they were well aware how fragile their industry was, so they guarded the vines with their life.

Jens and Jesper were accordingly overjoyed their plan came off without a hitch. On the long voyage home they took turns caring for the sensitive vines in the balmy sail locker room.

Back home in the naval dockyard Holmen, they set to work replanting and protecting their priceless vines, bedding them down in a south-facing garden at Nyboder well protected from the northerly ice winds.

And it might surprise you to learn that after a period of time, despite the climate, the vines began to produce fine blue Madeira grapes. It was indeed possible to bottle and indulge in Danish Madeira blue grape wine in the far cold north.

Pestilence on your houses
Then, in the 1870s, disaster struck the French wine industry. A great blight took down the great wine houses of France: a pestilence believed to have been imported into the country from the Americas.

The French wine-growers had themselves imported vines from the New World, but they had also brought in a hidden stowaway: a dangerous American pest called phylloxera.

Some blamed the speed of the new-fangled steam packet ships for carrying the pest across the water. The French government offered a staggering reward at the time, of 320,000 francs, for a cure. Meanwhile, the French vines withered away as the pest laid waste to the whole wine industry. 

Seventy percent of the vines in France were wiped out, taking with them the fortunes and livelihood of thousands. And even today there is still no cure for this pest that attacks the roots of precious vines.

Nevertheless, the French eventually found some sort of salvation by grafting the American vine onto the European vine. The reward, though, was never paid out.

Unexpected homecoming
Madeira did not escape the ravages of the pestilence. In 1873, their vines came under attack and started succumbing to the infections. Soon their industry was on its knees. 

The wine-growers fought back by bringing in vines from the Americas, but they didn’t have the same quality as their beloved blue Madeira grapes. The growers, despondent and unsatisfied, could only pray for a miracle. Perhaps they were facing north.

Enter a Danish diplomat onto the Madeira stage. Formerly a sailor who had sailed the seven seas, he had been on that same ship that had sailed the vines to the far north. 

Now, back in Funchal, he perceived the plight of the wine-growers. He immediately contacted the Danish Admiralty and recommended that some of the original blue Madeira vines be cut down and transported back to their homeland.

The Danish Admiralty granted his request, and soon the vines were back on their island home, restoring the Madeira blue grape to the centre of their wine universe.

Thanks to this wonderful diplomatic gesture, nearly all the grapes produced on Madeira are the offspring of the Danish blue grapes.

Or so the Danish Navy’s Madeira legend claims!

Frank Sonderborg


Frank Sonderborg was born in Ireland, lives in the UK and does his best to write interesting stories. This particular tale is based on his experience working at an udflytterbørnehave on the corner of Stefansgade and Krogerupgade in Nørrebro from 1984-85. His short stories have appeared in various UK and US publications. He is currently working on a fictional book about the Irish War of Independence.

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