There is this gentlemanly thing surrounding vintage port. The great port houses were founded by English merchants, who established a unique relationship with the English aristocracy. When the ladies left a dining room, it was port which emerged to lubricate an Englishman’s serious discussions. And like any English social activity, there are a whole set of rules and rituals surrounding the “proper’ drinking of port. Just the sort of historical baggage to lure someone like myself.
Indeed, we have our own historical baggage, port and I. The blame lies with a long-gone place called Champagne Charlie’s, a faux Victorian establishment on the Essex Road in the 1980s. Its artificiality was highlighted by its location on the edge of a modern housing estate, its wood panelling and sawdust floor entirely failing to disguise a construction alien to Victorian builders.
In an effort to appear historic, and recreate the quaffing culture on which I have had cause to comment before, Champagne Charlie’s sold pints of port. Pints. In fact, their full quaffing experience, of which I foolishly partook in my late twenties with a friend, involved a copper jug, and two pewter pint tankards.
As a fortified wine, port actually contains within itself the very combination of wine and spirits which supposedly leads to the worse type of hangover. So I drank it with a kind of bravado, in much the same way as the Japanese eat fugu.
I clearly thought of myself as a successor to John ‘Mad Jack’ Mytton, the legendary 19th century squire who could drink eight bottles of port a day, starting the first while shaving. However, what actually accompanied my own depilation next morning was the most painful, blinding headache which I have ever experienced. That morning explained to me why Norwegians refer to a hangover as jeg har tommermenn – "I have carpenters in my head".
Having decided that I was not Squire Mytton, nor was meant to be, I returned to a single glass after formal dinners. Port remains a stranger to my shaving routine.
But after Christmas dinner that year, I told this story as a tale of alcoholic braggadocio. “A pint, eh?” said a relative, “Well, if you like your port, I can get some rather good value vintage Kopke at the moment.” The 1983 vintage had just been declared. Kopke is the oldest of all the port houses, and a bottle of vintage port seemed the sort of thing I should show an eagerness to acquire. So of course, I agreed.
A few weeks later, I was at work when he rang. “Just to let you know,” he said, “that I’ve got that case of port for you.”
Case. Not a bottle, a case. Twelve bottles…
As someone with gentlemanly aspirations, I should have understood the quantities in which one orders one’s port. The mistake was clearly mine. In which case, like a chap accidentally shooting a beater, one simply shut up, and paid up.
I wrote the cost on the case itself, to remind me - £108.68. It was a significant sum to someone in their late twenties back then. Particularly because it was invested in an entire case of port, which was not to be drunk for many years, and which would last me for a further twelve years after that, barring an unlikely increase in the frequency of Christmas.
So began years of toting this case around. It went from flat to house, from furniture storage facility to sister-in-law’s garage. Yes, I could have paid to keep it in proper wine storage – but by now, I would have spent more in storage fees than I spent on the port. (£10 a year storage sounds like nothing, until you think about storing a case for 25 years…)
And then, a quarter-century later, it all came good. I now have not only a case of seriously mature port, worth about £50 a bottle today, but have acquired more relatives who would appreciate it. Sharing your port is perhaps the best way to drink it without a hangover, since it both limits your own consumption yet multiplies the pleasure. And, dare I imagine that it imparts a certain gentlemanly quality to one’s dining table? It was time to broach the case.
The bottles are sealed with hard, brittle wax – literally sealing wax – which shatters all over the option when you start to remove it. Beneath are corks which have clearly suffered over the last 28 years. Some have leaked slightly, and below the first centimetre have the consistency of muesli. They disintegrate even when handled with the caution of a bomb disposal operative. But that’s okay, since the sediment in vintage port requires that it’s decanted. Even the label suggests it should be served with care, which makes a change from serving it with Stilton.
Some people expect vintage port to be unctuous and syrupy, like a dessert wine. In fact, this is light and pale brick-coloured. It has a raisiny bouquet, sharpened by the alcohol, and in the mouth it’s rich and aromatic, a soft, dried-fruit and burnt toffee flavour with enormous complexity, which resonates around the palate and nose and is immensely warming. It is delicious.
Why at Christmas? Well, that feels like a time for Victorian traditions. It brings a lot of people together around a dining table. And it’s an occasion. This is proper, vintage port, not one of the lesser variations which my father-in-law dismisses as “grocer’s port”. Having gone to all this trouble, over such a long time, I shall not be opening a bottle after a TV dinner.
And I want it to last. Because, by the time of the final bottle, I may still not be a gentleman - but I will certainly be too old to go through the whole of this 40-year process again.