Encountering tradition with engraved port glasses

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A fortified wine from Northern Portugal, port is a popular after-dinner drink dating from the 17th Century. Usually much sweeter than other red wine, and often a deep ruby colour, this highly esteemed drink is also steeped in tradition. Port wine is a great choice for ‘laying down a bottle’ – buying and storing one from a specific year to mark a birth, for instance – because it gets more complex and aromatic as it ages.

While port is produced and protected by the Ministry of Agriculture and Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto in Portugal, it has become a firm British favourite. It is believed that its popularity originated after the Methuen treaty of 1703, when port was able to replace French wine, which the war between England and France had blocked the circulation of. English port merchants, including many whose names we still recognise today, established themselves at this time.

Traditional drinking styles

The drink is enjoyed in engraved port glasses that allow it to be consumed at the right temperature and enable the aromas to spread. Port-drinking is an inherently social activity. Traditionally, port is served at room temperature and will be poured into an elegant decanter so that people at the table can admire its ruby palette, and so that the aromas can breathe.

The port decanter is then passed from the right hand of the host to her or his left side in a clockwise direction around the table. ‘Passing to the left’ is part of the ceremony of port-drinking which is thought to originate in the Royal Navy, for whom ‘port’ is the left hand side of the vessel.

Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?

Drinkers slow to pass the bottle to the left, or who fail to do so, can be met with this question by drinkers further down the line who are too demure to ask for the port to be passed directly, but who are eager to fill their engraved port glasses. Thought to originate with a question posed to the actual Bishop of Norwich in the early 1800s, who was wont to fall asleep with the bottle at his elbow, a more modern equivalent, ‘is your passport in order?’ might be heard by clamouring guests now. Upon being asked this, you are supposed to realise your faux-pas and pass the bottle along.

Guessing the vintage

A popular activity while savouring the port is to try and guess the vintage. Unlike with wine production, where ‘vintage’ simply refers to the year in which the wine was produced, only the good years are named vintage years in port production. Recently 2003, 2007, 2011, and 2016 were named port vintage years.

Drinking alternatives

Port has a few variants that you might like to try. White port comes in a range of refreshing styles. Traditional tawny port describes wine that has been aged in barrels, whereas crusty port describes wine which has been produced from a mix of grapes rather than from a single vintage.

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