Get to know your Port – like having milk in the fridge

With Christmas almost upon us, some people’s thoughts might turn to the annual, festive glass or two of ‘Port’. I can sense some readers reminiscing about the mother of all hangovers and being convinced that Port is the culprit. And while we are at it, many of you might share the assumption that these delicious drops of fortified wine are purely a seasonal enjoyment.

While the latter is a myth, a misconception, the result of changing fashions and habits, and perhaps lack of marketing from the producers in Portugal, the hangover is in many circumstances not an unfair assumption. However, in this article I feel like some mitigation should be given.

Since the Methuen treaty of 1703 between England and Portugal, there has been an alliance between our countries, which began with things such as preferential taxes on imports to the UK of Portuguese wine. Couple to this the degree to which Port Houses were nurtured by British families and the result is that we see Port as a very British drink. Few people realise that France is the greatest Port consumer - Ruby Port is taken daily, as an aperitif, in countless Bars and Restaurants across their entire country.

Where there can be no doubt is that ‘Vintage Port’ is the traditional domain of the British.

When you go to Porto, you understand one fundamental fact about Port, which is the fact that ALL the British shippers have a bottle of Tawny in their fridge. It’s a bit like saying “there is no milk in the fridge, I mean don’t be ridiculous of course there is milk in the fridge.” It literally is like religion. Why? Because after lunch and every dinner they will have just a little sip of Tawny Port. They call it mouthwash.

There was a time, not that long ago, when the City of London was also awash with Vintage Port being served at lunchtime…

Fashion seems to have changed and Port is largely relegated for many of us, to the festive season, when many of us see Port as a festive drink or Stirrup Cup, meaning that outside the Hunting season or Christmas, i.e. most of the rest of the year, imbibers get very little practice at tasting the nuances of Port, or assessing the impact on the cerebral hemispheres of over indulging. Port, after all, can be a dangerously drinkable drop.


Why is Port so drinkable? Cutting to the chase, it is the sweetness of flavour and silkiness of texture that glide effortlessly over the palate, which make having 'just one more sip' so unbelievably tempting.

There are the above mentioned, two drinkable elements of Port which conveniently mask the 19% alcohol. More importantly, they equally mask the corrosive elements of the chemical stew, captured by the Port makers, which is capable of keeping a great Vintage Port alive for 50 years plus, after it is bottled. We encompass in the single word ‘maturation’ what happens during the decades in a bottle, where sediment is formed. The sediment is mainly the coagulation of tannins but includes a lengthy list of chemical changes which take from the wine a vast proportion of its masked acidity and tannins. Lots of other molecules combine and form ever more complex items such as esters and aldehydes. Essentially, the Port is softened with time.

With the chemical stew tamed after a few decades, the Vintage Port after about 20 years is now tasting like the equivalent of a soft cuddly toy, since it has lost most of its brutal kick. My contention is that at this stage it will not give you a Hangover, and after years of experimentation the reliable solution I have found is as follows:  If you would like to drink lots of Port and avoid the hangover, then make sure that you drink a very old one (at least 20 years and preferably 30!). If you are lucky then perhaps a generous God Father will have tucked away a heap of the stuff for you. However, back on planet Earth, there is an inexpensive and rewarding alternative called Tawny Port. It is where the Port Houses mature their produce for 10 years plus, in Oak Barrels. They are referred to as Tawny Ports in recognition of their colour which has been altered from a deep Ruby to a browny, paler red as a result of the years in Barrel. As the colour has changed so too has the chemical stew and this Port is not only affordable and eminently drinkable but also, it will not give you a hangover.

My recommendations are Warre’s Otima - their 10-year-old is sublime. Alternatively, the Graham’s 20-year-old Tawny is really quite a treat. (Many in the Port trade agree that Tawny’s benefit from being served a bit below cellar temperature, say 9C)

One of the season’s finest recipes in my opinion is Venison and Port Casserole. I would suggest that this creation genuinely benefits from the natural vigour of a youthful Port. The only problem is what to do with the rest of the bottle. I advise caution.

Now if any reader chooses to experiment with Port during the festive season and after a Gin or two, white wine, red wine etc. etc. during Dinner, then complains that it was the thimble of Port which caused the hangover the following morning, I have very little sympathy.



One for the pub Quiz:

Port is made in several styles:  White, Rosé, Tawny, Ruby, Late Bottled Vintage & Vintage - only one of the styles exclusively uses corks rather than stopper. (Answer: Vintage Port - p.s. for the cantankerous, Late Bottled Vintage sometimes has a cork!  )