Artillery Row On Wine

Britain’s love affair with port

Henry Jeffrey’s recommends a selection of port for Christmas 2020

Before there were package holidays, there was port. This was the way British people shivering on their cold wet island could get a bit of sunshine. It’s a miracle drink, preserving the heat of the Douro valley in liquid form for decades ready to be uncorked and spread cheer. And don’t we need cheer more than ever at the moment? According to Adrian Bridge, CEO of Taylor’s, British port sales were booming during lockdown.

It took a long time before port became the sweet smooth consistent wine that we know and love today

Our love affair with port goes back a long way but the funny thing is that when wines from Portugal began to arrive in large quantities in the 17th century, people hated it. Port was a necessity because Bordeaux, the traditional wine of choice, had become expensive due to the high duty put on it from Cromwell’s time onwards. Early port was a rough sort of wine, often transported down to the city of Oporto in pig skins and adulterated with brandy and elderberries. A poem from 1693 by Richard Ames captures the mood of the times: “But fetch us a pint of any sort, Navarre, Galicia, anything but Port.” The Scots in particular were not impressed. After the Act of Union, wine drinking took on political connotations with Jacobites drinking claret and Hanoverians port. This antipathy to port still persists: a few years back, I sat next to a Scottish woman at dinner who complained that the English only drank port to thumb their noses at Napoleon.

It took a long time before port became the sweet smooth consistent wine that we know and love today. In fact, until 1820 it would usually have been dry. The vintage that year was so hot that the grapes contained more sugar than the yeasts could deal with, so brandy was added while the wines were still fermenting. It was such a success in Britain that this became the model for how port was made in future. Not everyone was keen, however. Baron Forrester, the man who first mapped the course of the Douro river, was still complaining about the new-fangled sweet port right into the 1850s. The current winemaker at Taylor’s, David Guimaraens, reckoned this year’s heatwave had more than a little in common with the 1820 vintage.

As an aid to civilised discussion, port is unsurpassed

Port really is perfectly designed to deal with this heat. Even with modern temperature-controlled fermentation it can be difficult making balanced dry wine with such ripe grapes whereas adding brandy during the fermentation preserves the fresh fruit flavour. Furthermore, heavier wines can be blended with lighter vintages to make tawny ports which are aged for years in wood with oxygen contact. Tawnies were traditionally enjoyed more by the Portuguese but they’re becoming increasingly popular over here. They’re mellow, pale and nutty from oxygen contact, quite different to vintage wines. The great thing is they are ready to drink, no ageing or decanting needed, and an open bottle will last for months. In fact, wood-aged ports are practically indestructible, I’ve had examples from 1937 and 1863 that were both fresh and vigorous.

Grapes with the right balance can go into vintage releases, though a declared vintage from 2020 does look unlikely. The discovery of how well port aged in bottles was probably an accident. A well-off individual would buy a pipe of port (around 500 litres) and have it bottled and corked. It was discovered that after years in bottle, something sublime happened to the fiery tannic wine. A vintage from a declared year will need at least 20 years. Happily, for the impatient among us, ready to drink vintage ports aren’t terribly expensive when you compare with the price of say, mature Bordeaux or Burgundy.

For me port is the highlight of Christmas day

Whether I’m drinking tawny or vintage (I’ve put some suggestions below), for me port is the highlight of Christmas day. The children leave the table and the conversation becomes more relaxed and carefree. As an aid to civilised discussion, port is unsurpassed. Jacobites and Hanoverians, Whigs and Tories or the modern equivalent can put aside their difference in the mellow glow of a good bottle of port. Only we’re in Tier Three in Kent so it looks like it’ll just be my wife and me. I can’t see that being a problem.

Tesco’s Finest 10-Year-Old Tawny (Tesco £12)

It’s shocking how good supermarket ports are. This is made by the Symington family and it’s laden with cooked strawberries and walnuts. It’s a good one to convert people who say they don’t like port. I have never met anyone who didn’t like a good tawny.

Sandeman LBV 2014 (Waitrose £12.95)

A Late Bottled Vintage is from a single year but kept in wood for longer. This is a superior example and will age for a good ten years more but it’s hard to resist now with all that dark cherry fruit and chocolate. Will need decanting.

Quinta do Noval Colheita 2005 (Ocado £42.99)

This is something rather special. A colheita is aged in wood like a tawny but from a single vintage. Made by Quinta do Noval, it’s intensely tangy and rich, just the thing with Stilton. If you can’t find the 2005, I’ve tried Noval colheitas back to 1937, and they’re all excellent.

Quinta do Vesuvio 1998 (Ancient & Modern £60)

I think this is what we’re going to have on Christmas day. From one of the finest estates in the Douro, now in the safe hands of the Symingtons, this is now in its prime drinking window showing aromas of cinnamon, dark chocolate, figs, cedar and lavender.

Taylor’s 1985 (Vintage Port Shop £119)

If you’re pushing the boat out, then you can’t get much better than this. A 35-year-old wine from top producer in a magnificent vintage for just over a £100, what other region can offer such value?


Henry Jeffreys is the author of Empire of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass.

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