How to drink port without the storm

There is nothing more agreeable than a glass or two of fine vintage port at Christmas. As long as it agrees with us!


This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It was on the teacup ride at the Dunstable Downs Kite Festival that I realised I had a problem. The colour drained from my face, a cold sweat developed and I gripped hold of the wheel tightly like I was on a boat in a rough sea. 

My six-year-old daughter gave me a look that mingled concern with a little contempt. She asked me if I was ok. I grimly nodded and held on tighter. After what seemed an eternity, the ride finished and I staggered off and sat down in a heap on the ground as the nausea slowly began to subside. I manfully attempted to regain my composure, but it was no good. I was no longer the hero in her eyes. I couldn’t even manage the teacups. The teacups, for God’s sake! My mother handles the teacups with ease.

But even before the great teacup incident of 2017, I’d had an inkling that my stomach wasn’t what it once was. My cast-iron constitution was failing. Fairground rides more strenuous than dodgems had been off the menu for years; I had begun to sit at the front of coaches and buses rather than on the back row with the cool kids. I could have taken this in my stride. Who wants to go on a roller coaster at forty anyway? But far, far worse, I realised I would have to watch what I ate and drank.

For someone who had been eating and drinking pretty much what I wanted for twenty years without any consequences, this new reality came as a shock. Certain things would trigger a boiling and roiling in my stomach, as if it were linked to Hades, and sadly they were the good things: chillis, deep-fried food, and fatty cuts of meat. 

One time I spent hours in bed groaning after eating a kind of crackling I had made out of steak fat. I knew it was going to hurt as I ate it, but I couldn’t resist the crunchy, fatty goodness. I had developed the sensitivities of a man in his 80s, and yet I was barely 40. 

I was turning into a character in a Woody Allen film

I used to think my grandmother was being difficult when she asked me not to put garlic on the roast lamb, but now I understand perfectly. The combination of lamb fat and slow-cooked garlic would go off in my stomach like hot oil and water. What was happening to me? I was turning into a character in a Woody Allen film.

And this is before you factor in alcohol. I have to factor in alcohol because it’s my job. No booze would mean no money. My newfound digestive tenderness makes Christmas a particularly difficult time. Christmases of old would usually feature Falstaffian levels of indulgence: a night at the pub on Christmas Eve with school friends followed by whisky until the early hours, a welcome glass of champagne or sherry at 11am on Christmas day, then burgundy, claret, port, cognac followed by a nap. Then on to lunch. 

Happy days! Sadly in recent years the only thing I was consuming more of was Gaviscon, especially if the meal had ended with port. I would wake in the middle of the night with stomach acids creeping up my throat and my ears ringing. 

It reminded me of something Boswell wrote: “A bottle of thick English port is a very heavy and very inflammatory dose. I felt it last time that I drank it for several days and this morning it was boiling in my veins.” 

I’d take a couple of antacids and try in vain to get back to sleep. I was developing a Gaviscon dependence like a 1960s housewife with Valium. Then there was the snoring. Some mornings over the festive season I could swear that my wife looks at me like she doesn’t love me. 

The trouble is that I am inordinately fond of port. I really don’t need any excuse to crack open a bottle as long as it’s dark outside and I have to wear a sweater indoors. For me the port season stretches from the end of September until April. It helps me get through the winter and it’s cheaper than putting the heating on. On Christmas Day, I could probably do without turkey, stuffing and gravy, and subsist solely on Stilton and port. That would be festive enough. 

So, as I said to my doctor, I am not going to cut out the port. Anything but the port. The key is to get to the port stage of the meal relatively sober and without a stomach full of fatty food. That way I can have at least two glasses, half a pound of Stilton and a nap in front of Casablanca.

Here’s my plan to get through Christmas without resorting to Gaviscon or my wife banishing me to the sofa. Absolutely no cocktails. I’m not averse to spirits, but anything that makes consumption of high-strength alcohol even easier should be avoided. A weak whisky and soda or gin and tonic is, however, quite acceptable. Only one glass of champagne. Champagne might seem innocuous, but it’s very high in acidity. Remember it’s not just an excess of alcohol I have to avoid, but things that overstimulate acid production in my stomach. Sadly, English sparkling wine is even higher in acidity so that’s to be kept to a minimum, too. 

Manzanilla sherry works well: low acidity but somehow extremely refreshing. Watch the alcohol, though, at 15 per cent. White burgundy or something similar like good Chilean chardonnay is very nice, but there are lower alcohol alternatives such as vinho verde from Portugal or best of all a German riesling kabinett. They usually come in at under nine per cent and taste delightfully invigorating first thing. I remember going on a press trip to the Mosel valley a few years ago and despite feasting for three days straight, I didn’t once have a hangover. 

The other alternative is beer. I’d recommend getting a small cask of weak English bitter like Harvey’s Best so you can have a little glass now and then. At under four per cent you can have quite a few without feeling in the slightest bit drunk. 

The problem with wine is that it’s all so strong these days. I had a Saint-Estèphe last year that was 15 per cent. 15 percent Bordeaux! I used to enjoy having Châteauneuf-du-Pape on Christmas day, but that can touch 16 per cent. So once again Germany is your friend here. 

A nice spätburgunder, the delightful German word for pinot noir, would be a good alternative. Or perhaps an English red. They’re not easy to find or cheap but I can thoroughly recommend the 2020 pinot noirs from Gusbourne in Kent and Danbury Ridge in Essex.

With the turkey, keep the pork accessories to a minimum. Don’t sneak into the kitchen to polish off the pigs in blankets. Instead have lots of vegetables, but do not have seconds, no matter how tempting that might be. As for Christmas pudding, avoid, avoid, avoid. Maybe a crumb for appearances’ sake. But you must resist the sweet wine. I’m a sucker for a nice monbazillac but I’ve decided you don’t need port and sweet wine, and I’m going for the port. Eyes on the prize and all that.

The strategy is to reach the port and stilton course having consumed no more than the equivalent of one bottle of wine. Ideally less. If you’ve had two, that’s too much. Go for a walk. 

Assuming you’ve reached this stage soberish and with a stomach that’s not rebelling, that doesn’t mean that you can suddenly channel your inner Georgian squire when the decanter comes round. Don’t be like John Mytton, one time MP for Shrewsbury, who arrived at Cambridge University with 2,000 bottles of port: unsurprisingly he didn’t graduate. He was notorious for drunken antics such as setting fire to his nightshirt in a bid to cure hiccups and once rode a bear into a dinner party for a jape. We’ve all had that urge after too much port.

You don’t need to finish off the decanter at the table

It might seem heretical, but you don’t need to finish off the decanter at the table. A vintage port should be good for four or five days, whereas tawny lasts for weeks, so you can keep coming back to it. If there are only a few port fans in the family, it’s worth opening a bottle on Christmas Eve and having a glass or two. Then if you do decide to polish it off while outlining your plan for getting the British economy back on track, there won’t be quite so much in the bottle. Oh, and tiny glasses, please. Think Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany in Master and Commander. 

When lunch is over, say no to coffee and find somewhere to have a nap until it’s time for a cup of tea. Try to avoid eating or drinking alcohol again for the rest of the day. But who am I kidding, I’ll probably open a bottle of Beaujolais to go with my turkey sandwich. And maybe a little port and Stilton. But nothing after nine o’clock. That is very important. 

And so to bed for a good night’s sleep and awake rested, if not quite refreshed, and without an angry wife glaring at me. That’s the plan anyway. 

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