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A Wine of Tradition

January 27, 1994|DAN BERGER

Many Americans, if they think of Port at all, think of that sweet, cheap, fiery liquid sipped from brown paper bags. But in England, Port is essential at fine dinner parties and family gatherings.

The British cleave to Port for good reason: They invented it. Although made in the Douro region of Portugal, it was created by British wine merchants as a better way to use the local grapes that previously had been used to make a dull wine that had been the main product of the Douro.

Late in the 17th Century, Britain and Portugal developed a strong trade relationship, formalized in 1703 with the Methuen Treaty, which gave Portugal a sort of early version of "most favored nation" trading status. Lower duties meant that Portuguese wine cost 25% less than French wine, but the lower price wasn't enough to make the English like the stuff.

So the British wine merchants asked the winemakers to stop the fermentation of the grape juice before the wine was fully dry by adding brandy. This turned it into a sweet, higher-alcohol wine that H. Warner Allen described as "far better suited to . . . the caprices of our climate than to those of its native land," in his 1954 book "Through the Wine Glass."

Before long, the largest Port houses were British-owned. Even today, the major houses have British names--Taylor, Sandeman, Dow, Warre, Graham and others.

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As Alec Waugh, in his 1959 book "In Praise of Wine," pointed out: "The Englishman and his Port; what a world of Galsworthian tradition those five words evoke: of London clubs and college common rooms, and 'stately homes'; the pipe (barrel) laid down at a son's christening, the cool dark cellars where the wine matures, the ritual of decanting . . . the funnel in the decanter's mouth, the light under the shoulder of the bottle, finally the strict conventions of the actual drinking, the decanter that must pass always to the left--clockwise, or the way of the sun--the cigarette that must remain unlighted."

As the Port trade grew, so did the legend. Port was virtually required at all major dinners of state. Indeed, it was mandatory to toast the king or queen with Port after dinner. "To drink to the health of the Sovereign in any wine but Port smacks almost of high treason," wrote Allen.

Because great vintages of Port need 15 to 30 years, occasionally more, before they are smooth and complex enough to drink, it became a tradition for wealthy Englishmen to contract with their local wine merchant to "lay down a pipe of Port." A pipe is a 550-liter barrel that yields some 60 cases of Port.

Such a wine would theoretically be ready for consumption at the scion's entrance to college. Not that the Port from the pipe would be consumed at college. The prestigious colleges had their own Port specifically bottled for their "common rooms."

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