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To Port!

October 18, 2000|CHARLES PERRY

One of the grandest bits of 19th century wine writing appears in "The Egoist," George Meredith's novel about a naive girl gradually figuring out that her aristocratic fiance is an insufferable jerk.

Her father is a classical scholar, predisposed to favor anything old, so when she starts to rebel, her fiance, Sir Willoughby Pattern (the egoist), tries to enlist him against her by tempting him with a 100-year-old Port. As they descend into his cellar, Dr. Middleton burbles on about the differences between Port, Hock (Rhine wine), Hermitage (a long-lived red Rhone) and Burgundy . . . and working in references, of course, to Greek poetry and mythology (e.g., the three goddesses who demanded that a shepherd on Mt. Ida declare which of them was most beautiful):

"Hocks, too, have compassed age. I have tasted senior Hocks. Their flavors are as a brook of many voices; they have depth also. Senatorial Port! we say. We cannot say that of any other wine. Port is deep-sea deep. It is in its flavor deep; mark the difference. It is organic in conception, like a classic tragedy.

"An ancient Hermitage has the light of the antique; the merit that it can grow to an extreme old age--a merit. Neither of Hermitage nor of Hock can you say that it is the blood of those long years, retaining the strength of youth with the wisdom of age. To Port for that! Port is our noblest legacy!

"Observe, I do not compare the wines. I distinguish the qualities. Let them live together for our enrichment; they are not rivals like the Idean Three. Were they rivals, a fourth would challenge them. Burgundy has great genius. It does wonders within its period. It does all except to keep up in the race; it is short-lived. An aged Burgundy runs with a beardless Port.

"I cherish the fancy that Port speaks the sentences of wisdom, Burgundy sings the inspired ode. Or put it that Port is the Homeric hexameter, Burgundy the Pindaric dithyramb. . . . Pindar astounds. But his elder brings us the more sustaining cup. One is a fountain of prodigious ascent. One is the unsounded purple sea of marching billows."

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