Yet one more measure of that vast cultural ocean dividing two nations, geographically separated by little more than 20 kilometres of shallow brine, is provided by their diametrically-opposed attitudes to the drinking of port. For the French le porto is just one more apéritif. It tends to be drunk chilled in its lighter, white variations and, along with most fortified wines, is more a preference of the ladies. The English, on the other hand, prefer their port velvet red, served at room temperature, and in full-bodied vintage form – while, traditionally, drinking it is, above all, an after-dinner gentleman’s pursuit.
Historically, port-drinking in England goes back to the beginning of the eighteenth century when conflict with the hereditary enemy obliged the English to turn to their Portuguese allies to provision them in wine. The long sea journey to England proving detrimental to quality, the wine began to be ‘fortified’ – stabilized by the addition of distilled grape juice which arrested the fermentation process, thereby retaining a high sugar content while increasing alcoholic strength.
Port is generally regarded by the English as providing the ideal complement, both in texture and flavour, not only to indigenous cheeses such as Stilton, Cheddar or Gloucester, but also as a dessert wine to accompany, in particular, full-flavoured, fruit-based sweets as well as nuts. It must be savoured in slow, contemplative sips, and is reputed for the warm, calming effects it has on imbibers, and the philosophical orientations it is liable to impart to conversation. Perhaps it was this latter propensity which, in higher social circles, went towards creating that after-dinner custom which required ladies to retire to the drawing room for tea and gossip, while leaving men to discuss politics and life’s vicissitudes over a cigar and a glass or two of mellow vintage port.
And what is more natural with these lovers of ritualized tradition that port-drinking should have generated a number of odd ceremonial procedures? For serving and passing the port are subject to rules of etiquette as minutely detailed as those set out in the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Saint-Andrew’s Book of Regulations. At formal dinners, a custom, apparently originating in the British Navy, requires the wine to be passed from port to port (the port side of a ship is the left-hand side): the host first serves the gentleman seated on his right before passing the decanter clockwise to his neighbour on the left; the latter then proceeds to serve the passer on his right, and then hands it on to the next person on his left who does the same. In this way the bottle is sent round the table until it comes full circle back to the host. If someone should, for any reason, fail to pass the decanter on (another rule states that it must never be allowed to touch the table on the way round), it is considered discourteous to bring this to his notice directly (we are, of course, in the presence of well-bred gentlemen). The only acceptable procedure consists in asking him the question: ‘Don’t you know the Bishop of Norwich?’ This is intended more as a reminder than a reproach. If, however, the miscreant is unacquainted enough with the rules of port etiquette to answer in the negative, the correct response is: ‘He’s an awfully nice fellow … but he never remembers to pass the port!’
Legend has it that the ecclesiastic in question was the long-lived Henry Bathurst (1744-1837), Bishop of Norwich from 1805 to his death, who in his later years was in the understandable habit of nodding off over his glass of port, and failing to pass the decanter on. So seriously was the problem taken that elaborate lengths were gone to in order to find a remedy. A solution was finally found in the shape of the Hoggett Decanter, the rounded base of which made it impossible to stand, thereby making sure it inscribed a full aerial circle before landing back on a special wooden stand (itself called the Hoggett) positioned in front of the host.
And what else can you expect from a nation of incorrigible boozers that another long-established tradition requires that a bottle in the process of being drunk should never be re-corked? The injunction ‘No heel-taps!’ demands that the last drops of the bottle should be drunk off so that another may be swiftly opened. At formal military dinners, moreover, no other wine but port is considered noble enough to be raised in toast to the King or Queen.