‘Tis the season to …. pass the Port.

This somewhat arcane practice has many popular explanations, the oldest being by way of self defence in that if you passed the Port decanter in your left hand and in a clockwise direction, you would keep your sword arm free at all times ready to deal with a sudden uprising or an unexpected duel during the meal. The armed forces still claim origination of the custom, with the Royal Navy asserting that without gripping the decanter at all times rough seas would prove too precarious to set the Port down, whereas the RAF appeared to have developed a more recent theory with the decanter symbolising a life spent in the air. There is even a perfectly spherical decanter called a Hoggett which, as it cannot be stood upright on a table, prevents individual diners from hogging the Port.

Port by definition is a fortified wine built by adding base spirit towards the end of the fermentation of the grape ‘must’. This results in a red and sometimes white still wine that becomes sweeter and has a higher alcohol content than normal table wines.

Port derives its English slang name, from the second largest city in Portugal after Lisbon, Oporto (Porto). Oporto lies on the Douro River in the far north of the country in a region now known as Vinho Verde.

Port came into being during the 17th Century, its origins lying in the trade wars between the French and the English. It was in 1693 that William III imposed draconian taxes on imported French wines thus driving English wine merchants to source wines elsewhere. Portugal proved an auspicious find and from that time onwards the English wine merchants settled en-masse

British family names from the turn of the 17th Century still ring hallowed bells in the world of Port, Cockburn, Croft, Graham, Sandeman, Dow, Warre and Taylor still govern quintas (estates) along the edges of the almost uninhabited Douro Valley running down to the Atlantic ocean.

Nearly 40% of all Port consumed in Great Britain is quaffed copiously during the festive season. It is also true that Port today, in its search for modernity and therefore bigger market share, offers a baffling array of titles and descriptions.

There are basically two overriding categories of Port styles, barrel aged or bottle aged, with more than 50 different varieties of grapes allowed.

The most commonly used black-skinned grapes are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesca and Tinto Roriz, the latter known in Spain as Tempranillo – the backbone of Rioja. For white Port, Verdhelo and Malvasia are the best known varieties.

To select your seasonal Port the following authorised categories are a reasonable guide.

The simplest and least expensive type of Port is Ruby, a cheery, easy drinking bright red berry style. It was often subjugated, after the 60’s fashion for blending with lemonade in an effort to make grandma look cosmopolitan. The majority of branded Ports sold, fall into this category.

Tawny implies a wine that has been aged in huge wooden Vats for 10-20 years, often starting life as a ruby, but losing colour during the oak-aging process. These Ports can develop delightful orangey, nutty characteristics and make a delicious aperitif when served chilled or alternatively make wonderful partners to chocolate dessert or goat’s cheese at the end of the meal.

LBV or Late Bottled Vintage Ports are wines from a single year, aged in Vats and bottled between 4 and 6 years after harvest. Often similar to Ruby, but the traditional styles can develop rich flavours of Cassis and liquorice and are perfectly suited to hard cheeses such as Cheddar or Manchego.

Vintage Ports arguably one of the finest styles and often the most expensive. Vintage Port is only declared (bottled) in the best of years, often only 3 or so in each decade. These are the Ports that captivate the public and auction houses alike with record prices fetched for them over the centuries. Look out for the ‘94 and ‘97 in the last Century. They are made from well made wine and superior grapes, quickly aged in oak (three years at most) and then left to mature in the consumer’s vast cellars for decades to come.

As a result of such aging in bottle these Ports need to be decanted carefully after ‘throwing a crust’ or sediment. These wines, perfect with the ubiquitous blue cheese course or at home on Boxing Day with roasted chestnuts, are to be found with only the makers’ name and vintage year on the label. They should not be confused with crusted Port a Port blend of different vintages and bottles without filtration.

So as Port has entered the fifth century of its being, why not try its’ various, often inexpensive delights this year throughout the Christmas period alongside your seasonal fare. But do not forget most Ports are just as happily drunk chilled as they are at room temperature, leave out the lemon please and try not to Hoggett!