Port conjures up images of English country homes, autumn, roaring fireplaces, and gentlemen in evening clothes relaxing over a polished dinner table while the ladies wait in the drawing room, and rain pelts the mullioned windows. In fact it was the polite custom, for many years, for ladies to get up from the table after dinner and "leave the gentlemen to their port." The hostess had the privilege of deciding when she and her friends enacted the ritual; in one of his perfect Mapp and Lucia novels, E. F. Benson writes of a hostess "collecting ladies' eyes" and shepherding them out. The almost equally delightful history To Marry an English Lord tells of the young, American-born Duchess of Marlborough almost having this privilege snatched from her by her husband's aunt, who had been the female head of the household and resented the new bride's intrusion into her domain. When Auntie "gave the signal" for the ladies to get up, an outraged masculine guest barked "Sit down! Never have I seen anything so rude" and the young Duchess firmly followed up with a velvety query as to whether Auntie felt ill -- "There surely was no other excuse for your hasty exit." (That silenced Auntie.) The gentlemen, for their part, were expected to relish their manly solitude for only about half an hour. Then it was their duty to join the ladies and carry on the amusements of the evening together, whether bridge, or music, or conversation. All of this made the scene in the movie Titanic, in which the gentlemen leave the table and the ladies stay behind, mildly funny and mildly painful. If only the director had done his research into social customs, circa 1912. What were the men leaving the women to? Their cigars and port?
Anyway. Port: it is a sweet, fortified dessert wine made from a number of obscure, naturally very sweet grape varieties like the Touriga, Bastardo (both red), or the Rabigato or Malvasia (white). It has been made in Portugal's Douro Valley since the 15th century. After harvest, the grapes are crushed and allowed to ferment up to a point. Then, the wine is drawn off its sediment of skins and yeast cells, and is mixed with high-alcohol grape brandy. This stops any further fermentation -- since high alcohol levels kill any remaining yeasts that would have made more alcohol -- and leaves a wine that is both sweet and powerful in the "proof" department.
True port, from Portugal, must say "Oporto" on the label. The wine comes in two broad categories, vintage port and wood port. Only 2 percent of all port sold is vintage, and it must say Vintage Port in large letters on the label, with nothing between the words. Vintage port is usually made from grapes sourced from a variety of vineyards, but all harvested in the same year. The wine is fermented and aged only for a short time in wood barrels, and is bottled no more than two years after the harvest. After that, the wine is meant to age in the bottle, in your cellar, for years.
This ability to age in the bottle is the definition of class for any wine. Great Burgundies, Bordeaux, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, Champagnes, and Vintage Ports are all examples of wines that began with such fine grapes, wines that the winemaker has paid such attention to and crafted with such care, that every individual bottle can serve as its own fermenting tank, and can be relied upon -- assuming proper storage -- to produce perfection when that "tank" is opened in ten or twenty or fifty years.
And who can afford a vintage port? Anyone who wants to spend from $100 and up on a bottle of wine, and then not drink it for many years. It's really a question of discipline, and an understanding of what this is for, than a whining about expense. I recall reading once that well heeled English families used to buy a case of vintage port to celebrate the birth of a child. When the child reached adulthood, "his" wine would be ready for him. It's like that.