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All About Port

Wine writer & Food Reviewer Philippe Boucheron

Wine writer & Food Reviewer Philippe Boucheron

The Mystery of Port Philippe Boucheron asks ~ Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?

The wine world is full of many strange customs. None of them are more archaic than the traditions surrounding drinking vintage Port.  Because the wine has been matured in its bottle there is always a great deal of sediment left on the side and bottom, so careful decanting, often through a special funnel lined with linen or a plain coffee filter paper, makes sure  that the wine is served star-bright.

The ritual of passing the decanter is still scrupulously observed in officers’ messes of what remains of the better regiments of the British army, on board ships of the remnants of the Royal Navy and, I am assured, by the RAF. The livery companies and guilds of the City of London still retain the tradition, especially for the circulation of their Loving Cups.  Elsewhere, including sadly the wine trade and even Masonic Lodges,  it is a ritual largely ignored – except at those occasions at which I have the privilege of presiding.

The butler, or wine steward, presents the decanter, with its glass stopper in place, to the host who takes it in his hand and removes the stopper, pouring a little of the wine into his glass so that he can check the quality by sniffing and sipping.  When satisfied he serves the person on his right, the position reserved for the principal guest, then fills his own glass before passing the decanter – without its stopper – to the guest on his left, who fills his glass and the decanter continues passing clockwise around the table until it is empty. It is then put down on the table for the butler to collect, together with the stopper, and removed from the room. However, no need to feel sorry for the butler, because if he has been doing his job correctly he will have taken a taste before bringing the decanter into the room.

There are two schools of thought about why the Port is passed to the left.  Some insist that it an old naval tradition, and that when facing the bows of a ship the port side lies to your left.  There are others who will tell you, with absolute conviction, that it goes back to the days when gentlemen wore swords and this enabled right handed men to have a hand free for their weapon, should it suddenly be needed.  A nice idea, but did gentlemen carry swords into dinners?  I somehow think not, and anyway it would have been extremely uncomfortable.

The decanter should pass around from hand to hand, never resting on the table, until it is empty.  Should it ever stall in its progress it is considered very bad form to ask for it, instead you enquire of the person hogging the decanter, ‘Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?’  If they are au fait with Port etiquette they will immediately realise their faux pas and pass it along with an apology.  If they answer is ‘No’, then the reply is, ‘He’s a terribly good fellow, but always forgets to pass the Port’.  No one seems to know which forgetful and inebriated Bishop of Norwich was the inspiration for this part of the ritual.  I was once at a dinner when the miscreant, ignorant of the tradition, answered, ‘Yes’. and explained that his grandmother has been his cook and had kept a wonderful recipe book that I should see
sometime!  Well, I suppose it served me right for asking such a damned stupid question!

If you want to see the ceremony done correctly then you could come along and join me at the Hundred House, Norton, on Friday October 7th for a Douro Dinner.  Or perhaps come along to a similar event at Brockencote Hall Country House hotel, Chaddesley Corbett, on Trafalgar Day, Thursday 20th October.  At both evenings we shall be serving wines and Ports from the Grade ‘A’ Port House of Quinta de la Rosa.  However we have a special  surprise at Brockencote Hall where Sophia Berqvist, whose family owns this first class Port house, will  present her wines.

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