Important Wine Musings

By A. T. Mann

I lived in England for almost twenty years throughout the 1970s and 1980s until 1991, and during that time observed and participated in many rituals involving the drinking of fantastic wines of various types. Although the English are not usually thought of as being “into” fine wine, they most definitely are, especially in recent decades, and particularly amongst the upper classes.

An early experience with the wine-drinking habits of these toffs is a tale to which there undoubtedly is a moral, although I cannot be sure exactly what that moral is. Anyway, one of my slightly corrupt publishers in those days was nobly born, and as was the custom for such sons of the aristocracy, he was given a christening present by well-meaning relatives and family friends of a “pipe of port.” You may not be familiar with fine port wine, which is properly an after-dinner wine rather than a dessert wine; but it is an integral part of English drinking habits. During the winter holidays and particularly at Christmas, it is very delicious indeed, and rightly savoured. Apart from the pleasure of drinking port, it is also customary a month or so before the Christmas holidays to buy a cylinder of Stilton cheese (a bit like a mild blue cheese, but better as it is more sophisticated), to carve a shallow conical depression out of the top, and fill it with port. It is then topped up periodically throughout the season until it is, and one is, in proper English, 'soused.' This aphrodisiacal mixture is spooned onto biscuits and accompanied by port wine served in beautiful crystal decanters.

The commerce in wines from Portugal started at a time when the English were fighting both France and Spain, as they constantly were, and they needed a new source of wine from the continent (as we know, English wine was and is too horrible even to mention, except in very recent years). The Portuguese produced an originally quite basic wine and in due course learned to fortify it with very potent brandy (really a grape spirit) called aquardente at a later stage of its fermentation, so that it wouldn’t deteriorate on its sea journey to England across the notoriously rough sea of the Bay of Biscay. To this day the Portuguese government controls the potency of the brandy they supply exclusively to be used in port, to keep a level playing field, as the English would say, among the various manufacturers. Well, the English rapidly developed a taste for port (of course, collected from Porto), and built large aging and storage cellars along the Thames in London, many of which remain to this day.

Port wine was aged in barrels called “pipes” (a vertical container that holds about 700 bottles of wine). It subsequently became traditional for certain upper English families to "lay down a pipe of port" when a son was born. This meant that said amount would be held somewhere along the Thames; and when the young lad reached the age of consent,the barrels would be converted into bottles, and he would celebrate his birthday by opening and drinking the first bottle of 21-year-old port wine. Of course it also meant that for the remainder of his life, as long as he and the pipe lasted, he would be able to celebrate birthdays and other festivals with a wine that was of exactly the same vintage as he.

Toward the end of the seventies, a publisher friend (and later legal protagonist) inherited a grand house along a picturesque river (probably the Avon) in the Cotswolds, west of London. He also had the great good fortune to inherit a vast wine cellar beneath the house, about which he bragged in an unseemly and constant way. Despite his bad habits and tendency to flaunt his position, I must admit that visiting him was a great and unexpected pleasure because we would stroll into the cellar and bring up vintage champagnes from the 1940s, Margaux from the 50s, and of course bottles of his own vintage port, just for fun, and we would spend splendid evenings drinking them. But I always got the impression that he was somehow abusing his amazing heritage, and was takng it for granted. He (and his family) had also apparently accumulated quite a large amount of bad karma in this and previous lifetimes, because one week, while he was in London doing business, the cellars of his house were flooded by the river. When he returned, he discovered to his great dismay that the labels had washed virtually all of the bottles stored there! Apart from vague memories of which racks certain wines were kept in, he now possessed thousands of bottles of unmarked and priceless wines, few of which he could identify except from memory, as the record books were also wiped clean by the rising waters.. Among the few wines he could readily identify was his pipe of port, kept in its customary place. Some small consolation, indeed!

While I wouldn’t like to draw any conclusions about this tale of publishers, authors and wines, one thing I would say is that it took something off of and yet added to the enjoyment, never being quite sure of the name or age of the magnificent wine one was drinking . . . anyway, after a few glasses, who cared?

Link to interesting wine reviews with Jacky Miller