The Portuguese Coast, 1705 or thereabouts
IT WAS ALL down to the demmed French, the captain grumbled to himself. For centuries, the English had been addicted to rich, sweet, French Bordeaux, Burgundies and brandies, and the captain was no exception. Yes, he sometimes tippled stronger spirits, like whiskey, but he never touched rum (it was for the common sailors) or gin (fit only for street people).

The captain had been born to gentry, a third son sent to sea, and though his hands were calloused from the ropes, he still had a refined palate, and it seemed truly fatuous to the captain that just because the Spanish could not decide who their king was, the English couldn’t afford good wine anymore. But he had to admit the stuff he was sipping now wasn’t bad. The English called it Port because it shipped out from the town of Porto (aka Oporto) in Portugal in barrels filling the holds of ships like his, and now, sitting in his tiny cabin with a cup of tawny Port almost twice his age, he had to admit that the replacement was … pleasing.

Port is a fortified wine produced in the Douro Valley in Portugal and comes in somewhat confusing varieties, including dry, semidry, white, rose, ruby and tawny. According to EU trade guidelines, only wines from Portugal can be called Port. Ruby Port is the younger stuff, often not aged (although it sometimes sits in airtight containers for a few years to mature). Tawny Port is aged in wooden barrels, and the air that gets to it oxidizes it, making it sweeter, golden brown and nutty. Such Port is aged for decades or, in some cases, centuries, so if you are very rich or lucky, you might even be able to taste the same Port wine a Dickens character might have tippled.

And oh, how the English embraced it. Every Dickens or Trollope novel is full of characters taking a “drop of Port” over and over again, sometimes at dinner, sometimes for fun, sometimes for health. It even was nipped by otherwise-abstemious individuals on the grounds that it was “medicinal.” Port was dosed out by knowing physicians and solicitous wives to treat every possible ailment, from “female troubles” (one supposes the iron was good for something) to “the ague” (such strong spirits probably helped the drinker go to sleep, which is definitely good for a fever) to gout (which it only exacerbated).

And the chain of events that led to the English obsession with a wine from a valley in Portugal most of them had never heard of is as long and colorful as the beverage itself:

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August 1385: King John I of Portugal enlists a company of thick-armed, wide-backed English longbowmen to fend off a Castilian invasion at Aljubarrota. They are, according to legend, aided in this endeavor by a tigress of a woman, a six-fingered baker (she had six fingers on each hand) named Brites de Almeida, who beats seven Castilian soldiers hiding in her bread oven to death with her baker’s shovel and, if tavern tales are to be believed, then bakes them along with her bread. This leads to the signing of the Treaty of Windsor, enshrining the longstanding alliance between England and Portugal.

The 1660s: A tariff war between Louis XIV’s France and Charles II’s England prices French wine out of the reach of most English people. Luckily, Charles II is married to a Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, and English importers are able to find a wine in the Douro Valley of Portugal that appeals to an English palate attuned to rich French Burgundies and Bordeaux wines. These Port wines are forged in the extreme climate of the Douro Valley, roasting in the summer and freezing in the winter, forcing the grapes to struggle, which makes the wine they turn into sweet and complex. The wine is then shipped downriver, past the picturesque estates clinging to the sheer slopes of the valley to Oporto on the coast, where thirsty English sea captains wait in Portuguese inns or bob out in the bay in their ships waiting for the boats to arrive.

1703: The War of Spanish Succession leads to the Methuen Treaty, which allows the English to import Port at a low duty, while French wines are banned. Port consumption skyrockets in the British Isles. Our well-heeled captain, and many others like him, is hired to ferry said wines across the Atlantic to England.

1785: Lewis Bagot, the Bishop of Norwich, hogs all the Port wine at an academic dinner at Cambridge. The English are fond of their Port, particularly gentlemen of means, who are designated by the table staff according to whether they are “three-bottle men” or “four-bottle men,” depending on how much they tend to consume in a single evening. Polite to a fault and apparently passive-aggressive to the point of artistry, the bishop’s fellow academics say nothing at the time, waiting until the next day to attach a piece of paper to his lectern containing a short couplet written for the occasion:

“The Bishop of Norwich is fond of his Port
Too fond, for the Villain won’t pass when he ought.”

This ignominious moment is much-related in the nation’s gentleman’s clubs, and for centuries afterward, men of letters would request the Port decanter at dinner by saucily asking the man closest to it whether he knew the Bishop of Norwich. At such a dinner, Port customarily would be passed to the left (passing Port to port) and never allowed to touch the table — thus, one supposes, encouraging such extreme consumption.

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1820: Here it must be pointed out that the wine our captain is sipping was not yet “fortified” in the early 1700s. Fortified means that a distilled spirit, aguardente, has been added to the wine to stop fermentation. Aguardente is essentially a spirit made only from its specified raw materials, with nothing added for flavoring or alcohol content. It’s essentially moonshine. This stops fermentation, adds residual sugar and boosts the booze content. (This spirit is sometimes called brandy, but it is not, strictly speaking, brandy, which is a particular type of distilled wine.) This addition allows it to keep longer, facilitating long shipping times and even longer aging. But the practice of fortifying Port does not catch on until the 19th century, when, supposedly, the 1820 vintage of Port is so exceptional that all subsequent batches “must” be fortified to match its richness.

1861: English Baron Joseph James Forrester, celebrated mapper of the Douro region and noted opponent of Port wine fortification, drowns in the river he loves so much when his boat capsizes in the rapids one unfortunate day, supposedly weighed down by his full money belt. His female companion survives, buoyed to safety by her voluminous crinoline skirt, but without the vociferous Baron Forrester, English wine importers and their Portuguese partners are free to fortify wines to their heart’s content, and it soon becomes the norm.

These days, most people think of Port only during the holiday season, when relentless reruns of “A Christmas Carol” make us feel Dickensian, and our pie consumption increases. It is now generally consumed as a dessert wine and, as a rule, should be served at cool cellar temperature, but not cold. Unfiltered Port forms a sediment, or crust, in the bottle, requiring decanting into … well … decanters, allowing oxygen to mix with the Port while the sediment is left in the bottle.

Opening an old bottle of Port (a 100-year-old bottle, for example) often requires the use of metal “Port tongs” fitted to the bottle neck. The tongs are heated and then applied to the bottleneck, and then a cold cloth (or, if you wish to be particularly refined, a feather dipped in ice water) is touched to the bottle neck, causing it to (hopefully) crack cleanly. This is to avoid breaking open an old cork, which could crumble and fall into the wine. Any broken glass (!!!) would be filtered out along with sediment.

Why it would not simply be easier to filter out the pieces of cork is a question best left to a sommelier or, perhaps, a discerning sea captain.