Alec Marsh

Raise a glass to the age-old charm of port

In praise of a liquid time machine

  • From Spectator Life
A glass of port and fried fish cakes in a restaurant in Braga (iStock)

When Christmas comes, there are few guilt-free pleasures that match the sheer wonder of port (aside from re-watching Dr Strangelove in the wee hours on BBC2). Sweeter than a mince pie and more intoxicating than a pre-Christmas visit to your GP’s waiting room, a glass of port is guaranteed to lift your spirits. And by the time you’re onto your third, if you’re lucky, you should feel so elevated that either you’re on cloud nine or fast approaching it.

It’s like the 18th century in a bottle – but the good parts of it, not the pox, the rotting teeth or gangrene

That’s the joy of port. For more than 300 years, Britons have been devotees of this very special outpouring of Portugal’s Douro Valley. Empires have come and gone, monarchies have usurped and been usurped, ideologies have swept the face of the world. Yet port has survived. Not just that, but it continues to deliver some of the most savage and particular hangovers known to mankind, thanks to its seductive strength and its slippery ease of consumption.

It’s like the 18th century in a bottle – but the good parts of it, not the pox, the rotting teeth or gangrene. Drink port and you feel like Charles James Fox, three sheets to the wind, at the card table at Brooks’s, about to blow another fortune before returning to the Commons to vote on a matter of critical national importance. Sink a beaker or two and you are Dr Johnson (‘claret is the liquor for boys, port for men’) reaching the Zs in his dictionary. Work your way through a Taylor’s LBV and, before you know it, you’ll evince the rizz of a Regency rake on a roll.

This is both its saving grace and tragedy. Tragedy, because despite its many qualifications, this great beverage has been relegated to the category of mere Christmas enjoyment and isn’t really taken seriously. For all that shelves of Cockburn’s invade your local supermarket at this time of year, the fact is that it’s become a little bit naff, like membership of a provincial golf club where the ‘president’ has a dedicated parking space delineated by a brass plaque and male-only members are obliged to wear club ties.

Actually, it’s anything but naff. When he was prime minister William Pitt the Younger drank two bottles of port a day, which probably killed him, but also helped him fend off Bonaparte for 20 years – and got him through several bouts of King George III’s madness. The port-soaked Georgians also gave us the stream engine, the National Gallery, the British Museum and The Spectator, among other achievements. All worth raising a glass to.

So my appeal to you is to treat this Christmas as an opportunity to get a bit Georgian. Reintroduce port to your daily routine – turn over an old leaf. Embrace Portugal’s fortified finest and then snap it up by the gallon-load when it’s going cheap in the New Year so you can keep going through January and February. Because despite the billions spent on research and development by Big Pharma, port remains the only dependable treatment for the common cold – a port and brandy, the Graf Spee of the medicine cabinet.

Long before we had central heating, the nanny state or, indeed, the heinous abomination of ‘dry January’, we had tallow candles, reading aloud and port to keep out the biting cold. Our ancestors didn’t squander thousands of pounds in the pursuit of winter sun. They didn’t need to, they had their Warre’s – the Georgians’ answer to a week in Dubai.