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Do You Know the Bishop of Norwich?

Updated: Jun 3

This past week, Jancis Robinson reported in the Financial Times that she attended a once-in-a-lifetime event: a luncheon to taste Vintage Port that had been slumbering and forgotten in a castle cellar for upwards of a hundred years. Vintage Port is a robust and complex sweet wine made from grapes from the Douro region of Portugal, coming from a single vintage. Not every year qualifies as exceptional enough for a house to declare it a Vintage year, and it may only happen three or four times a decade. The wine, made and bottled without filtering, can be ready to enjoy 10–40 years after bottling and can age for 60–plus years. Christie's in London will auction these rare wines in June. What makes them unique is their perfect storage and fascinating provenance story—a British couple inherited a castle, as one does, and a few years after ownership, they stumbled across this gem of a find. Their home, Castle Raby, came into their possession in 2016; construction on the castle began in the 1300s. Every generation has added on, leaving an Escher-like labyrinth of towers and rooms. They discovered over 700 bottles, along with a notebook meticulously detailing what was in storage and when bottles were consumed, with the entries ending somewhere in the 1960s and then nothing—the port bounty was presumably forgotten. What remains will go up for auction, including extraordinarily well-stored bottles of exceptional vintages from Taylor’s 1948, Fonseca 1934, Dow’s 1924 and 1927, and Cockburn 1950. This led me down a rabbit hole of wondering why I hadn't inherited a castle with a stocked hidden wine cellar and what a fantastic opportunity to taste a truly rare wine. Vintage Port offers the wine and history lover a treat, so pour yourself a glass and grab a nibble of English Stilton or decadent dark chocolate—the kind you keep aside just for yourself.

 

First, the history: the English and Portuguese share a long history of commercial trade, royal marriages uniting the countries, and diplomatic support dating back to the 13th century. Several important treaties between the two nations culminated in the Methuen Treaty of 1703, otherwise known as the Port Wine Treaty. It set the stage for Port wine to enter England with a much lower tax rate than French wine. England was at war with France, and the beloved wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy were nearly impossible to obtain or, if available, were prohibitively taxed. This treaty allowed the English to export textiles to Portugal without tax added. In exchange, Port wine entered at a tax rate of a third of France’s, establishing a solid trade relationship that forever changed the Port wine business through commercial partnerships and ownership. Well before this treaty was signed, the first red wines from Portugal imported to England came from areas along the northern Portuguese coast and were light in style. This region is now known for making refreshing white Alvarinho (Albariño) wines—not the rich and bold red wines the English used from France. In hopes of appeasing the English palate, one British gentleman went further inland up to the warmer Douro region and found wines much richer than the coastal wines and more akin to the likes of the English palate. The wines could not be brought down from the higher elevation overland and had to be brought down on boats via the Douro River. Companies set up shop in Porto, a central location downriver on the Douro, to collect these wines and make them available for trade ships to bring to England. The British often spearheaded these companies; in fact, the first Port company, Taylor’s, was established in 1692. The long sea voyage proved rough on the wine, and some producers began to fortify the finished wine with brandy to preserve it for its long trip to England. These fortified wines earned high praise in England. Then, some producers experimented with adding brandy during production to arrest the fermentation, leaving the final wine in a sweeter style. A pivotal moment came with the legendary 1820 vintage, which allowed every producer to create a transcendentally rich wine that needed no fortification to please the palate or survive the sea voyage. Vintage proceedings did not live up to that vintage, and fortifying the wine allowed the port houses to replicate the intensity and concentration of the 1820 vintage. By 1840, most houses fortified the wines, and it was nearly universal by 1850.

 

Next are the quirks of Port tools and service: the most impressive wine opener, the Port Tong, was invented in the 18th century to cleanly remove the neck of a port bottle without disturbing the cork or the heavy sediment in the bottle. Wine openers that we know today, like the corkscrew, were just really getting started and somewhat unreliable. These Port corks were made to be in the bottle for decades and would often crumble or be immovable as they tended to bulge out where the bottle opens up after the neck. You may have seen these tongs used in person or videos on social media—the tongs are traditionally heated over a fire, and once heated to the point of glowing red, they are placed upon the neck of the bottle. Then, the bottle’s neck is brushed with a pheasant feather wet with ice-cold water —  the shock of the temperature change causes the glass to make a clean break. The wine is then poured through a filter to remove the sediment from the Port and any glass bits. The bottle and the top are then dipped in red wax to seal the glass to prevent injury and make for a beautiful souvenir. Once a practical tool created to enjoy wine that has aged for decades, it is now used for the wow factor. Service traditions are equally interesting; after decanting the Vintage Port, the host places the decanter to their right at the table. The host pours for the guest to their right and then passes the decanter to their left (port side in naval terms). One theory is that it frees one’s sword arm, which is handy for a beverage so intertwined with seafaring. Each person pours a bit and passes it along; if someone stops, it must be asked, “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” This question refers to an infamous 93-year-old Bishop of Norwich who would fall asleep at the table, stalling Port service. It was seen as impolite to ask directly for the decanter, and this question implies, “Keep the wine flowing; we have some thirsty people here.”

 

Like vintage wine, it’s a remarkable way to honor important anniversaries and moments. A tradition was to buy a case of birth year Vintage Port to honor the birth of a child, so it would be drinkable upon the 21st birthday and for the honoree to enjoy as they move through life’s grand moments of celebration. Classic pairings are English Stilton (or French Roquefort) and dark chocolate, as noted above; some enjoy beef or venison if there is a fruit accompaniment. However it is enjoyed, it is a wine of immense history and tradition and arguably one of the most memorable service tools. Just remember to pass the Port to the port side. . .





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