Occasionally people like to debate life’s great inventions. There are some things that make it into this debate easily: penicillin, the steam-propelled engine, the computer, the wheel; others are less likely to make it into the discussion except flippantly, and in a state of inebriated incoherence that pays no respect to the gravity and grandeur of the discussion. Port belongs in this last category.
Port is not just a drink; it is a drink that carries with it a whole series of sacred and profane customs. It comes complete with a rulebook, serving instructions and, in some cases, a dress code. It is not just an efficient and seductive way to get more than a bit merry; it guides you elegantly in that direction without vomiting on your shoes, smearing your face in kebab fat, or subverting your otherwise balanced sense of circumspection.
Unfortunately in the modern world it – a bit like wearing a bowler hat – has a bad reputation. In the mind of some people anyway, it goes hand in hand with rotund and ruddy men from privileged backgrounds who wear club blazers and braces, the smoking of cigars, the exclusion of women, and fiercely conservative dons and clerics observing arcane, high-table rituals at oxbridge colleges.
Port too easily suffers from guilt by association with all of these things; but they should not be allowed to obscure its intrinsic merits. This misuse and abuse is a sort of lesser version of original sin, a corruption of a nectar that remains intrinsically and bountifully excellent and good. Yet perhaps what these stereotypical associations disguise only reinforces the better side of the drink: that it is something that doesn’t trounce all over your life, but provides a set of rituals that contribute to it. Surely for any alcoholic ruled by the demon drink, this is something like deliverance? This is a drink that gives you back your life – even enhances it – without relieving the hepatic burden. Port is basically alcohol tamed and civilised.
The ‘taming’ can take different forms, depending on your own predilections. Port and Tolstoy works well. It doesn’t really have to be Tolstoy; it could be anyone vaguely respectable. Though it should really be a book.
With Tolstoy in hand – or your preferred literary companion – it is easy to sit back of an evening, supping from one of those modest-sized Parisian glasses that makes it look like you are only drinking as an aid to relaxation and cultural refinement. The rich-fruit blend of wine and brandy can even encourage a spiced sparkle of pure pleasure in the sombre and sometimes tragic company of Russian steppes. Even if literature doesn’t garnish your greens, then, in this instance, you have at least let something more than just alcohol into your life, and made an, albeit pathetic and puerile, attempt to look like something other than a monochrome moron.
As a drink, port also works especially well in the company of all those dark, mind-sore films that require a little bit of work, but for which you are never in quite the right mood. It complements the following genres particularly well: psychological thrillers, psychological horrors, psychological fantasies … more or less anything ‘psychological’. Here the drink not only allows you to sound like sentences in a work of continental cinematic theory, but it also makes you enjoy it. A bit like some Gauloise-smoking version of Orwell’s Big Brother.
For those that are less morbidly solitary, port is pre-eminently the drink of clubs and all-round chummery, to the point where it is almost liturgical. So if you aren’t a natural loner in your unstoppable quaffing, then offer your guests or friends a bottle of Dows Finest, or if you can push the ten-pound threshold, go for a ten-year tawny. They are unlikely to think you are an alcoholic, and, if they do, they are more likely to think of you in socially acceptable terms.
And if you are withering under the oven-gaze of disapproving eyes, it’s possible to introduce a knowledge of drinks a lot like port but which your guests and friends are unlikely to have tried. Maury, Banyuls, to a lesser extent Madeira, are all good alternatives, that carry with them connotations of experience and broad horizons.
These suggestions only begin to scratch the surface of the manifold and wondrous things that port makes possible. But the point is clear – port brings enough alcohol into your life without destroying it completely. Some alcoholics might retort that this defeats the point of being an alcoholic, and if that’s the kind of attitude we are dealing with, then Britain and its high-levels of alcohol abuse, is surely headed for bacchanalian self-destruction. Port, on the other hand, captures that Dithyrambic dance and turns it into a 17th century pavane.
It is to pure alcohol what cricket is to the Roman arena.