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Port Primer

In six minutes, you can learn enough about port to sound like a genius. No, really.

When wine experts extol the virtues of vintage port—its ruby glow, its silky texture, its harmonic convergence with Stilton—they studiously avoid the one thing that I, a non expert, like most about it. Simply put: No other beverage in the world has the power to make me look like such a complete and utter know-it-all. With minimal time and effort, a wine-impaired person like me can learn enough about port to give the impression that he knows everything about it—and, by extension, everything about everything.

This may sound like an exaggeration, but it's not. Imagine we're at a restaurant, and the waiter brings by a dessert menu containing a daunting, recondite list of after-dinner drinks. I quickly peruse the selection of vintage ports and nonchalantly say, "Let's go for the Fonseca '77," or maybe, "Let's try the Dow '70," or, if I'm really in the mood to intimidate you, "None of these are drinkable yet." How impressed are you? You'll probably assume that I've studied vintage port for years, with periodic trips to Porto to check out the harvest firsthand. Depending on the persuasiveness of my performance, you might even think I've written a book or two about vintage port in my spare time. The truth falls somewhat short of that: Everything I know about vintage port I learned in six minutes.

I first encountered this Wodehousian beverage in, appropriately enough, a 17th-century English country house outside Chester. The house was a mansion-turned-hotel operated by a Brit who was, by his own description, a "Yankophile." As proof, at the end of each day he greeted me by waving a cowboy hat and regaling me with tales of his motor-home odysseys through Arizona. In other words, he was enamored of all the American things that an Anglophile like me would have absolutely no interest in.

All of this took a turn for the better on the last night of my stay. At the conclusion of an English meal that consisted of 11 or 12 courses of increasing density and bulk, the hotelier-cowpoke brought by a trolley of farmhouse cheeses and some vintage port. As soon as I confessed that I'd never had port before, he offered me a glass of Graham '63. I was instantly hooked—much as I imagine he'd been when he first tasted a pork rind in the back of his Winnebago.

I wanted to learn more about port, so upon my return to America I spoke with the one friend of mine who is a true connoisseur of such things, the wine writer Joseph Ward. I asked him how Graham '63 stacked up against other ports, whereupon he informed me that I'd gulped down one of the greatest ports of the century. Even though I was aware of his encyclopedic knowledge of wine, I was astounded: How had he found the time to master port, too? Generously, Ward let me in on some facts about vintage port—facts that make it the ideal after-dinner drink for someone like me who has a hard time remembering his own e-mail address.

In Porto, on the coast of Portugal, the producers declare a vintage only when they deem the harvest worthy, which means that, unlike with wine, there aren't a lot of years you have to memorize. Making matters even easier is the fact that, of those declared vintages, only a few are considered great: '27, '45, '63, '70, '77, '85 and '94. Of those seven years, you'll rarely see the first two on a menu, and the last two are generally considered too young to be drinkable. That leaves only three years to remember: '63, '70 and '77. Even I can keep three numbers in my head.

As for memorizing a long list of port makers, if wine is the Remembrance of Things Past of the drinking world, vintage port is the Go, Dog. Go! There are only four producers of vintage port that Ward considers truly top-notch: Graham, Dow, Taylor and Fonseca (with Warre slightly behind the pack). Your task as a budding vintage-port expert? Memorize three vintages and four producers—and it's quittin' time!

If you want to be a real grind, I suppose you could make the effort to find out how vintage port is made and aged, and you might even want to learn how it differs from nonvintage ports, either tawny or ruby—but why bother? If, like me, you've taken the six minutes necessary to memorize the three vintages and the four producers, you have already learned enough to impress a client or silence a wine snob, depending on the occasion.

Now, what about my other claim—that this scant knowledge of port creates the impression that one is knowledgeable about everything? Ward agrees with my logic on this point. "Who would learn about vintage port unless he already knew about wine?" he says. Unquestionably, when people hear me toss off "Fonseca '70" or "Taylor '63," they assume that I've come to port only after honing my mastery of wine, cigars, antiques and Greek mythology. Ward sums it up nicely: "Port is the shorthand for connoisseurship."

The choice, of course, is ultimately yours. If you're truly determined to impress people with your vast stores of knowledge, you could spend years taking art history classes, going to the opera and learning really hard foreign languages. You could even take more drastic measures, like trying to read The Mill on the Floss, which will certainly make you look smarter but will also make your head hurt a lot. My recommendation: Skip directly to vintage port. It'll be our little secret.

Andy Borowitz is a humorist and the author of The Trillionaire Next Door (HarperBusiness).

Published December 2000
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