Est. 2011

Port Traditions

Myths and traditions surround the drinking and enjoyment of Port more than any other wine.

Decanting the Vintage Port

One ritual which is essential for Vintage Port is that of decanting. Read more about why and also how to decant on our page about ‘Drink and Store Port’.

Passing the port

Once a Vintage Port has been decanted and the moment has come to enjoy it, tradition dictates that the decanter should be placed on the table to the right of the host or hostess. It should then be passed to the left, travelling round the table from guest to guest in a clockwise direction until it comes back to its starting point. Although the tradition is most often observed when serving Vintage Port, it is also often followed with other Port styles.

There are many arcane and colourful explanations for the custom of passing the Port to the left.

One theory is that the custom arose from the need to keep one’s sword arm free in case of trouble. It is sometimes said to have originated in the Royal Navy where the rule was ‘Port to port’, meaning that the decanter (most likely a ship’s decanter) should be passed to the left. In the Royal Navy the Loyal Toast is traditionally drunk in Port and, in contrast to the other branches of the British armed forces, the officers remain seated.

However, the reason why the custom is followed today is quite simple. If the decanter keeps moving in the same direction, every guest has the opportunity to enjoy the wine and no-one is left out. The decanter travels clockwise because most people are right handed.

Bishop of Norwich

If a guest fails to pass the decanter on to his or her neighbour, it will come to a standstill.

This usually happens because a guest does not notice that the decanter is there, does not realise that they should pass it on or, more rarely, hopes that no one will notice so that they can have a second glass.

Guests waiting further down the table for the decanter to arrive may become impatient. However, it is considered bad form to demand that the decanter be passed on. Instead, the person who is preventing the decanter from continuing its journey round the table is asked politely ‘Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?’ The question is not to provoke a reply but action the immediate passing of the port. Should the unfortunate offender answer the question by saying ‘No,’ is told that ‘the bishop is an awfully good fellow, but he never passes the port!’ sparking, hopefully, the individual to realize he is hogging the decanter. This is a gentle reminder to get the decanter moving again. If the meaning does not sink in, the less subtle alternative ‘Is your passport in order?’ may be used.

The origin of ‘Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?’ is attributed to Henry Bathurst who was Bishop of Norwich from 1805 to 1837. Bishop Bathurst lived to the age of 93 by which time his eyesight was deteriorating and he had developed a tendency to fall asleep at the table towards the end of the meal. As result he often failed to pass on the Port decanters several of which would accumulate by his right elbow to the consternation of those seated further up the table. A bon vivant said to possess a prodigious capacity for wine consumption, he was sometimes suspected of using these frailties to his advantage.

Some authorities claim that that ‘Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?’ originated with John Sheepshanks, who was Bishop of Norwich from 1893 to 1910, and although Bishop Bathurst would seem the most plausible source of the tradition it appears that Bishop Sheepshanks did his best to perpetuate it. A portrait of Bishop Sheepshanks, kindly donated by his grand-daughter, hangs on the wall at Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas as an encouragement to guests to pass the Port.

In Sweden this has unfortunately been change to ‘Do you know the Archbishop of Canterbury’. Why we do not know, but that is what we have been told in Sweden. This was the reason why we went to Cambridge some years ago and demonstrated outside the Archbishop Residence that he should ‘Please pass the Port’ (we have photos of this event).

The Hoggit

The need to invoke the Bishop of Norwich can, of course, be avoided by the simple expedient of using a Hoggit.

A Hoggit is a round-bottomed decanter which can only stand up when resting on a wooden support placed on the table to the right of the host or hostess. As it cannot be put down, it is passed directly from one guest to another and travels round the table in one continuous movement without stopping until it returns to its base at the head of the table.

Guessing the vintage

When the assembled company is interested in wine or willing to accept a challenge, it can be fun to serve the wine ‘blind’ and invite guests to try and guess the vintage year and name of the Port house.

This should never be taken seriously, guesses never disparaged and no prizes offered.

Even the most experienced veterans of the Port trade sometimes fail to identify the wine.

Of course you can have something special what happened in the world or country to help the guests.

Sometimes when we are guessing the Port house name we start with guessing the country from which the founder of the house came from, just to remember something of the Port history. This is quite funny but often you are wrong. It is always wise to start with a Portuguese or English house, but starting with a Scottish, German, Danish or Swedish house is brave (especially if you are right)!

Laying down Port

One of the most laudable Vintage Port traditions is that of ‘laying down’ a Vintage Port for someone shortly after they are born or when they reach a milestone such a graduation or an important birthday.

This consists of buying and setting aside some bottles of Vintage Port, preferably from the person’s birth year or another significant date. In Britain the custom is still often followed, with Vintage Port being laid down by parents for their children or grandchildren.

Today the amount set aside is usually one or two dozen bottles but in the past it would often be a pipe, or the equivalent of 720 bottles. We have been told that 5 dozen of Vintage Port is very useful for the children or grandchildren, one dozen to drink before the child or Port reach its peak, three dozen when the child or/and the Port is peaking and one dozen when both the child and Port have passed their best and both are old and tired. Vintage Port is one of the world’s most long lasting wines and one of very few that can be enjoyed over a whole lifetime.

Unlike most gifts, Vintage Port will get better and better with age and will be enjoyed only on the most special and sociable occasions when it will bring back fond memories of the person who laid it down.

Last tasted:

6th July
Quinta do Panascal
Fonseca-Guimaraens 2008
28th June
Berry Bros 1997
Fortum & Mason 2000
16th June
Gould Campbell 1991
15th June
Smith Woodhouse 1966
14th June
Messias 2011
12th June
Real Comp. Velha 2002
10th June
Sao Pedro das Aguias 2009
9th June
Quinta do Vesuvio 1998
5th June
Croft 2000


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