The most beautiful bottle I’ve never heard of arrived in the most beautiful box. A Christmas gift. (Thank you John). A Tappit Hen. Any idea? I had none. But I do know what’s inside it! Vintage Port. 1977. Yum!
Tappit Hen is a bottle size. In the port world it means 3 regular bottles in one. A 2.25 litre bottle . In Bordeaux the same size is called a Marie Jeanne. Turns out its quite standard. The port is not. Only 2% of all the Portuguese fortified wine produced in the Douro Valley becomes vintage. The rest is divided into many categories including Ruby, tawny, LBV, crusted and white. But Vintage is the star. Houses, or shippers as they are known, don’t declare a vintage every year and not all declare the same years.
Port has been popular in Britain since the Methuen Treaty of 1703 that lowered duties on wine. England was deep into war with France, it was difficult and politically incorrect to buy French Wine. A few importers figured sweet wines would appeal. The fortification helped bottles travel better. Less ruined wine meant bigger profits. Port had come to England in 1678 when a Liverpool merchant sent two guys to visit the Abbot of Lamego in Portugal. The Abbot entertained them. They bought all his wine then shipped it home. The English have been major players in the Port trade ever since. Many shipper’s names reflect this long involvement… Broadbent, Cockburn, Taylors, Grahams and Dows are all English names.
The 1977, produced during the Queen’s Jubilee year, is noted for its concentration, richness and strong scent. Rupert Symington, a scion of a family that has been involved in the port trade for generations, opined in 2017 “ I would call ’77 one of the last of the really old-style Vintage Ports- farmers wine rather than negociant wine.” The area was still rustic and some grapes crushed by feet.
With popularity came rules for consumption. Port should be decanted. It’s unfiltered so usually has lots of sentiment. The decanter is always passed to the left. Why? Perhaps to keep one’s sword hand free, perhaps a navy tradition “port to port? It is continuously passed until everyone has some and the bottle is empty. If someone fails pass it is customary to ask if they know the Bishop of Norwich. The cleric was renowned for hogging the wine. The ‘hoggit’ bottle was invented to encourage proper passing. It has a round bottom and can only rest in a special holder which always sits to the right of the host.
Port lasts a very long time in bottle. It can easily age for more than 100 years. The custom of ‘laying down port” was to ensure a child had enough to drink for a life time. Ideally a pipe, or 720 bottles, was bought of the recipient’s birth year.
Port is still occasionally lauded for its health benefits. William Pitt the Younger supposedly began drinking a bottle a day at age 14. It was 1733, they thought it would cure gout. Today, there are websites that claim it helps stave of prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and heart problems. In Victorian times it was acceptable for ladies to have a glass or two for medicinal purposes. Who knows? .
The English-speaking world usually serves Port after dinner. Everywhere else it is more common as an aperitif. I plan take my Tappit Hen out of its fancy box and drinking it while ringing in the New Year. Cheers!