A Perfect End to the Meal: A Glass of Port or Brandy
You would be denying yourself one of life’s keener pleasures if you didn’t try drinking one or the other straight at the end of the evening meal. A feeling of content and a loosening of the tongue becomes inevitable if you take the simple precaution of offering Brandy or Armagnac (which comes from France) or Port — vintage or non-vintage.
Port is made in Portugal, on the River Douro. It is a fortified wine — that is to say, the fermenting grape juice has brandy added to it. Start with a 1960 vintage Port and alter your life. And if you do buy a vintage Port, remember not to drink it for at least five days after you get it home. Vintage Port throws a deep sediment which has to settle — so open it without shaking or moving the bottle from the position in which it was left. The last third must be strained through a handkerchief, leaving about one eighth of crust and silt in the bottle. It is a pity to waste your money and spoil your ulti-mate pleasure by ignoring this simple rule: a good glass of vintage Port should be as clear as clear if you hold it up to the light. The difference in taste between clear and cloudy is immediately apparent, even to people who have never drunk Port before. Vintage Port has an alcoholic strength of 20°.
A special Port decanter is unnecessary — any glass jug will do, since a bottle has a way of vanishing in spite of the best intentions of economy, even when it is shared by only two normally abstemious people. Our Victorian forebears used to forbid Port to their womenfolk and made them retire after dinner while the gentlemen indulged. This sensible if hypocritical practice was intended to conserve supplies and still occurs in some country houses today.
The snag about drinking vintage Port is that the price of even a recent year starts almost level with Whisky and escalates to the cost of a set of new tyres for, say, Cockburn 1904. On the other hand, there are the Tawny and Ruby Ports which are blended from different years and vineyards, although Ruby is sometimes of one particular vintage. Their alcoholic strength is very little less than 20°, and they won’t disturb your economy much.
Tawny Port is aged in cask, causing it to lose colour, and is bottled free of the sediment that sinks to the bottom of the barrel. Ruby Port is bottled before the colour has a chance to fade. It is prudent to buy those Ports that have been blended by the shipper in Portugal and that bear his name rather than the blends of non-Portuguese wine-merchants.
Cognac is a district in France, north of Bordeaux, which produces a special Brandy. This region used to belong to the kings of England until the fifteenth century, when the French took it back while the English weren’t looking during the Wars of the Roses. Think of all the customs duty England has had to pay since!
Brandy is matured in oak casks for a number of years — well-aged blends may be VSOP (Very Special Old Pale). The process is slow and expensive. Ten barrels of white wine are needed to produce one barrel of Brandy, which in turn evaporates as it ages. The younger Brandies have a sharp fiery edge, which makes them less suitable for drinking after a meal and more worthy of added ginger ale or soda. In its natural state Brandy is a pale straw colour: the sweet, dark-hued products are adjustments made with sugar and caramel. After graduating from VSOP Brandy it is worth the experiment to buy a Brandy of a pre-war year; you may never be able to afford another bottle but the memory will be well worth the price.
PS Mistrust anyone, in a restaurant or elsewhere, who goes through the mumbo-jumbo of heating a Brandy glass over a flame.
This is the only other Brandy in the world to compare with Cognac. It is darker usually and has a distinctive flavour highly prized by some, who prefer it to its neighbour. The difference is partly due to the process of distilling which is at a lower strength (53° compared to Brandy’s 70°) and to the casks, made from the local ‘sappy’ oak which ages the spirit much faster. Up to 1905 Armagnac was blended with Cognac to give the latter colour and the appearance of great age and smoothness. The smell of Armagnac is very pungent and the savour stays in the mouth for a long time; it is very dry because no sugar is added. The difference in its strength aside, Armagnac is preferable to most cheaper Cognacs at the same price level.
BRANDIES ROUND THE WORLD
Many countries produce forms of brandy and some of the finest, after the Cognac of France, come from South Africa. California in the United States now actually produces more Brandy than France.
Australia also has a flourishing Brandy trade and now even exports about a quarter of her production.
GLASSES AN DECANTER
There is no need to buy those expensive balloon glasses for your Cognac or Armagnac: if your nose is long it will rest on the far rim and you will have to almost break your neck in tilting your head back to swallow. Nor do you need to acquire any special glass for Port. A small tulip-shaped wine-glass will do fine for either drink, although some think that a Port glass should properly have straight sides.