Port wine, particularly in Britain, is not only served for the wine itself, it is also served as a part of a social tradition and sense of occasion. One of these social traditions is referred to as ‘Passing the Port’, though, apart from the associated traditional aspects, this activity is just a great deal of fun at the dinner table, and can make a dinner event all the more memorable.
Here, I explain the history in brief, and the proper ‘naval’ manner of passing the port, ‘without exception’, including some adaptations to the naval rule, and the proper manner of passing the port in the presence of ladies.
A Brief History of Port wine
During the 17th century, when Britain and France were at war, Britain could no longer import wine from the short distance across the English Channel from France, so they were forced to venture to Portugal for new wines, and in particular, the Douro River Valley. The problem was, sailing ships would only averaged between 5 to 8 knots over the 800 or so nautical miles back to Britain, often in hot or cold and stormy conditions, therefore most general wines from Portugal would not survive this much longer journey, before the wines would spoil.
However, one alternative was to import a ‘fortified wine’ called Port, or Porto, where the wines are stabilised to stop the fermentation process by adding a natural grape sprit (brandy), known as ‘Portuguese aguardente’. This allows the wine to last longer, and be rather more resistant, particularly to temperature changes during shipment.
The concept of passing the Port evolved at some point during the late 18th to early 19th century within the British Royal Navy, with first indications of the rule around early 1790’s, and in August 1805 during a dinner at white lodge in London where Lord Nelson demonstrated the Trafalgar Battle plans to the Ex British Prime Minister, Henry Addington.
However, contrary to popular belief, there was, at this time, no association or connection to port being the left side of a ship, and passing the port to the left with the left hand, or indeed, the association to the colour of port wine being red, and the red ‘port’ navigation light on a ship. This is because, the maritime port and starboard rule, was not officially adopted until 1844, by the British Royal Navy; however, this is now ‘without doubt’ the association to the rule of passing to port.
Preparation – Decanting and Serving Port
Although a number of Port wines are filtered before bottling, the majority of Port wines need to be decanted before drinking to separate any sediment that may have formed in the bottle from being poured into the glass.
To decant the Port, carefully stand the bottle upright and leave to allow any sediment to fall to the bottom of the bottle, in an ideal situation this could be over day, but even an hour or two would be preferable. Then, carefully remove the cork so not to disturb any sediment that has collected at the bottom of the bottle and slowly pour the Port into a decanter in a continual steady stream stopping just before the sediment starts to flow out of the bottle.
Port wine should be served around of 13-16° Celsius for old Tawnies and Colheitas and around 15-18° Celsius for Vintages, in a narrow, tulip-shaped wine glass (not too small). The glass should only be filled half way so one is able to swirl, smell and taste the flavours in the wine.
The rules – Passing the Port and Port Etiquette (formal – informal)
Method 1 in original manner Royal Navy (basic)
After dinner, the table will be cleared and the Port decanter will be placed on the table in front of the “mess president” or “dinner host”. In a formal dinner setting of this type, the principle or first guest should ALWAYS sit on the RIGHT side of the host. The host will then unstopper the decanter, retain the stopper and without serving himself, OR the principle guest to the right, pass the decanter to the gentleman on his left who serves himself, and then slides OR passes the decanter gently to the next gentleman on his left.
In due course the principal guest receives a decanter from his right side, serves himself and then passes it to the president or host who then serves himself before replacing the stopper once more. This is the indication for the toasts to begin, and the president has served all his guests before helping himself. No one should touch their port until the Toast has been proposed (See toasting).
One pours one’s own port, unless there are ladies present (see method 3), and never serve the guest to the right as traditionally this is against the left hand clockwise rule. (See also “formal, informal seating”)
As with all methods, the stewards, house master or butler must ensure that decanters are replenished as necessary between each of the passing of port.
Method 2 (this method is now being used quite often, although it is incorrect to the original rule).
After the port decanter is placed on the table in front of the “mess president” or “dinner host”. The host will unstopper the decanter and serve the principle or first guest to his right, then himself, then pass the port decanter to the left. On the occasions I have seen this used the decanter generally stops being passed to the left on or before arrival at the principle guest, unless the host keeps a close eye on the situation as generally he will not start the toast until he has stoppered the decanter once again. This method never looks as polite or elegant as method one, it very often doesn’t run as smooth and more often than not requires intervention from the bishop of Norwich.
Method 3 (ladies present)
When there are ladies dining and port wine is passed, the host or president should unstopper the decanter, serve the lady to the left, and without serving himself, OR the guest to the right, pass the decanter on to the gentleman on her left, who will then serve himself then the lady on his left, (keeping the left hand rule) before the decanter continues its clockwise rotation around the table. However, a more elegant method, which I much prefer, is after the Gentleman has received the Port from the host or president, the Gentleman would serve the Lady to his left BEFORE serving himself, and passing the Port on to the next Gentleman. This breaks the clockwise motion of the Port a little, but keeps the left hand rule, although I feel this is a more polite method as it incorporates ladies first. However, it should be remembered in both methods, ladies never touch or pass the Port.
ethod 4 (weddings just for fun)
Passing the port at weddings is only just for fun and to be honest, I have only ever seen this twice. The port wine will probably be served as an accompaniment with cheese or chocolate and certainly not for toasting as this will be reserved for Champagne. Passing the port here is very similar to method three above, albeit, the difference is with respect to seating arrangements (see also, “formal informal seating”). As in church at the altar, the Bride will be to the left of the Groom in the hosts chair with the Groom on her right, as traditional the right side of a gentleman was for his sword. This is the only situation where the decanter is delivered to the chair to the right of what would normally be the host’s chair, the groom is then permitted to serve his Bride to the left, then himself, then to pass the decanter to the next gentleman on the left which should normally be the Brides farther and so on round the table. This is really only for fun, and one should understand that generally there are many situations where there will be ladies sat together, therefore improvisation will be required at some point.
Additional customs and traditions
Over the years some naval establishments, organisations and societies have developed their own additional customs and traditions when passing the port. These include, sliding the decanter round the table as if sailing, passing the decanter round in such manner that it must not touch the table surface until it returns to the host or president and banging the decanter on the table before passing it, however, this is really not a good idea as this process is more likely to release any sediment back into the wine.
If a diner breaches port etiquette, he or she can be fined an appropriate quantity of port such as a glass each for the president and principal guest and for a major breach in port etiquette this can amount to a fine of port for the whole table.
And., finally the Bishop of Norwich. (Henry Bathurst, 1805-1837).
If the decanter stops in its journey round the table, it can be rude to openly ask to pass the decanter onward. Therefore, one should pose a question to the person that has the decanter closest.
“Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” if the guest is familiar with the code of etiquette, this will be an indication to continue “Passing the Port” but if not, they may answer, “no, I don’t”, to which the Guest asking would reply, “Well, he’s a terribly nice chap but he never passed the port either”, hopefully prompting the Guest to Pass the Port. This etiquette arguably originated from Henry Bathurst, who was the Bishop of Norwich from 1805-1837, of which it is reported having great liking for the drink.