VINTAGE AND CRUSTED PORT – Captain St James and his two wives

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Captain St James was a very contented bigamist. The Golden Fleece, plying trade between Gibraltar and Morocco in the 1950s, allowed him to keep two wives, continents apart, neither one aware of the other. He had the best of both worlds, one fun loving, wild, devil-may-care sort of a girl, the other sober, steadfast and home loving.

“I was at the gates of paradise, I went through, and now it’s mine,” he tells Ricco, his loyal second in command.

Ricco, of undetermined nationality, heavily moustached and dressed in a shabby merchant-naval uniform was no slouch when it came to navigation. It was he who took over the ship once it left Gibraltar. Captain St James would be found in his cabin, lying in his bunk dreamily contemplating what lay ahead until the heat, the hum of the engines and the rhythmic rocking of the ship sent him into a deep, blissful sleep.

St James, dreaming he had arrived in North Africa and in the arms of his exotic olive-skinned wife, woke with a start and cursed the shrill whistle of the speaking tube connecting his bunk to the bridge. Ricco, sounding both chirpy and mildly envious, made an announcement he was no stranger to: “Captain! We are exactly halfway.”

St James’ irritation at having his dream interrupted disappeared instantly. He turned his head towards the mahogany panelling surrounding his bunk where a silver-framed picture of his wife, Maud St James, had been skilfully built into the wall. The picture had been taken in the gardens of the Convent during a charity event. Mrs St James’ home baked cakes and scones had taken pride of place amongst the stalls manned by young, enthusiastic military wives. It had been a bright sunny day. Maud was happily smiling at the camera. Captain St James looked lovingly at the picture sighing contentedly whilst stretching his arm under his bunk pressing an unseen button. Quicker than the eye could follow the silver-framed picture flipped Maud unceremoniously round and the skilful baker was magically replaced by Nita St James, child of the jungle, lover of champagne and midnight swimming. Her cleavage, her exotic eyes and mischievous smile compelled those who saw the picture to ask who she was. St James would simply smile and continue with whatever matter-at-hand had brought the visitor to his cabin.

Henry St James, I regret to tell you, is a fictional character played by Alec Guinness in the British comedy “The Captain’s Paradise” filmed in Gibraltar and Tangier in the 1950s. The reason I am telling you is because if you see the film, it will convey better than I ever could, what it felt like setting out from Gibraltar on a sunny July morning when the border with Franco’s Spain was closed and we were young and eager for adventure. Like St James, we sailed for Tangier in the Mons Calpe, the ship’s name. The docks, the clear morning sunlight and jittery crowd as the ship peeled away from the harbour wall, felt exactly as depicted in the film.

Soon enough, we found ourselves in front of Les Sables D’Or. A small, two-storey hotel known for its cleanliness and cheap rates. Its neat, faded-yellow façade had several windows each with small, wrought iron balconies. Pots of red and pink geraniums decorated the railings. In the morning, they would be watered with no thought for passers-by who would look up cursing under their breath.

Unpacking and eager to get going, we soon found ourselves walking to the city centre. Before long, we entered Boulevard Pasteur. Its Art Deco buildings still displaying anti-traditional elegance, if not the wealth and sophistication they conveyed when Tangier was Tangier, an international utopia of illicit pleasures and subterfuge. Then, as now, tolerance was practiced but never preached.

Later, sitting at the nearby Gran Café de Paris, its Spanish name unchanged since spies sold secrets over bitter expressos and westerners haggled over the cost of gay sex and illicit substances, we struck up a conversation with an English couple sitting next to us.

To our young eyes, they seemed old, in spite that neither showed any tell-tale signs of approaching middle-age. Their unmistakable air of the well-travelled, made them appear relaxed and confident. George informed us he was a regular visitor to Tangier sent periodically by his firm, a manufacturer of lace-making machinery, to troubleshoot and provide training at a local factory. Being childless, his wife Fiona always accompanied him on his more exotic journeys. Asking our opinion on a myriad of subjects, they listened intently making us feel at ease. That evening we dined together, it was Fiona’s 40th birthday. George suggested we end the day over a nightcap at their hotel, where he had arranged, with some difficulty, for a delivery of something rather special.

It was a 1931 Niepoort Vintage Port, Fiona’s birth year. I had never tasted anything quite so old or delicious and wondered what alchemist could turn grape juice into such an amalgam of flavours and nuances. The wine, our amiable and generous companions, and Tangier, twinkling in the heady darkness below us, made it a night to remember – I still do.

The Oxford Companion to Wine has this to say about Vintage Port:

“The most expensive style of port is one of the world’s simplest of wines to make.”

Like all ports, Vintage Port is only made in the Douro region of Portugal from a single “vintage year’’. There are over 80 varieties of grapes allowed for the production of port, perhaps the best known include Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz, better known in Spain as Tempranillo.

Vineyards are graded into a complex quality points system. Each year, depending on the points, the beneficio will allocate each vineyard the amount of wine they can convert to port. Ostensibly, allocations are dependent on growing conditions. In reality, they may more dependent on how much port from previous years remains unsold in Oporto.

When harvested, the grapes are pressed and shortly after, the must will start to ferment vigorously. At the right moment, alcohol will be added and the fermentation arrested. A dark red, sweet wine, high in alcohol, will result. In theory, capable of lasting decades.

The young wine will be matured in cask and after two years, for Vintage Port, bottled, unfiltered and released. The consumer is expected to mature the wine in bottle for 20+ years until the wine reaches maturity. Cheaper ports like Late Bottled Vintage will be kept in cask for six years or more then filtered and bottled ready to drink.

Vintage Port is only made in exceptional years when they are “declared”. It is up to individual shippers to declare or not. Few would risk their reputation by declaring poor years. Recent vintages are 92, 94, 95, 97, 00, 03, 07, 11 and 2014.

In Gibraltar, expect to pay north of £50 or £60 for Vintage Port. If your budget doesn’t stretch that far, do not despair – there is a comparable, delicious alternative. It’s called Crusted Port – a recent British invention!

Crusted Ports are blends from several vintages and will not designate a year on the label though there may be an indication when it was bottled. They would have been bottled unfiltered, which like Vintage Port, will require decanting. Like Vintage Port, it has the potential to mature and improve in bottle for decades. All the top producers now make Crusted Ports which can be had for as little as £15 per bottle!

Tasted Recently

Niepoort VP 1983 £90
A tad light with pronounced strawberry jam flavours. Nice finish 17.5/20

Niepoort VP 1987 £99
Dark ruby, voluptuous, fruit cake and cinnamon. Long finish. Great producer. 18.5/20

Fonseca VP 1994 £100
Complex and intense but still unresolved. A sleeper. 18.5/20

The Wine Society Crusted Port (Bottled 2007)
Delicious, mouth filling and moreish. Long finish. A huge bargain at £13.50! 17.5/20

Grahams Crusted Port
(Morrisons) £16.00 Another bargain. 17/20