Please pass the Port

Anyone who has attended a City of London civic or Livery Company banquet will be familiar with the numerous toasts that follow after the meal and before the speeches. These toasts are usually taken with Port wine, or occasionally Madeira.

Quite when port became the wine of choice for toasts is unclear, but the custom is as well entrenched in the City as it is in the ward rooms and messes of HM Armed Forces, at Oxbridge Colleges, Masonic dinners and elsewhere. Port wine was originally, and very specifically, developed for the English palette and nowhere is it more popular than in Britain.

First a little history

The history of Port wine is inextricably linked with Britain's connection to Portugal and the numerous British families who developed the Douro wine region inland from Porto. Today names such as Croft, Churchill, Dow, Graham, Taylor, Sandeman, Symington and Warre are well known brands of port. While much consolidation has occurred in the wine trade, the British representation in the City of Porto and along the Douro Valley is still strong.

The British Association, a trade body of British Port producing companies, has its own hall in the centre of Porto, very close to the river. In Portuguese the hall is known as the English Factory, where the 'factors' of the British port producing companies meet (a factor is an agent of a company).

Without doubt the most influential character in the development of Port was Baron Joseph James Forrester, and English wine merchant who mapped the Douro Valley and worked to remove many of the restrictive practices that hampered the development of the wine trade. He was ennobled by the King of Portugal for his work and is remembered as the 'protector of the Douro'. Forrester's anonymously published 'A word or two about Port wine' was also influential in developing the trade, and despite its title it ran to eight editions.

Baron Forrester drowned in an accident on the Douro when the boat he was travelling in hit some rocks and capsized. Records of the incident tell that ladies on the boat were saved by the buoyancy of their crinoline dresses but Forrester went to the bottom weighed down by a money belt. It's now the custom to drink a toast of Port Wine to Baron Forrester when travelling on the Douro.

The modern links with the City

Inevitably the Port Wine trade has links to London, and one of the recent Treasurers of the British Association in Porto recently became a member of the Vintners' Company, which considers itself the spiritual home of the wine trade. The Symington family still owns and manages the largest premium quality port producing estate in Portugal, and is responsible for one-third of the production of premium port.

In fact the Vintners' Company can lay claim to restoring the status of Port in Britain when the Company paid a visit to Porto and the Douro Valley in 1928, the first such overseas trip organised by a Livery Company. A new Port tradition was established during that trip when the Master Vintner 'baptised' a cask of Graham's Port with a glass of the wine. The tradition continues today, and the cask of wine concerned is called The Master.

The more discerning among the Livery may have stayed overnight in one of the bedrooms in Vintners' Hall, among them is the aptly named Douro room, further evidence of the connections between the trade and this famous region of Portugal.

Vintage Port Wine, bottles often sell for hundreds of pounds
An information sign outside the Feitoria Inglesa (English Factory) in Porto
The English Factory (home of the British Association) in Porto.

The traditions of Port Wine

No other wine has so many curious traditions associated with it, and the simply acts of passing the Port and toasting with Port have developed into something of a minefield of unspoken rules of etiquette.

Depending on the scale of the banquet, Port may be served by the catering staff, or placed on the table for the diners to circulate among themselves, invariably in a decanter. Here is a simple guide to the etiquette of passing the port:

Always pass the port to the diner to your left, or as they say in the Royal Navy ‘Port to port’. The port decanter will be placed at the end of your table or ‘sprig’, to the right of your host or whom-so-ever is sat at the top table end of a sprig. In the event of particularly long sprigs, a port decanter may be placed at either end, each proceeding down one side of the sprig.

No matter where the decanter(s) are initially placed they always pass to the left (clockwise on a round table) and continue to circulate until empty. If a diner does not wish to partake of the port he or she simply passes the port onward to their left.

Encouraging your fellow diners to pass the port.

In the unthinkable event that a fellow diner allows the port decanter to settle upon the table at their position, a polite way to invite them to continue passing the port is to ask the errant diner ‘Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?’.

The response to this question will usually be ‘No I don’t, do tell me more?’ (or words to that effect), in which case you can replay ‘Oh, he was an awfully nice fellow, but he rarely passed the port ’.

This is said to derive from a past Bishop of Norwich who used to fall asleep at dinners, perhaps in part because of his prestigious consumption of port, whereupon the decanter(s) would all come to rest in front of him to the annoyance of his fellow diners. The particular incident from which the saying is derived is known to have occurred at Christ's College, Cambridge in 1785. Following one particular good banquet at which he did not pass the port, a note was placed on his sermon in the College Chapel the following day:

The Bishop of Norwich is fond of his Port. 
Too fond, for the Villain won't pass when he ought

from Memorabilia Cantabrigiae or, An account of the different colleges in Cambridge : biographical sketches of the founders and eminent men ; with many original anecdotes ; views of the colleges, and portraits of the founders by Joseph Wilson of the Inner Temple (1803)

The other possibility is that your guest does know the incumbent Bishop of Norwich, in which case you had better have an amusing story to tell about The Rt Revd.

Another option is to ask your guest a more direct question such as ‘Have you got an up-to-date pass….port?’

One unfortunate Liveryman was seated next to the Bishop of Norwich. Image copyright Shravan Joshi Esq

Note: A recent Bishop of Norwich has redeemed the character of that office.

Not allowing to decanter to touch the table

Some Livery Companies and Regiments of the British and Commonwealth Armed Forces observe the custom that the port decanter should never touch the table, further ensuring that the decanter does not settle with a diner (unless they wish to hold it aloft for the evening). Whether this custom is practiced by your Company should be confirmed with the Clerk.

To facilitate this custom, the Hoggit decanter was invented. It features a rounded base that can only be seated in a specially made wooden foot that resides with the host. The decanter would tip over if placed on the table, thus ensuring that it continues to circulate.

Waiting until the Loyal Toast

The port is served prior to the Loyal Toast, and in sufficient time to allow it to circulate fully among all the diners before the Loyal Toast is called. It is exceptionally bad form to drink the port prior to the Loyal Toast. Diners who do not wish to drink port may participate in the Loyal Toast (and subsequent toasts) with wine or water.

City ceremonial becomes particularly complex where toasts are concerned, and those who are otherwise well versed in toasts, perhaps through their experience in the military, are often wrong footed by the custom in the City. Let's explore a little further into this topic...

The Loyal Toast may be just to the sovereign or coupled with the Church. Unlike Masonic or military loyal toasts, the toast is called by the Master in two stages, the first to call the diners to rise but not to drink, once standing the diners sing the first verse of the National Anthem, in the second stage the Master again calls the toast which invites diners to raise their glasses and respond.

The Royal Toast follows immediately after but not before the diners have returned to the seated position. Again the toast in two stages, the first to The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, The Prince of Wales, The Duchess of Cornwall and the other members of the Royal Family. This time the diners rise and remain silent while the first six bars of the national anthem is played. Once the music stops, the Master will call ‘The Royal Family’, and the diners raise their glasses and respond likewise, there is no need to repeat all the names of the members of the Royal Family.

The complexity continues with the third toast to The Lord Mayor, the City of London Corporation and the Sheriffs. In this case the word Sheriffs may sometimes be omitted, especially if no Sheriff is present. In this instance the Master proposes the toast, all the diners rise, no music is played and the response is simply ‘The Lord Mayor’.

Equipped with these few simple rules of etiquette, I hope you and your fellow diners will enjoy your port at future Livery Company dinners as much as I do.

Further exploration of the history, customs and enjoyment of port may be found in The Port Companion by Godfrey Spence (2002), ISBN 1-84092-374-1!

Want to learn more about the Livery Companies?

The City of London Freeman's Guide is the definitive concise guide to the City of London and its ancient and modern Livery Companies, their customs, traditions, officers, events and landmarks. Available in full colour hardback and eBook formats and now in its fourth or Masterpiece edition. The guide is available online from Apple (as an eBook), Amazon (in hardback or eBook) Payhip (in ePub format) or Etsy (in hardback or hardback with the author's seal attached). Also available from all major City of London tourist outlets and bookstores.

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