It still seems remarkable to me how much our drinking habits have changed in a generation. I'm referring not to the liver caning that has become de rigueur from the onset of puberty, but what we choose to drink when winding down at the end of the day. For my parents, the first drink was generally a gin and tonic or a sherry. But people of my generation are more than likely to begin and end the evening with wine. Either we don't like the hassle of mixers and think wine is better for us, or we've just got out of the habit. Whatever the case, there is little variety in our social drinking, and it strikes me as a shame. Shouldn't we be going the Fat Duck route and exploring unexpected taste sensations - drinks you might expect to end a meal served upfront in a whole new way? Like port, for example?
Now, so my friends at Corney & Barrow inform me, is the ideal time to be examining the potential of port as an alternative sundowner. For one thing, 2003 has been declared a vintage port year - something that happens perhaps three times a decade - so there's a certain buzz about port among those in the know. But aside from that, the Portuguese and French habit of chilling white and tawny ports and drinking them as an aperitif is catching on in the UK. Chilled port could just be the answer to those Not Another Sauvignon pre-summer blues.
This news takes some getting used to if you have always associated port with heaviness, hangovers and cold winter nights. I probably like port least of all drinks, with the exception of Galliano, but that, apparently, is because I've been drinking the ruby-coloured stuff when it's almost certainly past its best. (A vintage port should be drunk within 24 hours of opening, so all those decanters that are preserved like relics on sideboards around the country are, basically, full of vinegar.)
The point is that white port is about as far removed from regular port as lager is from bitter. Churchill's white port (actually an appealing light-amber colour because it's aged in oak), served chilled as instructed on the label, is light, nutty and a bit like a vin santo without the richness. You wouldn't want more than a glass, but that is one of the attractions. If the idea of port as an aperitif doesn't grab you, then there is an alternative chilled after-dinner port in the shape of the tawny Fonseca ten-year-old. This is jammier than the white, but still different from the port most of us are familiar with.
There are several advantages to rediscovering port for summer, besides it making a refreshing change. Non-vintage port keeps in the fridge for a week, costs the same as a decent bottle of wine (£12 for the Churchill's) and is something to sip, not glug. Corney & Barrow makes 60 per cent of its port sales in December, but this year the chilling varieties may change that.