Portly pretensions

Drink - Victoria Moore investigates when to lay down your best vintage

It seemed like the simplest (and most obvious) thing in the world: buying the appropriate bottle of vintage port for a ruby (40th) wedding anniversary. But then I started to worry. 1960 was a good port year - many of the houses declared the vintage, which means that they considered it to be of exceptional quality, worth bottling after only two or three years in wood. I was pretty certain I would be able to find some somewhere. The question was: would it be up to anything after all these years in the bottle (and would we be able to tell)?

Most people seem to be champagne socialists these days (defining themselves as wanting to bring champagne to everyone), and as champagne remains the accepted cultural way of toasting triumph, it inevitably comes the way of all but those with the most gloomy lives at some point or another. But few of us are fortunate enough to have tasted vintage port. We just don't ever get round to it. You might just buy some for a god- daughter's christening (if you're quite posh and not into Bibles and stuff). Let me tell you what will happen to that bottle of port, carefully laid down by responsible parents, when their beloved offspring is too young to grapple with a corkscrew. Because it's too special a thing ever to open, the cork is eventually pulled at the close of a drunken family dinner. By the next day, no one can remember drinking it - let alone what it might have tasted like.

But down to business. First I put in a call to the wine merchants, Roberson, near my house. They didn't have any 1960 vintage port. The last they'd had was in 1997, when it had sold for about £40 (a good price, because they'd bought directly from the producer). They expected a bottle of the same would cost me about £80 by now. Blimey, I thought, forget 16 per cent annual increases in the property market - buying port sounds like quite an investment. So I rushed to the internet site madaboutwine.com to check some figures.

Nineteen ninety-four was a fantastic (and much-declared) vintage. Prices at madaboutwine are already high (£74 to £123). The wine-merchant Berry Bros (which is also on the web) has a wider selection, and there you can pick up a bottle for around £30 (Croft) or £45 (Warre). I have to sit on my hands to stop reaching for my credit card number (which, thank heavens, I have not allowed myself to memorise). Making money on a port cellar is a delicate business - if you're interested, check out Decanter magazine, which features a vintage port index, a sort of alcoholic FTSE that measures rises and falls in port prices. This index began at a base of 100 in August 1978, and this March was standing at 645.46. But learn a bit before you play the game: like the real stock market, you might make a killing as the number of bottles in the world of a particular vintage becomes scarcer (as impatient owners, or those with wayward teenage daughters, guzzle them). Then again, you might not. Fonseca, Graham and Taylor are generally touted as good ones to buy.

More importantly, I realise that vintage port is definitely something I can afford to drink from time to time, particularly if I'm prepared to put a few bottles under the stairs and forget about them until I'm 40. I'm still worried about the 1960 stuff I eventually bought (Oz Clarke says that the vintage will be tiring by now), though that's a fine reason for suggesting it's opened sooner rather than later. But onwards and upwards. I have my beady eye on the most recent year to be declared - the 1997. How many bottles can I afford?

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The rise of the ergonarchy