World of port in a storm as America drinks vintage dry

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IT IS enough to spark apoplexy in the cigar smoke-filled, leather- chaired alcoves of London's gentlemen's clubs. The Americans have finally discovered port - but they don't know how to drink it properly.

In a trend that overturns centuries of dust-covered tradition, New York stockbrokers are too impatient to wait for their port to mature. Port is usually left for 20 years or more before being drunk, but now the Americans are drinking it within just two years of bottling, almost as soon as the ships dock in New York.

And their passion for "young" port is allowing British drinkers to make a quick and tidy profit. A case of port bought in the United Kingdom and then exported to the United States can result in a 400 per cent profit.

Mature vintage port will never die out because the traditions of London's gentlemen's clubs, where passing the port in the wrong direction amounts to a sin, will see to that. But the very fact that Americans are drinking the vintages almost as soon as they are produced means that the scarcity value of any which are allowed to mature until 2015 or later will provide their owners with a nice little nest egg.

North America, including Canada, now buys more than 50 per cent of the young port traded by British brokers, together with a further 50,000 cases direct from Portugal. The UK buys 34,000 cases direct from Portugal. The port houses have responded positively to the trend: Sandeman's marketing pitch for its 1997 Vau Vintage is: "It's a lush, rich wine, delicious for drinking young."

Vintage wine is always sold at a premium because the big port houses, such as Croft's, Graham's, Sandeman and Warre's, declare a vintage only three or four times a year. The new American preference has created an unusual price surge, once the port is bottled, particularly for the desirable and sought-after Taylor's and Fonseca brands, where demand always outstrips supply. The Fonseca '94 vintage, sold by the port houses at pounds 230 for a case of 12 bottles, quickly rose to pounds 850 and is now available at pounds 3,000. The '97 Fonseca, whose release is imminent, is expected to fetch an initial price of pounds 330. A broker would take it off your hands for pounds 550 to sell it on to the US.

Prices could soon reflect the limited availability of mature vintage port, said Richard Ehrlich, the Independent on Sunday's drinks correspondent. "If it really becomes serious then, because of demand over supply, the prices will become much more marked. It's never happened, but it may happen now."

But Mr Ehrlich admitted he was puzzled that the Americans were drinking vintage wine so young. "Americans are drinking port designed to be drunk in 20 years after only two years," he said. "They are impatient and don't want to have to wait. They clearly don't see the point and want the prestige now. The idea of waiting 20 years to drink a wine you have paid pounds 150 for is anathema to a stockbroker who wants to have a good time now."

The trend has been welcomed by Martin Lam, chef and proprietor of Ransome's Dock, a London restaurant specialising in fine wines. "The port-passing ritual should be swept away," he said. "It's the last residual trace of Victorian and Edwardian drinking. I suppose there are still a few bright young things who pass the port at their 21st birthday parties, but it doesn't really have much relevance to the 21st century."

Port can be drunk young - though connoisseurs almost unanimously agree it is best drunk when it matures - up to an age of two or three years, whereupon it becomes undrinkable while it undergoes a series of chemical transformations, emerging after 15 years or more as mature vintage port, with the complex aromas that the world's port drinkers traditionally seek. The Americans appear to like young port because they are accustomed to soft, overt, primary fruit flavours of new wines and seek similar flavours from port.

They are drinking it chilled, and with puddings, rather than as a traditional room-temperature accompaniment to the post-dinner cigar. Several companies, such as Warre's are also repackaging their port, pouring it in straight bottles with snazzy labels as they try to shed the older image. "Even though the vintages are still sold within a blink of an eyelid, the port industry has been trying to reinvent itself for the past 10 years and get rid of the crusty image," said Mr Lam.

But, deep in the heart of London's gentlemen's clubs, there will always be a market for mature vintage port. "This just confirms everything we've ever thought about the Americans," said one member of the Athenaeum, who declined to be named. John Stoy, a vintner and wine lover, was more direct. "I don't think this will catch on in England, not in a civilised society," he said. "I don't believe it's right. Port can't be drunk young."