Saturday, December 17, 2016

Arthur Conan-Doyle's Gothic Tales with Port

It's sometimes hard to remember that Arthur Conan-Doyle was more than Sherlock Holmes, so this really beautiful edition of his collected gothic tales from Oxford classics is timely (it truly is a handsome thing). Somewhat creepy (I draw the line at outright terrifying) stories are also a Yuletide staple (if it was good enough for Dickens...) though obviously they're also good for the rest of the year too. The advantage of reading Victorian writers (or in this case a writer with Victorian roots) in a short story format is that the amount of meandering they can fit in before they get to the point (I'm looking at you, Anthony Trollope) is limited. They're gateway literature to a full on addiction to nineteenth century fiction.

Anyway, as mentioned this is a particularly attractive book, and far more importantly it's got some cracking stories in it - the question is what sort of wine is suitably gothic? I want to write about claret at some point in the next week, and I don't think it would go amiss with Conan-Doyle at all, but I'm not sure the mood is quite right. It's tempting to go with one of the black wines of Cahors - very dark in colour, malbec based, with merlot and tannat allowed to make up 30% of the grape mix, and traditionally enough tannin in it to make it taste almost as inky as it looks. Popular in England in the 19th century too, and the inky quality surely makes it a particularly book friendly wine...

In the end though port seemed the best way to go. There's something as comfortably traditional and familiar about port at Christmas as there is in catching a repeat of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' at some point in the festive season. It's got the full bodied (positively bloody) deep colour that I feel a gothic tale begs for, and most importantly people often leave bottles open far to long, so gentle encouragement to drink it whilst it's at it's best is good advice.

Port should ideally be drunk within a few weeks of opening, for most of us it's also best drunk in extreme moderation - it's fortified up to 20% abv which is enough, especially on top of a big dinner full of other wines, to give the unwary a really unpleasant hangover. If you've gone easy on it the first night out though there should be plenty left to enjoy a glass with a good book, and maybe a nice bit of cheese, all the way through to new year.

Port comes in a number of styles - ruby port is the cheap and cheerful version, mass produced, aged in tanks, not improved by ageing in bottle, and filtered, and at the risk of sounding like a snob, best used for cooking where extra finesse isn't necessary. Special reserves are premium ruby ports.

Late Bottled Vintages are ports which have spent longer ageing in barrels (between 4 and 6 years) which gives them more of the character you'd expect from a vintage port, but at rather less of the price. The important thing to check for is if they've been chill filtered or not. Filtered means they don't need decanting, but arguably it strips some of the flavour and character from the port in the process. Warre's LBV, accepted as the best LBV on the market isn't filtered, but it does throw quite a lot of sediment.

Vintage ports, and single Quinta vintage ports, are aged in barrel or tank for a maximum of 2 1/2 years before being bottled where they will continue to age with grace, potentially for decades. The relativley short time in barrel means they retain colour and freshness, but because the majority of aging happens in the bottle they're going to have sediment, and ideally need decanting. This doesn't have to be a big job - just make sure the bottle's been stood upright and undisturbed for a couple of days before it's wanted so the sediment can settle. Then when you're ready to deal with it gently pour it into a clean decanter (or jug) for as long as it comes out clear. Use something like a clean pair of tights or some muslin to catch any stray sediment before it starts coming out all sludgy. At this point if you don't have a decanter, and don't think it'll all get drunk there and then, wash out the sediment from the bottle (don't use soap) and gently return the wine into the now clean bottle. If that chill filtered LBV sounds pretty good at this point, that's fine. The sediment won't hurt you, but it's bitter and unpleasant to drink.

Tawny ports are aged in barrel for a long time, and filtered before bottling, they don't need decanting.


  1. Port is the ideal partner for Gothic.
    My school library had Conan Doyle in the John Murray edition.
    So I devoured The White Company and the Brigadier Gerard stories along with Sherlock Holmes.
    These Gothic Tales are as you say an ideal gateway to complex 19th Century narratives.
    I see a gathering of Gothic minds at an old hotel in the Scottish Borders.
    On Boxing Day night (St Stephen's Day as they say in Ireland) no less.
    On one side of the table, Anne Rice, A.S. Byatt and Peter Ackroyd.
    On the other side Conan Doyle, Sheridan Le Fanu and Mary Shelley.
    I am reading Mary Shelley's Gothic tale Matilda, published by Penguin as a Little Black Classic.
    My assembled writers will raise their glasses of vintage port and talk shop.
    In his introduction to Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four (Penguin Classics) Peter Ackroyd observes how Dr Watson thinks Sherlock Holmes would have made 'a terrible criminal' if he had turned his mind against law and order.
    'Holmes is in that sense a worrying presence,' writes Peter Ackroyd, 'somehow beyond good and evil.'
    Gothic thrives in these uncertain borderlands.
    J.B. Priestley said: 'Stevenson brought out of his Scots Calvinism a lively sense of evil and its conflict with the good in men' in his novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. (See Priestley's Literature and Western Man.)
    Now I am off to look for one of those black wines of Cahors.
    The perfect partner to Calvinist Gothic.
    A little wine is good for the stomach as St Paul reminds us.
    J Haggerty

  2. I just clicked on to heavenali, on your Blogs List.
    There is a review of The Gingerbread Wife, a collection of stories by Sarah Vincent.
    I can tell from the review that Ms Vincent is my kind of writer.
    This blog also reviews a reissue of a Mary Hockings novel The Mind Has Mountains which I enjoyed in 1976.
    Sarah Vincent's work seems to be lightly brushed with Gothic.
    She can do a ghost story after the manner of the two Jameses - Henry and M.R.
    The review suggests to me that the England of Ronald Blyth's Akenfield is not dead.
    It lives on in the work of William Hale White (Mark Rutherford) A.E. Coppard, Pritchett, Elizabeth Taylor, Beryl Bainbridge, Caroline Blackwood, H.E. Bates, Sillitoe and Barstow.
    And now too in Sarah Vincent.
    Ms Vincent's stories will make 'an ideal stocking filler' as we fortunate children of Clement Atlee's great postwar plan used to say.
    J Haggerty

  3. Your Gothic dinner party sounds wonderful! As is Heavenali's blog, she reviews some amazing books.

  4. It has been a long time since I last drank Port, though I have no idea why that should be. But I shall restrain myself until later in 2017.