At the Victorian dinner table, when cigars were alight and the decanter of '47 was passed around the table, it was
port that filled the gentlemen's glasses.
Port has long been known as the Englishman's wine. Since the early 18th century, Englishmen have manufactured it in Portugal and shipped it home, and they have drunk it with vigour.
The port decanter was essentially the same as that used for sherry, Madeira and other fortified
wines. It has its origins in the bulbous, long-necked decanter bottle used in the 17th century for serving wine from the cask.
Since this method also ensured that bottled wine could be served free of sediment, the decanter, as it was known by the early 18th century, became a permanent piece of tableware.
EARLY PORT DECANTER DESIGNS
Georgian designers were quick to develop many of the basic shapes that have persisted into this century. These included bottle-shaped and bell-shaped decanters, club-shaped decanters with straight sloping sides and a shoulder, the wide-based ship's decanter and square-sectioned whisky decanters.
Towards the end of the century, most circular decanters were made with two or three raised rings around the neck, to ensure a good grip for a possibly unsteady hand.
Some decanters were engraved with a description of their contents but, generally, engraved silver labels were hung around their necks.
VICTORIAN PORT DECANTER
Early Victorian designers and manufacturers approached the decanter with the same naive exuberance that they brought to all useful or decorative objects.
They borrowed nearly every decanter design of the previous century, and added a few of their own. Although there was no one 'typical' Victorian decanter, fashions gradually changed from the cylindrical Georgian style to a bulbous-bodied,
narrow necked design.
This evolved into an extremely popular late Victorian decanter shape - an imitation of Greek pottery with a slender, unringed neck above an egg-shaped body
resting on a base or foot.
The vogue for cut-glass decoration declined somewhat with the introduction, in the 1830s, of press-moulded glass from America, which looked like cut glass to all but the expert and cost a fraction of the price to produce.
Victorians loved coloured glass. The rich blues and greens of the Bristol factories were particularly popular, as was pinkish-red
On the whole, delicate tints such as apple green and amber were favoured. Sometimes colours were simply applied as decorative strips across the surface of a plain glass decanter.
However, because wine is an attractive colour, and because the English were noted for the brilliance of their plain leaded glass, most decanters remained uncoloured.
The port decanter was never far away when the gentlemen adjourned after dinner to the billiard room for a few frames at the table. Fine port and good cigars were somehow inseparable.
Glassware varies greatly in price depending an age, and on the method and intricacy of decoration, with 18th-century engraved decanters costing up to £2000 and plain late 19th-century ones perhaps costing as little as £15.
Decanters come in three sizes, the pint, the quart and the magnum (four pints). Fine old port glasses can be found from £10 to £250 or more.
Remember, though, that decanters and glasses in traditional styles are still being produced today so make sure that what you buy is genuinely old.
Decanters and glasses may be engraved with flowers, ferns, fruit, vines and sporting or classical scenes.
Etching with acid was a cheaper technique, which gave much the same effect as engraving. This involved creating a pattern in a protective overlay, then applying add which ate into the surface of the unprotected glass.
Decanters frequently came in sets, typically including a pint, a quart and a claret jug with a handle, and were sold with matching glasses. Harrods, for instance, in 1895, was selling 87-piece suites, which had 12 glasses each for sherry, champagne, claret and port.
A port glass was typically somewhat smaller than a claret glass but this was not always the case.
Glassware has an in-built rarity factor owing to its fragility: small, much used and easily-broken items like drinking glasses will therefore always be sought after.
A group of odd drinking glasses displayed randomly in a glass case, however, is not particularly
interesting to look at, so it pays to specialize, rather than snap up any glass that is offered.
Complete sets of glasses with decanters are getting harder to find, but they always look good in a display cabinet.
Glassware is easy to maintain. Keep it clean by washing it in plain soap and water never in a dishwasher. Use a bottle brush to remove any sediment. When polishing the glass, add a little jeweller's rouge to the cloth to give it extra sparkle, and use a chamois leather or a modern substitute.
Decanters should always be thoroughly dried inside to prevent the moisture creating a 'bloom' on the glass, which can permanently disfigure a good decanter.
It is virtually impossible to properly dry the inside with a tea towel but there are two good methods.
You can either use a hair dryer or you can store the decanter upside down in a warm place, such as a slatted airing cupboard. Avoid buying decanters that have a bloom on the inside as it may prove impossible to clean this off.
Stoppers are decorated in the some style as the decanters themselves. Usually they are solid but sometimes they are hollow and tan occasionally be filled and used to measure out a tot. They are liable to he dropped, so check for chips. They should fit the neck snugly.