What can you do with a feather, iron tongs and a pair of gloves? Torquemada or Casanova might have come up with a number of creative ideas, but the townsfolk of Oporto would simply reply, 'Open a bottle of old port, of course.' Tongs are long metal grippers with wooden handles, usually made from cast iron, with a ring-shaped opening at the end used to grasp the neck of a bottle.
Traditionally, port was aged for many years before opening. Well-stored, vintage port can last decades or even centuries before expiring. In such ancient bottles, sugary wine residue glues the cork stubbornly into the bottle neck and it can be difficult to remove without disintegrating into chunky crumbs that fall into the wine. While cork particles do not harm wine, neither do they enhance it. Any Casanova would agree that having to extract cork floaters out of the wine dampens the evening's romantic prospects. Instead, leave the cork intact by using tongs to remove the bottle neck altogether so you can proceed with the smooth service you had in mind.
How does it work? The port tongs are heated in a fire then clamped around the neck of the port bottle, just below the cork. A few minutes later the hot bottle neck is quickly chilled. The sudden temperature change causes the glass to fracture cleanly, removing the upper neck with the cork still intact.
To work successfully, the tongs must be very, very hot. A blowtorch can be effective, but it's hardly romantic. It's best to build a blazing fire, letting the wood burn down to hot embers. The bottle - and this can be done with any bottle of wine, not just old port - should be standing upright in a safe place, preferably for a couple of days so the wine sediment is settled. If there is a capsule, remove it to expose the bottle neck. Prepare a bowl of ice water and submerge a heavy hand-towel in it. Put on your gloves. Hold the ring of the tongs in the embers until they are glowing red or white. Clamp the ring end of the tongs tightly around the neck of the bottle just below the cork level and well above the shoulder of the bottle. Hold the tongs in place for about two minutes. The bottle can be rotated gently to help heat the neck evenly. Remove the tongs (put them in a safe non-flammable place) and quickly grasp the bottle neck with the cold, wet towel. The dramatic temperature change will induce the glass to split cleanly with a musical snap. The neck can now be lifted off the bottle with the cloth and the wine poured gently into a decanter.
The feather? It can be soaked in the ice water and used (instead of the towel) to trace an icy line around the hot neck - a technique perhaps best reserved for your inamorata.
Port tongs are not often used these days. Only a handful have been sold in recent years, which makes them a unique gift (GBP67/HK$1,035 from www.wineware.co.uk) - even if they are only to be suspended decoratively on cellar walls. With careful patience, old corks can be removed with a standard waiter's corkscrew or a two-pronged Ah-So opener. But where's the romance in that? And what would one do with the feather and gloves?