Port has a gentle effect, not unlike standing in front of a log fire: a diffusion of warmth that starts deep inside, spreads to the hands and feet, and reaches the head in a rich, fuzzy glow. Port is a winter wine, more comfortable with indoors and introspection than with the breezy gegariousness of summer. A glass of port cannot be hurried. Fortified with brandy and inherently sweet, it should be sipped, savored and slowly swallowed.

If God really were an Englishman, they -- and we -- would still be able to lay down a pipe of vintage port for a son or godson. Alas. Apart from the cost, few of us have the storage space for some 56 cases. Times have changed, but not the wine. Vintage port will still wait 20 years for its owner to mature.

Vintage port, the pride of the Anglo-Portuguese shippers' lists, accounts for only 2 percent of all port shipped from Vila Nova de Gaia.But, it's the port of the traditions: the famous years; the ritual of decanting; the clockwise passing of the decanter; port and stilton; port and walnuts; the Englishman's wine.

Produced from an exceptional harvest, vintage port is held in wood for 22 to 30 months, then bottled in Portugual. Raw and harsh in its youth, the wine needs a decade or more to soften. As it matures, it drops a heavy sediment. Hence the need to decant before serving and hence the plain, no-nonsense labels. Who would put the bottle on the table?

Prices at London auctions have been steady, but vintage ports are no longer underpriced in our own market. Further rises are expected this winter, due to general inflation, Portugal's entry into the European Community and the mediocre 1980 crop. Fortunately, prewinter prices should hold for the selection of vintages from the '60s and '70s that will be available in Washington by late January. The '77s, a highly rated vintage, are being released. A year that is equated with the '45s and '63s, the '77s will need 20 years to mature. Early tasting reports describe Dow, Graham and Warre as outstanding. Warre is selling for $12 a bottle and others will be in the $16 to $20 range. Single vineyard ports from lighter years are also available, including Taylor's Quinta de Vargelas, Graham's Malvedos and Offley's Boa Vista.

Despite the price, a vintage port is a wine to be shared. Once decanted, it should be drunk, not left on the sideboard for several days. For those who can't manage a whole bottle, want something lighter or are watching their pennies, there are types of port which do not need decanting. Each type has specific aging and labeling regulations.

A late-bottled vintage, or LBV, is from a single year and must be bottled between the middle of the fourth and the end of the sixth year after harvest. Older tawnies, those that may indicate 10, 20, 30 or 40 years of wood-aging, are a blend of vintages, averaging the stated age. The label must show the year of bottling. "Reserve" or "house reserve" ports may show the date of harvest, but cannot be bottled within seven years.

LBV's, older tawnies and reserve ports have all been made from good, but not exceptional, years. Through longer wood-aging, they have lost much of the deep color, powerful aroma and complexity of taste that distinguishes the true vintage ports. However, to their advantage, they don't need long cellaring, will hold longer after opening and are less expensive.

Finally, give a warm thought to the shippers' branded blends, the all-purpose ports that are good, smooth, anytime drinking, such as Fonseca's Bin 27, Sandeman's Partners Choice and Dow's Boardroom.