It was almost reassuring to learn that one tradition remains unmoved by social change. Women may not attend the Wednesday members' lunch at the Factory House in Oporto, Portugal. "Definitely not," said Ian Sinclair of Sandeman, when I asked if it was true that women were to be admitted -- as guests only, of course. "It would be at the discretion of the treasurer." And Sinclair is this year's treasurer. It's an honorary position that is rotated among the members of the private club of British Port Wine Shippers.

In the very nature of port, much of the industry has remained as traditional as the Factory House. Except the barcos rabelos. The shallow-draft boats, which brought the pipes of new wine 60 miles down river, from the vineyards in the upper Douro valley to the shippers' lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia, have been replaced by less romantic tanker trucks.

A pipe is a measurement. It's also the name given to the elongated barrels in which the wine was transported and legend has it that a Douro pipe (550 liters) was as much as one bullock cart could carry down the steep terraces.

For blending purposes, a pipe is divided into 21 almudes, and one almude was as much as one man could carry, that is 25 liters or so. An almude was divided into canadas. One canada was as much as one man could drink in a day. Two liters. We don't make constitutions like that anymore.

From the Oporto side of the lower Douro river, the smaller town of Vila Nova de Gaia is a jumble of low whitewashed buildings, crowned with large, plain signs: Graham, Delaforce, Fonseca. These are the shippers' lodges, where the rough young fortified wines are blended and aged.

The 1982 harvest was early and large. Ian Sinclair reported that the bunches were ripe, full and good looking. At Taylor Fladgate & Yeatman, Bruce Guimaraens noted that the wines had a good, deep aroma -- a healthy sign.

For port collectors, it's far too early to worry about the '82s. Of more immediate interest are the '80s. The final date for their declaration was Sept. 30, a declaration being a shipper's announcement of the eventual release of a vintage port. Most port, a ruby or a young tawny for instance, is a blend of several years, whereas a vintage port is made from the best grapes of a single, particularly good year.

All the major lodges, with the exception of Cockburn, have declared the 1980 vintage and the wines are being compared with those of 1960, a soft, forward year. The '80 Taylor, which will be bottled this winter, has a deep, powerful nose and a firm bite; perhaps closer to the '66 in style.

The Taylor is usually one of the fullest ports in any year, due in no small measure to the inclusion of grapes from its best known quinta, or estate, Vargellas. In '81, a hot year, with a small crop, the grapes at Vargellas produced a deep, sweet wine. Though 1981 is not likely to be a generally declared year, Taylor may release the Vargellas as a single quinta port. Single quintas, like Vargellas, Graham's Malvedos and Offley's Boa Vista, are attractive, fruity alternatives to the heavier vintages.

Vintage ports are wonderful, but overwhelming in quantity. Like Teutonic opera, or Victorian drawing rooms. Modern tastes often need something less fussy to handle and lighter to swallow. Fortunately, there are alternatives: vintage character, late bottled vintage, and finer quality ruby ports. More about them next week.