Here at The Vintage Port Shop we want to help you get the most out of your bottle of vintage port. Serving Vintage Port is not difficult: open, serve and enjoy with your friends and family! But a little attention to some fine points will enhance your experience - here are our tips.
The term 'vintage' has a distinct meaning in the context of vintage port. Whilst in wine making a "vintage" is simply the year in which a wine is made, most producers of vintage port restrict their production of year-labelled bottlings to only the best years. This is normally only three to four times per decade. In years when there is no vintage declaration, Single Quintas tend to be produced, these are port of exceptional made from a single vineyard retaining many of the characteristics of the house style.
There are some factors you should consider about how to store a Vintage Port optimally. The ideal place is a dark, humid cellar. The ideal temperature is 12 to 16 degrees, but temperatures higher than this can be tolerated for shorter periods. Of more importance is the avoidance of rapid variations in temperature which will dry out the cork and damage the wine.
As most modern homes do not have a cellar, it is not unusual for port to be stored in the cupboard under the stairs, or with a local wine merchant. Fine Vintage Port wines prefer a stable, dark environment with a temperature between 12 and 16 degrees centigrade. If the Vintage Port will be stored at home, it needs to be far away from windows and radiators. The bottles should also be lying down, and preferably not moved.
Sometimes bottles will have a white paint mark on the bottle. This is to identify which way should be up - the white mark should always be facing upwards. This allows the crust on the wine to develop uniformly in one place; another reason why the bottle should not be moved.
For very old bottles of Vintage Port (1963 or earlier), the cork should be inspected for seepage once a year. Quality wine merchants may offer a re-corking service to give the bottle further life. This is particularly important if the Port is being held as an investment because the value will fall if the wine has seeped. Auction prices are closely related to the "ullage" - the level of the wine in the bottle.
One of your most difficult decisions will be when to open your bottle of Vintage Port. It is a matter of preference as some like the taste of young Vintage Port with lots of fruit present. Others like port that has matured for a couple of decades so that the tannins and alcohol have become integrated. There is no wrong or right about this, our preference is for port that is about 25 years old.
Raising the bottle: Before drinking the bottle should be raised, i.e. stood upright. This should be done a couple of days before decanting so that the sediments will settle at the bottom of the bottle. Try not to shake the bottle and try and keep the white mark (if present) facing down when decanting
Removing the cork: In most cases it is possible to use a regular cork screw to remove the cork. However, this may present a challenge for older bottles where the cork will be affected by many years of storage. Occasionally the cork will crumble and disintegrate and the remaining pieces will need to be strained out when decanting. There are some special instruments called port tongs that have been developed. The metallic tong is heated until it becomes white hot, then it is applied to the bottle neck just below the cork. After about 30 seconds the tong is removed and a cold wet towel is applied. The glass cracks leaving a clean shard-free break. This is an elegant way of opening old bottles of Vinatge Port.
Decanting: You will need to decant the wine to remove the sediment and allow the port to breath so that the complexity can develop. The sediments will make the port taste bitter and so should be removed. Although there are special port filters that are available, there are other ways of doing this. A towel or coffee filter will do. We suggest keeping a light under the bottle so that you can see when the sediment sludge reaches the neck. If you do not have a decanter an old bottle or jug will do fine. The important thing is to get a clear Vintage Port without sediments.
How long can I keep the port after opening?: Like all great wines, Vintage Port should ideally be enjoyed within a day or two of opening. Use of a vacuum wine stopper may extend its life a little further. Older Vintage Port, more than 40 years, tend to be more fragile and are likely to lose their freshness and complexity after a relatively short period of time, and should be enjoyed on the occasion of their opening.
The most widely known tradition "passing the port" is believed to come from British Navy. The decanter of port is placed in front of the host who then serves the guest to his right, the decanter is then passed to the guest on his left (port-side). The port is then passed to the left all the way back to the host. If the decanter does not come full circle back to the host, it is impolite to ask for it directly. Instead the host asks the individual closest to the decanter, if he knows the bishop of Norwich. The question is not to provoke a reply but action the immediate passing of the port. Should the unfortunate offender answer the question by saying "No," is told that "the bishop is an awfully good fellow, but he never passed the port!".