Drinking vintage port wine is not for the faint of heart…nor the faint of wallet, for that matter. But oh how divine it is to drink a wonderfully aged vintage port as the finale to a grand evening! Before you drop a decent chunk of change on a bottle of port, make sure you do some research into what you are getting before you buy.
In our port article on this website, we talked about what grapes go into ports, and what types of ports there are (Ruby, Tawny, etc.) Vintage port takes it a step further. As we know with any wine, the vintage is the date that the grapes are picked, not the date the wine was bottled. So if you're drinking a vintage port, you are drinking a port of 100% of the grapes picked in a declared vintage year.
Declared year? You read right…a declared year is a vintage that the producer of the port (Dow, Taylor, Grahams, etc.) think is good enough to market as vintage port wine. There are some years that don't make the cut be it for weather or vineyard reasons. That doesn't mean that the port made that year is terrible to drink, but it just didn't make the cut to the "vintage" quality the shipper/producers were looking for, that's all. If it does not make it into a vintage port, the grapes are then used for non-vintage ports (many port houses will have different names for "de-classified" ports).
Choosing a Vintage Year
The tricky part comes with the declaration of vintage itself. It is not made by any panel or governing body as we see in many other wine producing areas in Europe. The declaration of vintage is made by the shipper (producer) themselves. In very good years, almost all the shippers will declare their wines. The decision on whether to declare a vintage is made in the spring of the second year following the harvest, so the port houses have time to see how the wine evolves and to evaluate whether or not the vintage has the "right stuff" to last for a long time.
Vintage port does last for a long time. A very long time. Particularly fine vintage ports can continue to gain complexity and drink wonderfully for many decades after they were bottled, and therefore can be particularly sought-after and expensive wines. Vintage ports are aged in barrels for a maximum of two and a half years before bottling, and generally require another ten to thirty years of bottle aging (or more) before reaching what is considered a proper drinking age.
Although by far the most popular of ports, vintage ports only make up a small percentage of production of the port producers. This fact-and the fact that indeed it does take a patient person to age these wines for quite some time before the wine is ready to drink-makes these wines expensive, as we mentioned. Before you make the leap to purchase one, do some investigating into tasting notes of people who have consumed older vintages and read what they had to say.
When purchasing vintage ports, you are either purchasing newer ports with the intent to age them, or purchasing older ports that have already been aged. If you like the more fresh, vibrant flavors from your ports, you may want to look for some of the younger vintages. If you're like me and like the more oxidized, nutty, orange rind and smooth texture, then you may want to look for the older vintages.
The mistake people often make with ports is assuming you have to have some type of dessert with them. This is simply not true, and in many cases, more detrimental than helpful. Vintage port that has a decent amount of age on it can showcase a plethora of nuances and complexities that any dessert accompanying it would overwhelm. Don't get me wrong, non-vintage or less expensive port can be delightful with a great piece of chocolate or custard, but a glass of vintage of port by itself can suffice as the dessert at the end of the meal all by itself.
Serving and Drinking Vintage Port Wine
When you pour that delightful port into the glass, make sure of two things: 1) That the port is served at room temperature…not too chilled, and not too warm; 2) You may want to consider purchasing port glasses, especially if you think you'll be enjoying port on more than one occasion. Riedel makes splendid port glasses, as do other producers. Port is normally served in smaller pour amounts, so make sure if you don't have port glasses that you not pour a normal "wine" pour amount.
Research, Shop, Enjoy!
If you are not familiar with vintage port, and would like to take the dive, I would highly recommend doing some research, as I mentioned before, or going to your local wine shop and asking the wine person there for some help or direction. If all else fails, you can always go with the big-name producer/shippers like Dows' or Grahams that do a solid job on all of their wines. If you feel brave and want to venture out and try the lesser known shipper/producers, that can be as equally fun and sometimes less expensive than the well-known ones. Either way, enjoy!