Guide to Drinking Vintage Port Wine

Karen Frazier
vintage tawny Port label

Vintage Port wine comes from Portugal and unlike non-vintage ports, it contains the juice of grapes from a single year instead a blend from many different years. Drinking vintage Port wine doesn't need to be a special occasion, although with the high quality of some vintage Ports, you may just want to save it to share with special guests.

Drinking Vintage Port Wine

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 vintage Port, make sure you do some research into what you are getting before you buy.

Difference Between Vintage Port and Non-Vintage Port

Like Champagne, Port can be either vintage or non-vintage. Vintage Ports are created during excellent growing years when the grapes grow under ideal conditions, creating a superior product. Conversely, non-vintage Ports contain a blend of grapes from various years to balance the better years for the grapes with those that might not be as stellar. And while both vintage and non-vintage Ports can be of high quality, vintage Ports tend to be a super-premium fortified wine that is the best of the best.

Declared Year for Ports

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 (NV) 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 is found 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 the vintage has the "right stuff" to last for a long time.

Long-Lasting Vintage Ports Are Made to Age

Vintage Port does last for a 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 they generally require another ten to thirty years of bottle aging (or more) before reaching what is considered a proper drinking age.

Made in Small Production Batches

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. Before you make the leap to purchase one, do some investigating into tasting notes and wine ratings from people who have consumed older vintages and read what they have to say.

Purchasing Vintage Port

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 prefer the more oxidized, nutty, orange rind flavor, and smooth texture, then you may want to look for the older vintages.

Pairing Vintage Port With Food

The mistake people often make with Ports is assuming you have to have some type of dessert with them, and it's true that an aged vintage tawny Port is fabulous with a rich, gooey chocolate dessert or a plate of figs. However, you can pair port with other, less sweet fare, as well. 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. In fact, these beauties can be so complex that they make a perfect dessert all by themselves. They also pair well with cheeses, nuts, and fresh fruits such as figs or berries.

Port wine and food

Storing Your Port

Like all wines, vintage Port should be stored on its side in temperature-controlled conditions away from light and vibration.

  • Ideal storage temperature for vintage Port is about 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Don't store it where the temperature will exceed 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Don't store it in a regular refrigerator.
  • Avoid storing anywhere that temperature fluctuates greatly throughout the day.
  • Always store the Port in the same position so the sediment stays in one spot and doesn't disperse throughout the wine.

Opening Vintage Port

Vintage Ports are typically corked, so you open them with a corkscrew or pull just as you would any other bottle of wine. If the Port has been aged, there's a good chance the cork might be crumbly. If the cork is particularly old (30 years or so), instead of a typical corkscrew, try using a Butler's Friend 2-pronged cork puller instead. Gently insert it on either side of the cork and then rock it back and forth as you lift to pull the cork gently out of the bottle. Don't hurry the process or you might wind up with crumbled cork in your wine. Once the Port is opened, you can store it for about three days for a ruby Port or up to a few weeks for a tawny, sealed, in a cool place such as a cupboard or the fridge.

Decanting the Port

For an aged Port, decanting can be helpful to remove sediment. Any decanter will do, although for extra style points you can use one designed specifically for Port, but understand this is an aesthetic choice as opposed to offering any additional value to the flavor and aroma of the wine.

  1. Stand the bottle upright at room temperature for a few hours before decanting to allow the sediment to settle to the bottom.
  2. Wipe away any dust from the bottle with a damp cloth.
  3. Remove the seal and cork as described above, being careful not to shake the bottle.
  4. If you wish, you can use a wine funnel as you decant to remove sediment, although this isn't strictly necessary.
  5. Pour the Port slowly into the bottle, running it down the side of the decanter. Keep an eye on the decanting and watch for the first sign of sediment. As soon as you see sediment, stop decanting and discard what is left in the bottle.

Serving 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 (64 to 66 degrees Fahrenheit); 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. A 3 ounce pour is standard for a vintage Port.

Ruby Port on a tray

How to Tell if Vintage Port Has Gone Bad

Vintage Port is made to age. Because of the fortification and high sugar content, it's likely you can store a quality vintage Port for years, or even decades. However, it is possible for a vintage Port to go bad if it is improperly stored or past its prime.

Cloudy Vintage Port

Many people think a cloudy Port is a sign it has gone bad, but that could just be that the sediment is dispersed throughout the bottle. Allow the sediment to settle for two to three hours and decant as described above. If it's still cloudy, give it a taste and look for off flavors.

Look for Off Colors, Flavors, Aromas

As with other wines, oxidation is typically what gets to a vintage Port and causes it to lose its vibrancy. If the color of the Port has faded and the berry or cocoa and raisin flavors have faded, chances are the Port is past its prime. You may also notice vinegary or cabbage-y aromas. Likewise, if you see the sealed bottle is leaking Port, chances are it's no longer good as oxidation has damaged the wine. It doesn't hurt to take a sniff and a sip to see; if it tastes off, it likely is.

Research, Shop, Enjoy!

If you are not familiar with vintage Port and would like to take the dive, consider visiting your local wine shop and asking the proprietor 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!

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Guide to Drinking Vintage Port Wine