Vintage Ports are best served slightly below modern room temperature: 16° to 18° Celcius (or 61º to 64º Fahrenheit). Too cool (e.g. straight from the cellar) and the wine will not release all its aromas and flavours, too warm (20° or more) and it may appear unbalanced or a little spirity on the nose.
If you are thinking of all the literary allusions to warming Port (or other wines) by the fire, remember that up until the mid 20th century or later, houses were not centrally heated and could be as cold or colder than modern cellar temperature recommendations.
Like all great wines, Vintage Port should ideally be enjoyed within a day or two of opening. Use of a Vacuvin™ wine stopper may extend its life a little further. Older wines, 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 Appropriate Glass
The pleasure of Port comes in large measure from being able to savour its lovely aromas – and aromas are a large component of taste sensations. The ideal Port glass is tulip shaped and will allow you to swirl and air the wine in the glass so that the aromas and colour can be appreciated to the full. The standard ISO technical tasting glasses work, or of course the specialised Vintage Port glasses developed by the Austrian glass producer, Riedel, are ideal.
One other aspect of glassware too often overlooked: cleanliness. Before you serve your Port, sniff the empty glasses. If they have just been washed, there may be a lingering odour of dish washing detergent, or detergent (or worse!) from the tea towel used to dry the glasses. If the glassware has been in storage, it may have picked up off odours from a cardboard box or the cupboard.
In a Restaurant
Although Vintage Port is generally served after a meal and therefore in smaller quantities than dry wines, it should still be served in good sized glasses. Too often restaurants offer Port in a very small cordial glass filled to the brim. In this case you should request a white wine glass and transfer the wine. If you suspect the wine is off, you might first ask for a fresh, empty glass – and sniff the glass before transferring the wine. Very often in busy restaurant kitchens the glasses will be taken directly from a washing machine which has used strong detergents, and possibly wiped dry with a dishtowel that might not have been too fresh.
Port, either in bottle or decanter, is traditionally passed from right to left or clockwise around the table. There are a number of explanations for this, one of which is that it was seen as a sign of friendship and peace to the person sitting on their left. Pouring a glass of Port with your right hand would prevent you being able to draw your sword or revolver. A much more practical reason is that the majority of people are right-handed making it easier to pour the wine with the right hand and pass it on with the left.
Tradition also has it that the bottle should be kept in circulation, and not set down again until it has returned to the host. In the 19th century the then Bishop of Norwich was quite the bon vivant, and notorious for forgetting to pass the port. So well known was he and his bad habit that the tradition arose of gently asking any forgetful person who set down the bottle mid-table, “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” That was usually a sufficient hint to get the bottle moving again, but if some puzzled person replied, “No… why do you ask?” they were advised “He is a lovely man, but he never passes the port!”
A young to mature full-bodied and fruit-driven Vintage Port is well paired with dark chocolate, or with a strong blue cheese, such as a Stilton. Older, more elegant and nuanced Vintage Ports need no accompaniment and should be savoured without the distraction of other foods. These are the classic pairings. More and more, people are experimenting with main-course food pairings, such as game or steak. The Vintage Port Site is looking to build our repertoire of food pairing suggestions, and would love to hear from you. Please use the contact form to send us your ideas and comments!