Decanting Vintage Port
Much is made of decanting Vintage Port, so much so it can put people off even trying port for fear they will somehow get it wrong and ruin the wine. The truth is, Vintage Port is one of the easiest and most straightforward of wines to decant.
Charles Symington, SFE’s head winemaker, recommends a simple guideline: open and decant vintages less than 40 years old two to three hours before drinking. For most of us, intending to drink our vintage ports after a meal, that means opening the bottle and decanting before we sit down to dinner. If you are lucky enough to be serving a port older than 40 years, decant it 30 minutes to an hour before serving.
- Let the bottle stand upright 10 to 15 minutes if it’s less than 40 years old, and up to 30 minutes if it’s older.
- Pour the wine gently into a decanter and stop pouring when you see sediment moving into the bottle neck.
- Optionally, you may pour through a funnel lined with a piece of muslin.
- Decant vintages up to 40 years old two or three hours before serving, or decant older vintages 30 minutes to an hour before serving.
- Relax and enjoy your Vintage Port.
For a Detailed Discussion of Fine Points, Read On
When you take the bottle from the cellar or shelf where it has been resting on its side, simply stand it upright – gently – and let it stand. If the bottle is less than 40 years old, 5 to 10 minutes is adequate – the sediment in Port is quite heavy and will settle down quickly. If the wine is very old – more than 40 years – then Charles suggests letting it stand upright a half hour. More than that is hardly necessary.
Extract the cork gently. If you should have a difficult time and think the wine has been shaken badly, you may want to let the bottle stand for another ten minutes to settle once more before pouring the wine. A good corkscrew should be fairly long with an open spiral and a sharp point. Some very old bottles had a neck shaped with a distinct bulge not far below the lip. Corks from this style of bottle can be very hard to remove cleanly, as the far end of the cork will have to compress to come up and out of the bottle. It is possible the cork will break, and need to be removed in two passes, or it may crumble slightly and fall into the bottle. In that case you will definitely want to use a funnel and cloth, see below.
After removing the cork, wipe the lip of the bottle and then gently pour the wine into the decanter. Hold the wine bottle nearly level, so the wine flows smoothly with adequate airflow passing over the wine in the neck of the bottle – this way the wine will fall without the gurgling that comes from blocking the passage of air into the bottle. It will also help to hold the bottle in the same position as it was laid down – with the storage splash mark or label uppermost – so any crust that may be clinging to the bottle side remains undisturbed at the bottom of the horizontal bottle.
Decanting is easiest with good light behind the bottle, so you can clearly see the sediment when it reaches the bottle neck and stop pouring. If in doubt, simply shift so you are pouring out the wine into a spare glass – that way if there is sediment, you’ve not poured it into the decanter, on the other hand, if the wine is still clear, you can empty the glass contents into the decanter too. It is always worth taking a quick nose and taste of the wine from the just-opened bottle, and comparing it with the aromas and flavour after a few hours in decanter.
If you are concerned that you may not be able to see the sediment when it reaches the bottle neck, or you think the cork may have crumbled into the wine, you may wish to use a funnel lined with a thin cotton cloth (such as an old handkerchief or muslin) to catch the sediment as you reach the end of the bottle. Do not use paper coffee filters, as these can introduce off odours or flavours to the wine. At Graham’s Lodge, we keep a supply of individually wrapped sterile surgical gauze pads for filtering.
One other consideration, at the risk of stating the obvious: make sure your decanter is spotlessly clean and fresh. If it has been stored for some time, particularly with its stopper in place, it may be musty. Take a sniff and if in doubt rinse it with very hot water and leave it to drain dry and cool off before you decant. You may also want to pour just a few drops of port into the decanter, swirl them around to thoroughly rinse the inside of the decanter, then pour off and throw away that wine, before decanting the rest of the bottle; if you happen to have an open bottle of a less-expensive ruby on hand, that will do nicely for rinsing.
Special Notes for Ports 40 Years or Older
Charles made the point that vintage port has had very little exposure to air during its lifetime: for the first two years it was aged in immense wooden balseiros of tens of thousands of litres, and then it was bottled. When you open the bottle and pour out the wine, the port will naturally react to the sudden exposure to air.
With young to prime-of-life mature ports – anything up to 40 years of age – the exposure to oxygen works to open up the powerful and concentrated character of the wine.
With older wines, 40 years or more, you should decant just 30 minutes to an hour before drinking. At this age, the wines have moved on from their youthful density and power, to more delicate and nuanced elegance, and there isn’t the same need to “open up” the wine with exposure to oxygen.
The other thing to be aware of is that at this age, the scent of the wine when first opened can be off-putting – it can smell a bit reduced. Do not worry, this is not a fault, it is common and natural for such an old wine. Decant it, and within 20 to 30 minutes the oxygen will have worked its magic and the aromas will blossom. But do plan to start drinking within the hour after decanting, and then enjoy the development of the wine in your glass over the course of the evening.
More Technical Detail
Vintage port, like many wines, throws a sediment. This is a perfectly natural and harmless result of a chemical reaction involving the poly-phenolics (the flavouring compounds) in the wine coming out of solution. In the course of the natural chemical reactions of ageing, the molecular weight of some of these compounds increases, and the molecules precipitate out of solution. Ageing in bottle, without oxygen, is much slower and different from the ageing that occurs in barrels (for example, late bottled vintage or tawny ports) so the sediment is a bit different.
In discussing decanting, Charles contrasted Port with Bordeaux. Basically, Port is very much easier to decant for several reasons.
First is that in a Bordeaux, the sediment is very fine and lightweight – this means that the bottle must be allowed to stand for an extended period of time for the solids to (literally) settle down.
In Port, the sediment is really quite heavy, the solids are very solid and form into relatively substantial flakes or crystals. This means the bottle only needs to stand a short time before decanting, and the sediment tends to remain in the bottom of the bottle as you gently pour the wine into a decanter, which makes Port pretty easy to decant.
The other difference is that the sediment of dry table wines is actually quite bitter – think about it, there are no sugars in the wine – and very fine, bitter sediment in suspension in the wine in your glass can spoil your experience of that wine.
In Port, because the wine is sweet, the sediment is not so astringent, and the consequences of having a little sediment in your glass are much less catastrophic. For one thing, the flakes or granules of sediment will tend to settle to the bottom of your glass, and if you do take some in, the sediment may not feel nice in your mouth, but it won’t spoil the flavour of the wine the way a bitter dry wine sediment can do.
Charles emphasised the sediment is NOT sugars coming out of solution, only poly-phenolic flavour compounds. It is the slow precipitation of these compounds that mellows the wine and eventually changes the predominating flavours over the life in bottle of the port.