Wine drinkers worry about vintage Port. They know about it, they admire it, they maybe worship it from afar. But when it comes time to open a bottle and drink it, they hit a wall of myths, misconceptions and plain misunderstandings. Being British, I can honestly say it is our fault. We created the traditions that can be so off-putting. We made drinking vintage Port seem like something only done in clubs amongst elderly colonels (and, in the Empire era, that was rather correct). On behalf of my island, I am here to set things right. Treat vintage Port like the great wine it is and, like the English still do, enjoy it.
In the past, young vintage Port was tough, tannic and not worth serving. It needed many years to soften and mature. Today’s vintage Port is different. It’s rich and fruity, with tannins so finely married to the ripe texture that you can start drinking it after only about five years.
But because of those tannins, today’s vintage Port is likely to age just as long as in the past. That can be 20 or 50 years, or even longer. Because the current style is still relatively new (beginning in the mid-1990s), your descendants will be the judges of that. Don’t forget to include your vintage Port in your will.
In fact, the general consensus is that the aroma, mouthfeel and taste of a full-bodied cigar can cancel the aroma, mouthfeel and taste of vintage Port. If cigars are a priority, and you want a vintage Port instead of a spirit, then balance the opulence of the cigar with the opulence of the Port. It’s like wine-and-food pairing: flavor intensity should match flavor intensity.
You can drink vintage Port while dining on the patio in the summer, sitting around a log fire or at a restaurant. Don’t forget, it’s a wine and can be enjoyed as such.
Above all, vintage Port is a red wine, so don’t be afraid to serve it in the same way as one of your beefy American Zinfandels. Serve young, fruity vintage Ports with a steak with pepper sauce, or with sausage, especially spicy sausage. I like a plate of smoked meats with young vintage Port at the start of a meal.
We British swear (correctly) that mature (20 years or older) vintage Port is best with a blue cheese, like Stilton. Tropical fruits and blueberries are surprisingly successful pairings as well.
Very dark chocolate and rich cheeses “show all the richness, body and complexity and flavor that defines mature vintage Port,” says Sogrape Vinhos’s Joana Pais, head of press relations for Sandeman and Ferreira Ports.
Actually, there’s no problem with keeping vintage Port for two or three days once it’s open, perhaps longer if it’s stored in a cool place. Some, like late bottled vintage Ports and aged tawnies, remain good for a few weeks.
Again, treat vintage Port like a red wine, and you’ll be about right. On the other hand, there are only six to eight glasses of vintage Port in a bottle, so it shouldn’t take too long to finish it.
There’s so much pleasure in smelling a vintage Port before drinking it that serving it in a small glass is like pouring a fine red Burgundy into a child’s juice cup.
“Vintage Port is fine wine and will give as much pleasure from its aromas as its taste,” says Adrian Bridge, CEO at The Fladgate Partnership, owner of Taylor’s, Croft and Fonseca Ports.
“[You need] a large enough glass to swirl,” he says. “A white wine glass is perfect for this.”
What is vintage Port?
Vintage Ports are made from a blend of grapes—mainly Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Cão and Tinta Barocca—grown in selected vineyards of Portugal’s Douro Valley.
All Port starts fermentation like any red wine. The difference is that Port’s fermentation is stopped by the addition of neutral grape brandy after only a portion of the grapes’ sugar has been converted to alcohol. The result is a fortified wine that contains about 20% alcohol, yet retains some sweetness.
As it ages in large old barrels (of varying sizes, but generally around 150–160 gallons), Port winemakers have to make decisions. Is this batch better for tawny Port? Is it better for a late bottled vintage (or LBV Port)? Is this wine really good enough for vintage Port?
The final decision on a vintage Port is not made until two years after harvest. The tannic structure of the wine and its potential for aging are the major criteria. If all those factors sing in harmony, and Portugal’s Port Wine Institute approves it, a Port producer calls it “declaring a vintage.”
Vintages are not declared every year. Port producers discuss whether each year is good enough. If a majority agrees, it becomes a “general declaration.” The two year- old Port is then bottled and put on the market. Recent vintages include 2009, 2007, 2003, 2000, 1997 and 1994.
Single-quinta vintage Ports are produced in the same way as vintage Ports, but they are created using grapes sourced only from a single estate, generally the producer’s best vineyard. They used to be made only in years when the house didn’t declare a vintage Port. However, in 2009 and 2007, some producers have made both vintage and single-quinta vintage Ports.